Why Russians Think ‘America Is Waging War Against Them’

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by Stephen F. Cohen, Russia Insider:

Russiagaters allege, with no evidence, that “Russia attacked America” in 2016, but many Russians believe with reasonable cause that the US has been attacking their country for 25 years.

Professor Emeritus of Politics and Russian Studies (at Princeton and NYU) Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)

Cohen’s subject is both contemporary and historical. The most central, ramifying, and dangerous allegation of Russiagate is that “Russian attacked American democracy” during the 2016 presidential election. After 18 months, there is still no credible evidence for this allegation.

On the other hand, many Russians—in the policy elite, the educated middle class, and ordinary citizens—believe that “the United States has been at war with Russia” for 25 years, a perception regularly expressed in the Russian media.

They believe this for understandable reasons.


American commentators attribute such views to “Kremlin propaganda.” It is true, Cohen points out, that Russians, like Americans, are strongly influenced by what appears in the media, especially on television, and that Russian television news reporting and commentary are no less politicized than their US counterparts.

But elite and middle-class Russians are no less informed and critical-minded than American ones. Indeed, they have more access to daily American news and opinions—from cable and satellite TV, US-funded Russian-language broadcasts and Internet sites, and from Russian sites, such as inosmi.ru, that translate scores of American media articles into Russian daily—than most Americans have to Russian media. (The recent censoring steps taken by the Department of Justice against RT and Sputnik might be viewed in this context.) Generally, Cohen argues, many more Russians are much better informed about Washington politics than Americans are about Moscow politics.

Above all, Russians consider the history of US policy toward post-Soviet Russia since the early 1990s, enacted by both Democrats and Republicans, particularly major episodes that they perceive as warlike and as including acts of “betrayal and deceit” in the form of promises and assurances made to Moscow by Washington and subsequently violated. Cohen briefly itemizes the main examples:

§ Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush negotiated with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, what they thought was the end of the Cold War on the shared and often expressed premise that it would end “with no losers, only winners.” (For this crucial mutual declaration, see two books by Jack F. Matlock Jr., both presidents’ ambassador to Moscow: Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray.) But in 1992, during his re-election campaign against Bill Clinton, Bush suddenly declared, “We won the Cold War,” paving the way to the triumphalism of the Clinton administration and the implication that post-Soviet Russia should be treated as a defeated adversary, as were Germany and Japan after World War II. For many knowledgeable Russians, certainly for Gorbachev himself, this was the first American betrayal.

§ For the next eight years, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration based its Russia policy on that triumphalist premise, with wanton disregard for how it was perceived in Russia or what it may portend. The catastrophic “shock therapy” economics imposed on Russia by President Boris Yeltsin was primarily his responsibility, but that draconian policy was emphatically insisted on and (meagerly) funded by Washington.

The result was the near ruination of Russia—the worst economic depression in peacetime, the disintegration of the highly professionalized Soviet middle classes, mass poverty, plunging life expectancy, the fostering of an oligarchic financial elite, the plundering of Russia’s wealth, and more. There was also flagrant American “collusion” in Russian politics, particularly in Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign.

The Clinton administration bankrolled Yeltsin’s campaign with billions of dollars in loans through international agencies and sent a team of American experts to Moscow to advise and oversee Yeltsin’s initially failing re-election bid. That is, Washington “colluded” with Yeltsin against his presidential rivals. Later, Putin was, and continues to be, misquoted as saying that the end of the Soviet Union was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” What he actually said was that it was “one of the greatest catastrophes,” pointing to the fate of Russia in the 1990s.

He was not wrong, as Cohen spelled out in articles in The Nation in the 1990s and in his book Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Russia (published in 2000 and in an expanded paperback edition in 2001). As American “advisers” encamped in Moscow and spread across the country in the 1990s, little wonder so many Russians felt they had been defeated, occupied, and plundered by a foreign power.

§ In 1999, Clinton made clear that the crusade was also a military one, beginning the still-ongoing eastward expansion of NATO, now directly on Russia’s borders in the three Baltic states, and today knocking on the doors of two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. That so many Russians see NATO’s unrelenting creep from Berlin to within artillery range of St. Petersburg as “war on Russia” hardly needs any comment, especially given the living memory of the 27.5 million Soviet deaths in the war against the Nazi German invasion in 1941.

But herein lies yet another “betrayal and deceit,” one that has never been forgotten. In 1990, in return for Gorbachev’s agreement that a reunited Germany would be a NATO member, all of the major powers involved, particularly the first Bush administration, promised that NATO “would not expand one inch to the east.” Many US participants later denied that such a promise had been made, or claimed that Gorbachev misunderstood.

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