Why does the Western world hate Russia?

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In light of the increased focus on the probe into possible Russian meddling in the U.S. elections, it becomes educative to understand the West-centric narrative of Russophobia and the origins of suspicion and antagonism towards the erstwhile Communist behemoth.

For a U.S. President, Donald Trump has displayed far greater reconciliation with Russia than most of his predecessors, who fostered a diplomatic and ideological antagonism towards the Soviet nation. | The Hindu

Following his much-watched meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit, United States President Donald Trump, for a change, made a coherent statement: “Time to move forward in working constructively with Russia.”

However, allegations of interference in the U.S. presidential elections notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Mr. Trump’s suggestion of forging a “constructive” partnership with the Cold War foe would find any takers in the U.S. foreign policy establishment on either side of the aisle. For, despite it being more than a quarter century since the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union, the U.S. and its allies have rarely shown appetite in building a good relationship with the Russian Federation. They have, to the contrary, only fostered a greater sense of insecurity in the minds of Moscow through the expansion of their military power, to the point that there is direct weaponry targeting Russia.

In the aftermath of 9/11, one question the average American asked is, “Why do they [Islamists] hate us.” Perhaps it is time foreign policy observers raise a similar question: “Why does the West hate Russia so much?”

Some answers are provided by writers and filmmakers willing to cast a more empathetic eye on Russia. One of them is Oliver Stone, whose four-part series The Putin Interviews met with near-unanimous criticism from the Western media last month.

 

The series provides the average viewer an opportunity to acquaint himself with the thinking of a leader who has become the most-reviled in the Western world in the last six months. It also gives us a glimpse into the mind of the average Russian. Shot between June 2015, when Moscow was beginning to feel the impact of sanctions imposed by the West, and February 2017, when calls for probe over alleged Russian meddling into U.S. presidential elections intensified, the documentary presents some key strands in Putin’s thinking, which help us view Russia from Moscow’s perspective, as compared to that of the U.S. foreign policy czars.

The first is that Putin sees Russia as a victim of aggression rather than perpetrator. The second is that his purportedly benign attempt to forge a sphere of influence in the country’s neighbourhood has been seriously threatened by the continued expansion of NATO since the end of the Cold War. Russia views this as a threat to its own sovereignty, much like India views China’s construction activities along the border with Bhutan as a threat to its own security.

Putin gives an impression of betrayal and pain when he says Mikhail Gorbachev, though he obtained verbal assurance from the U.S. that NATO would not be expanded to the east of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic, did not insist on a written declaration.

Russia is neither a threat to the West’s dominance nor a military evil knocking at its gates. It is as much a victim of terror as the U.S., as much a developing nation striving to deal with its bread-and-butter issues as India, and as much a proud culture as France.

 

To put things in perspective, Russia views the erstwhile Soviet states in its immediate neighbourhood as a buffer between the Russian mainland and Western Europe. Jack Matlock, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in its last phase, is quoted as saying that the West gave a “clear commitment” that NATO would not be expanded further to the east. However, since 1999, in the final year of Boris Yeltsin, NATO has expanded four times, taking in 13 countries. These include the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and other countries like Romania and Croatia.

As this The Independent article shows, the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria are hosting soldiers from all NATO member states. Further, at least 7,000 troops are deployed in countries bordering Russia. This constitutes the greatest military build-up since the end of the Cold War in 1991 to deter perceived Russian aggression. Moscow feels a threat to its sovereignty and has little option but to respond. And, in one of his rare aggressive moments in the documentary, Putin says Russia’s response will be “rough”.

Putin emerges, from his portrayal in the documentary at any rate, as a pragmatist. But what explains his continued popularity, well into his third term? Is it genuine or fabricated? The documentary depicts how Putin inherited the shambles left behind by a Yeltsin regime that had been subservient to the interests of the West, and brought about considerable reduction in poverty as well as increase in the standard of living of the masses. He was aided in this by the commodities boom during his early years, a lifeline he has now exhausted.

Official economic data shows that Russia’s poverty rate, which was 29% in 2000, came down to 11% in 2012, before rising marginally to 15% by 2015. The country’s GDP increased from $10,462 in 2000 to $24,448 in 2014, making it a developing country but not, in any way, a threat to the U.S.’s might.

 

Even now, despite Russia being badly bitten by the Western sanctions imposed in the aftermath of its annexation of Ukraine and the oil prices in free fall, the U.S. establishment continues to view it as a threat. Crude oil prices have reduced from $110 a barrel in February 2012 to under $50 in July 2017. There has been a contraction in GDP by about 4% in 2015 and 2016. However, Russia’s military expenditure has been steadily rising, with it occupying the third position behind China and the U.S. in terms of amounts spent on military, signifying a further expansion in the arms race.

