Russian “non-systemic” opposition and U.S. Foreign Policy

Author: us-russia
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Russian “non-systemic” opposition and U.S. Foreign Policy
Published 11-11-2013, 08:39
In some respects, the conduct of Russia's so-called "non-systemic” opposition does not seem like quite normal. One thing is to criticize Putin’s domestic policies but when it comes to foreign affairs in practically all other countries the educated classes, the intelligentsia and business are integrated with and support their government. In Russia, the situation is rather different.

The "non-systemic” opposition might not be very popular with the absolute majority of Russia's people, but their representatives are strategically based, well-funded and quite vociferous. They have a great many media outlets at their disposal, and they receive continual Western protection and support.

It is largely due to their efforts that improving Russia's international image is at present an almost impossible task; indeed, it is hard to imagine how Russia can counteract this obstacle to restoring its soft power.

Because of the substantial means at their disposal and all too obvious Western political, moral and sometimes even financial support, Russia's non-systemic opposition represents a major challenge not just to the present political leadership but also to the country’s geopolitical interests.

One editor-in-chief of a certain Russian journal recently expressed the view that it would be quite all right for Russia to hand over to China all its territory beyond the Urals. Another scholar from the U.S. funded think tank expressed outrage over Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria and there are many of those who welcome color revolutions not only on post-Soviet space but eager to see jointly with Senator John McCain the "Arab Spring” like events in the close neighborhoods.

Obviously the United States is a major player in these processes, for the state of US-Russia relations is a crucial one for any discussion of Russia's foreign and even domestic policies.

Although the USSR and its ideological aspirations disappeared more than a generation ago, Washington's policy towards Russia remains harsh and hostile. The American political establishment's persistently Russophobic stance does not make sense to many political observers. Such issues as democracy and human rights, so frequently talked about, cannot be taken as a serious basis for explaining America's hostility.

Since the demise of the USSR, Moscow has not been able to represent any serious military strategic challenge to the only existing Superpower. That's self-evident. Then again, the United States is not usually directly involved in the domestic affairs of its partners whose democratic credentials are much worse than Russia's and who are treated much nicely and gently. Why make such an exception in the case of Russia? What are the factors - and they must be vital - that underlie such unfriendly policies?

These are questions that defy reason.

Needless to say there might be numerous faults and political mistakes on Russia's side. However, taken overall, Russia's policies are mostly reactive and defensive. Moscow cannot, nor does, even dream these days of some full-spectrum domination over anyone or of imposing its own will on others.

One really wonders what would make the American political class accept the fact that Russia, with its completely different, thousand-year long history, the traditions of its 182 ethnic groups, and its vast, sparsely populated territory, simply cannot embrace the American way of life, nor can it always follow Washington's foreign policy course - which, as we see more often than we would like to, is obviously mistaken.

Isn't it in America's interests to treat Russia as an important strategic partner in meeting the world's enormous security and economic challenges?

Isn't this U.S. current Russia policy contradicts Thomas Jefferson's well-known dictum about noninterference in other nations' internal affairs?

Isn't time to admit all the dramatic failures of America's democracy promotion policies in post-Soviet space and the Middle East?

Isn't it high time to develop a new and more pragmatic foreign policy course, one that would serve America's interests better and, that would increase the number of friends, not foes, around the world?

These are far from rhetorical questions, for the future of the world as we know it may depend on the answers.


The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Edward Lozansky

Edward Lozansky is president of the American University in Moscow, Professor of World Politics at Moscow Sate University



Expert Panel Contributions


Patrick Armstrong is a former political counselor at Canadian Embassy in Moscow

Certainly there is a section of the Russian population that does not like Putin and any of his works. Numbers can only be guessed at but the percentage is probably not more than fifteen and not less than five. This opposition is very diverse – it ranges from super nationalists who don’t like his statements about the multi-ethnic nature of Russia to those who want him to do everything their (idealised) West wants him to do. Of these, a certain percentage is nurtured and encouraged – and until the new NGO law, funded – by outside interests.

Some of these outside interests are governments – the American NGO industry, now virtually a wholly-owned subsidiary of the present Administration – is an important engine of funding and propaganda but there is also a section of opinioneers who believe Russia to be the principal enemy of the West; a feeling that appears to be stronger in the Anglosphere than elsewhere. Some of these outside interests are individuals who, while they might march in step with and cross-fertilise the government interests, are self-actuated.

The Russian opposition can be distributed along two axes: one ranging from wholly home-grown to wholly foreign-created, the other from super-nationalist to super-liberal ("liberast” as some call it). Generally, foreign support goes more to the liberast end of the spectrum than the nationalist although Navalniy is an interesting exception. (And, I believe, the first of the foreign-boomed oppositionists to have a foot in each camp. Which thought is worthy of another essay.)

Internally the opposition is waning for several reasons. First pro-gay rights campaigners co-exist uncomfortably with super-nationalists: they may agree to dislike Putin but they disagree about everything else. Second, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin, his team and their general course (and don’t have much regard for the protesters, either). Third, protesting, in the absence of real political organisation – and when you are a fraction of a fraction you must operate inside the system – is clearly a waste of time. And, let us not forget that the Russian NGO law has had the success that its American model had in forcing things out of the shadows.

