Putin and Clinton meet during her tenure as Secretary of State. (Mikhail Metzel/AP)
Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and the author of nine books, including "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin."

During the 2012 presidential debates, President Obama mocked challenger Mitt Romney for identifying Russia as the “No 1. geopolitical foe” of the United States. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama quipped. Four years later — after Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, along with a political crackdown within its own borders — there’s broad consensus that Russia is indeed a serious threat to the United States and its allies. But there’s still widespread misunderstanding of what Russia is about.

Myth No. 1
Russia is trying to throw the U.S. election to Donald Trump.

The idea that Russia is trying to help Trump went mainstream over the summer. “Donald Trump’s presidential bid can count on at least some backing from Moscow,” Guardian world affairs editor Julian Borger wrote in one of many such reports. This is less a myth than a conspiracy theory. As with most conspiracy theories, it begins with facts and proceeds to make imaginary connections that make the whole seem greater than its parts.

The fact is this: Putin would rather see anyone but Hillary Clinton become president. He has blamed her personally for inciting the Russian protests of 2011-2012, saying that “she set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal” that caused the demonstrations. But he is not exactly a fan of Trump, contrary to the billionaire’s own perception: Putin has called Trump “colorful,” not “brilliant,” and has mentioned him only twice.

Proof of Trump’s Moscow connections is similarly scant. To date, no money trail has been uncovered linking Trump to the Kremlin. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had ties to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who has widely been described as pro-Moscow, but that characterization is a gross oversimplification — and there is no indication that Manafort himself was on Moscow’s side in important debates.

Much more serious are the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and state election systems, which the Obama administration on Friday officially accused Russian state actors of carrying out. But these fall in line with Russia’s cyber-behavior all over the world: Moscow has been employing cyberwarfare since at least 2007, when it temporarily shut down the high-tech government of Estonia. The purpose of these attacks is to disrupt — but not necessarily on behalf of Team Trump.

Myth No. 2
Putin has made Russia great again.

Trump has famously praised Putin as “a strong leader” who is “doing a great job in rebuilding the image of Russia and also rebuilding Russia period.” The majority of Republicans agree with that characterization. Putin himself has claimed credit for bringing stability and economic prosperity to Russia after the chaos and poverty of the 1990s.

The average Russian is much better off today than 20 years ago, but worse off than five or even two years ago, when oil prices — which neither rise nor fall because of Putin — were at their peak.

Stability is an elusive measure. One might reasonably assume that the concept connotes safety. Reliable statistics are hard to obtain, but Russia appears to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the numbers did not improve even when the economy did. High-profile killings of politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs — at least one of which has been linked directly to Putin by a British investigation — also cannot be conducive to a sense of security.

Another indicator of stability could be a strong social safety net. But even during the years of unprecedented prosperity, Russia barely invested in infrastructure and social services, while military spending grew precipitously. Today, hospitals in Moscow ask patients to bring their own syringes for procedures, just like they did back in the 1990s. The government’s response to the economic downturn of the past few years has been to cut social spending and to raid Russians’ pension funds, which now seem to be bound for extinction.

Myth No. 3
Russians overwhelmingly support Putin’s policies.

When Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Putin’s approval rating went through the roof, reaching almost 90 percent. Today both Kremlin-controlled and independent pollsters reliably report approval ratings of 82 percent and higher.

At the same time, Russians disapprove of the job done by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (his current negative rating stands at 51 percent), the cabinet (55 percent) and the parliament (62 percent). All three exist solely to rubber-stamp Kremlin policies, which come directly from Putin. The majority of Russians also say they feel pessimistic about their future.

How to account for that discrepancy? Russian citizens are unsettled, anxious and looking to identify with an emblematic leader or cause. They support Putin because he has left them no choice.

Myth No. 4
Russian society is relatively conservative in its values.

Putin has criticized the West for “denying moral principles and all traditional identities” while positioning Russia as a defender of traditional values. The Russian government has pushed to legislate morality, most egregiously by banning “homosexual propaganda” and prohibiting adoption of Russian children by people from countries that permit same-sex marriage. As a result, Russia has become a beacon for frustrated far-right extremists around the world, who gravitate to its perceived traditionalism.

Those extremists might be disappointed. Russians are fairly liberal on a number of social issues. More than half of all Russians see nothing wrong with premarital sex, a third don’t view love as a prerequisite for sex, and a quarter see nothing wrong with marital infidelity (sociologists say this is an unrealistically low number because expressing this opinion out loud to a stranger flouts social convention). Russians are also liberal in their views on abortion: Only 20 percent believe that the government should try to take any measures to limit or prevent abortions, compared with more than 40 percent of Americans who believe abortion should be illegal.

The Putin government has been selling the country a vague vision of an imaginary traditional past — and of enemies who are supposedly threatening it. The enemy may be LGBT people one day, Ukrainians the next and Americans the day after. And while the nation targets these enemies, Putin remains in power.

Myth No. 5
Russian politics are mostly reactions to the West.

During Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate, the candidates clashed over Clinton’s record on Russia. Republican Mike Pence said her “reset” policy as secretary of state led to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and aggression in Syria. Democrat Tim Kaine defended his running mate’s effectiveness, pointing out that Clinton had gone “toe to toe with Russia as secretary of state to do the New START agreement to reduce Russia’s nuclear stockpile.”

Oddly, though, both men apparently agreed on an underlying premise: Russia’s behavior is determined by U.S. policies. This is a myth that persists on both sides of the political divide. The left is given to argue that America’s insensitivity has driven Russia to aggression, while the right claims that American softness has enabled it.

Putin has peddled Soviet nostalgia and anti-Western rhetoric since he first entered office 17 years ago. When opportunities to attack former Soviet states have presented themselves, he has used them — in 2008 Russia effectively annexed a chunk of Georgia, and in 2014 it annexed part of Ukraine. Putin is driven by a very real desire to expand Russia and by the need to hold on to power. Neither of these factors has anything to do with the United States, Russia’s habit of blaming all its troubles on America notwithstanding.

Twitter: @mashagessen

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