When it comes to the allegations of hacking against Russia, irrespective of the findings of the numerous congressional investigative committees, the fact remains: attempts at improving diplomatic ties will bear little fruit. The reason? The phenomenon of ‘Russophobia’, or the inherent antagonism that prevails in the Western world's perception of Russia.

One important study that tries to get to the roots of the Russia-baiting tendencies of the average American expert is Swiss journalist Guy Mettan’s Creating Russophobia.

Mettan traces the roots of the aversion to the 5th Century A.D, when, as the Western Roman Empire fell, Byzantium became the focal point of debates on Christianity, following which the East-West schism between the Orthodox and Catholic sects arose. The church at that time recognised the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope as ‘primus inter pares’, or the first among equals, out of the five patriarchs. A divergence over whether the ‘Holy Spirit’ proceeded from the ‘Father’ or both the ‘Father and the Son’ led to differences. And a doctrine, which was later proved to be false, made these patriarchates give primacy to the papacy.

In an age when religious power was equivalent to political power, the Russian Orthodox church thus could not claim as much authority as the other. That the Russian empire, as the locus of the ROC, could never claim as much political power as the Roman and other Western empires, only added to its further denigration.

Mettan goes on meticulously chronicle the Russophobias of different cultures — the French Russophobia, its German, English, and American versions, calling this tendency of the Western liberal societies to see a common threat in Russia as a systematic, continuous affair.

The American iteration of the concept has been a more recent phenomenon, one that took shape in the aftermath of the Second World War. This has been dealt with by Oliver Stone himself in his book and documentary series The Untold History of the United States.

 

He calls the Cold War largely a project on the part of the U.S. to establish a new form of superiority from the ruins of the Second World War.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, fear of communism and a necessity to pre-empt the rise of popular Left-wing regimes in Soviet Union’s neighbourhood led the U.S. to prop up dictators in Europe. Despite the U.S.’s monopoly over the atomic bomb, something President Harry S. Truman was sure wouldn't be threatened, and the Soviet isolation at the UN, Washington sought to present Moscow as a threat, says the documentary. The U.S. and the Soviet Union, allies during the War, became adversaries in peace. This went against the vision of both its war-time President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his one-time deputy, the pacifist Henry Wallace.

An out-of-power British PM Winston Churchill, a staunch anti-Communist, made an infamous speech in Truman’s home State of Missouri in March 1946 that is considered as marking the beginning of the Cold War. He said: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. In a great number of countries, the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a great challenge to the Christian civilisation.” The tenor of the speech was as Russophobic as it was anti-Communist. Oliver Stone says this one speech condemned forever, the Soviet Union in the eyes of the Americans.

The Truman Doctrine

Josef Stalin’s moves to conceptualise five-year plans to rebuild Russia’s economy had already been viewed among the Western Right as a declaration of war. This was followed by stoppage of war reparation payments to the Soviet Union, propping up of dictatorships against popular liberation movements in Greece and Turkey and the presentation of the Truman Doctrine. For the first time, the U.S. committed itself to deployment of troops even at a time of peace, becoming the policeman of the world. This would be met with Soviet counter-aggression in countries such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the form of installation of friendly regimes and the creation of another form of East-West schism that would last another half-a-century.

Russia hence is neither a threat to the West’s dominance nor a military evil knocking at its gates. It is as much a victim of terror as the U.S., as much a developing nation striving to deal with its bread-and-butter issues as India, and as much a proud culture as France.

 

With both the Soviet model of centralised planning and the Western model of free-market capitalism having come in for criticism in recent times — the election of Trump represents , for many, the latter’s nadir — the world is in need of a new stabilising order, one that empowers the ‘many’, not ‘the few’. The formation of this new order requires not the expansion of military alliances like NATO and a new arms race — these bespeak a geopolitical approach that birthed the Cold War — but the forging of common pacts of cooperation such as the Paris Climate Agreement. It is unlikely that without the coming together of the two major powers — one has the biggest economy and the other the biggest landmass —such a vision would ever become reality. The last thing we need is another East-West schism leading to mass enrichment of the military-industrial-finance complex and the mass impoverishment of the 99%.

As Henry Wallace said during the first death anniversary of Roosevelt: “The source of all our mistakes is fear. Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement... In fear, great nations have been acting as cornered beasts, thinking only of survival.” It is time for the West to overcome the fear of Russia and exorcise the threat perception against the country.

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