Whatever trivial damage this inchoate opposition is doing to Putin & Co inside Russia, it is very important to the outside anti-Russia campaign. We are now at the point where Putin’s name cannot be said without the "ex-KGB, jails opponents, steals elections, kills reporters” modifiers. And there are plenty of Russian oppositionists (oddly free to speak and move around) to corroborate these charges.

External support for the anti-Putin fractions in Russia has received two heavy blows. First was the suicide of Berezovskiy. He was instrumental in organising and funding the important Politkovskaya, Litvinenko and Pussy Riot memes ("Putin kills or imprisons his opponents as shown by…”). But he is gone and there is no one to replace him. Washington suffered humiliation on Syria – ready to go a-bombing with media campaign up and running, Moscow pulled the casus belli out from under it. The only thing for Washington to do was to pretend that that’s what it meant all along (which it did). Suddenly the "Putin is anti-gay” campaign shut down: just as suddenly as it had started when it became clear Snowden was staying in Russia. So, the two biggest anti-Russia meme generators have been switched off.

And off they are: consider the Greenpeace case. Total silence from governments, NGOs and the media (not total actually: the Netherlands and Greenpeace itself; but otherwise….). No campaign on this one.

Another interesting by-product of Washington’s Syrian flop is a growing respect for Putin. This phenomenon has been remarked on by others but it bears watching. Thanks to a decade of innuendo and falsehoods, people do not like Putin but they are coming to recognise that he is a very effective leader and stands up for his country’s interests.

So we might (might) be seeing the end of the anti-Russia propaganda machine. A machine that has, I believe, been operating with only very brief pauses, since the 1830s or 40s.

The Causes of U.S. Blindness on Russia

Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff is a senior fellow at the American University in Moscow and Chief Global Analyst at The Globalist

Future generations of historians will look back with wonder, mingled with horror, at the collapse in US-Russian relations in the second decade of the 21st century. The mutual respect and even understanding of the leaders and analysts of the United States and the Soviet Union were far higher as global ideological enemies during the last quarter century of the Cold War than the growing visceral distaste, distrust and contempt on both sides that we still see remorselessly advancing today on every front.

What makes the current deterioration so puzzling and difficult to combat is that it is generated solely by prejudice and ignorance on both sides. It does not reflect any genuine clash of fundamental national interests. The United States and China have shown far more vigor, skill and success in recognizing their underlying conflicts of interest and have worked hard to maintain a remarkable degree of cooperation in the trade, financial and other economic areas where their mutual dependence is essential to them both.

A major reason seldom recognized sufficiently outside America is the degree to which the United States has retreated into a profound and oblivious psychological isolationism in the past 20 years. Yet at the same time, its government and policymaking elites have energetically extended its strategic and ideological commitments to a vast range of nations and causes around the world.

This means that ignorance of Russian society, politics and history is endemic across America to a degree that would have been inconceivable even a mere quarter century ago.

The number of Americans who visited the Soviet Union and saw it first hand, even in the 1980s, and who have also visited independent Russia over the past decade, is miniscule. This tiny minority of professional people know at first-hand how incomparably freer, more outspoken, more secure and more prosperous the Russian people are today compared with their condition then.

Visitors to Russia in the 1990s who have spent any time back there in recent years also recognize the exceptional success the Russian people have achieved in climbing out of their nightmare Great Depression of the 1990s following the collapse of communism. A collapse in living standards that caused the cost the lives of as many as 30 million people.

The double standards applied to Russia by successive U.S. administrations and by the exceptionally narrow, closed-minded and uniformly hostile pundits of the mainstream U.S. media is astonishing. Russia is repeatedly accused of sliding fast down the road to neo-Stalinism. Yet at the same time, India is never, ever criticized in Congress by either Republicans or Democrats for failing to prevent the internal enslavement in the most horrific conditions imaginable of 40 million to 65 million of its own people.

I genuinely believe that Russia could enormously extend its positive "soft” power in the United States by dubbing its best drama and documentary television series with first class Hollywood actors and then providing them free, or on very favorable terms, to Public Broadcasting System television stations across the United States, with particular focus on stations on New York, Chicago, Washington, DC and the entertainment capital Los Angeles. Nothing would be more effective in breaking through the Iron Curtain walls of ignorance, bias and prejudice towards current Russia and the recent achievements of the Russian people.

There was certainly a thermonuclear balance of terror and balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. But to a remarkable degree, there was also a balance of respect. Ironically, many American economists, like the late John Kenneth Galbraith, ludicrously overestimated the achievements of the communist economic system then, just as they ludicrously underestimate the achievements of the Russian state-participating but certainly free market system today.

However, over the past 20 years, that balance of respect has been supplanted by an imbalance of resentment and growing anger on the Russian side, and of Olympian indifference, ignorance and unyielding contempt on the American side. Subconscious fear might indeed explain much of the continual American impulse to meddle in the private internal affairs of Russia. Russia has none of the horrific poverty and slavery of India, the almost science-fiction air pollution and environmental degradation of China and nothing to compare with the genocide and chaos that have taken well over 10 million innocent lives in Congo, formerly Zaire, over the past two decades. Why then, do so many U.S. senators and congressmen obsessively meddle in Russian domestic affairs they could help far more people who desperately need it by directing their efforts elsewhere?

There is absolutely no justification in morality or intelligent self-interest for the exclusivist rejection of cooperation with Russia by the U.S. policymaking elite. Russia and the United States ought to be natural partners in maintaining global peace, prosperity and strategic stability. The future of the world depends on it.
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