In January 2015, negative perceptions of the West in Russia rose to the highest level ever recorded in the history of Russian public opinion polling. Eighty-one percent of people surveyed had a negative perception of the United States, while a mere 13 percent had a positive view. Seventy-one percent viewed the European Union negatively, with 20 percent having a positive perception. One year earlier, the results were 44 to 43 percent for the US, and 34 to 51 percent for Europe. Forty-two percent described Russia’s relations with the US as “hostile”, up from 4 percent just one year ago. One out of four Russians thought relations with the EU were hostile – whereas two years ago, in January 2013, only one person out of a hundred saw Russia-EU relations in this light.
The current antagonism is nurtured by the aggressive anti-Western propaganda that has accompanied the crisis in Ukraine since its onset in late 2013. In the quarter century of post-Soviet development, perceptions of the US and the West in general have gone through different phases, but resentment towards the West has been gradually accumulating throughout the period.
The growth of resentment towards the West
During Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, the West, the Soviet Union’s Cold War adversary, suddenly became its friendly partner. The West represented a model of “normal” life, and the idea that the Soviet Union should follow the Western path was broadly shared.
In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western models were used in many spheres of life. The political system was reformed on the basis of the principles of Western democracy, complete with a multiparty system and competitive elections. The framers of the new Russian constitution drew their inspiration from the national charters of Western countries. The transition to a market economy was implemented by Soviet proponents of the free market, abetted by Western advisors. The founders of the new Russian media aspired to instate Western media standards on Russian soil.
To a sizeable constituency, not least the military-industrial complex and the security elites, the West had never stopped being the enemy.
But even as the government continued on a ( more or less) Westernising course, the hardship and turmoil of the early post-Soviet years led to growing disappointment among the Russian people. They were angry with themselves for their naïve gullibility: they came to believe they had been wrong to think that emulating Western models would make their lives better. And they resented the West for luring them down that path. Moreover, to a sizeable constituency, not least the military-industrial complex and the security elites, the West had never stopped being the enemy. According to Mark Galeotti, a Western expert on the Russian security elites, these people saw themselves as “the frontline of the struggle for not just Russia’s place in the world but Russia’s distinctive culture and identity.” Those constituencies were slowly gaining strength, until, when Vladimir Putin became president, their clout was rapidly and significantly enhanced. By then, the Russian Westernisers had become a minority.
In 1999 NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia caused outrage in the Russian government, and within Russian society anti-American passions were also running high. Similar eruptions occurred on other occasions, whenever the people got a sense that the US-led Western nations were disregarding Russian interests and concerns. The war in Iraq in 2003 was another such occasion: Russia vehemently objected, but the US-led coalition went ahead regardless. After each episode finished, however, the anger would gradually subside, and anti-Western sentiments returned to a reasonably moderate level. Those outbreaks demonstrated that resentment of the West was broadly shared and easy to use as a tool for consolidating political support.
In the aftermath of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric was a mix of frustration and insecurity.
Since very early in his tenure, Putin had sought to reduce Western influence and limit the presence in Russia of foreign (and, first and foremost, American) advisers, funders, democracy promoters, nongovernmental organisations, and so on. Among his earlier targets was the Peace Corps, which was forced out of Russia in 2002 after working there for ten years. A couple of years later, in the aftermath of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, Putin’s rhetoric was a mix of frustration and insecurity. “I don’t want,” he said at a press conference in Ankara in December 2004, “[…] stern men in pith helmets to give the people who have, figuratively speaking, dark political skin, instructions as to how they should live. And if the ungrateful native objects, he will be punished with a club made out of bombs and missiles, as happened in Belgrade.” But Putin’s furious reaction was limited; apparently, at this stage, he valued cooperation with the West (at least in the economic sphere) and he realised that Russia was too weak to oppose the Western policies. So Putin continued to be cautious in his actions and did not make radical policy shifts. Even the upsurge of confrontation between Russia and the West that emerged at the time of the 2008 war in Georgia gradually calmed down and gave way to a new improvement in relations.
An anti-western shift
The relations between Putin’s Russia and the West followed this “up and down” pattern for about ten years. But in 2012, after Putin’s return to the Kremlin, relations began to slide downwards – and this time, they did not swing back up.
The Libya hoax thus reinforced the position of Putin’s security hawks – that same constituency that had always hated the idea of the rapprochement with the West and had long tried to persuade Putin that the West should be treated as the enemy.
Three reasons for this shift can be identified. According to leading business and political expert Igor Yurgens, a man with good knowledge of the workings of the Kremlin, Putin had decided to shut down “the liberal Westernising project” as far back as mid-2011. Though Yurgens arguably overstates the “liberal, Westernising” quality of Putin’s project in the first instance, the shift itself is undeniable. Yurgens claims that it was precipitated by the US-led operation in Libya, which Putin saw as an egregious abuse of the United Nations Security Council mandate (Russia abstained during the UNSC vote). The Libya hoax thus reinforced the position of Putin’s security hawks – that same constituency that had always hated the idea of the rapprochement with the West and had long tried to persuade Putin that the West should be treated as the enemy.
A major cause was economic. By the time Putin returned to the Kremlin, his economic model based on the use of natural resources had been exhausted: the price of oil remained mercifully high, but economic growth had dramatically slowed. The Kremlin used to deliver rather generously to the people in order to ensure broad loyalty and acquiescence, but now, economic constraints have reduced this ability, and tighter political controls were necessary to take the place of economic beneficence.
Finally, Putin’s public approval had declined from over 80 percent to over 60 percent. The mass protests that erupted in late 2011 openly challenged his legitimacy and called for “Russia without Putin”. The Kremlin could no longer afford to be permissive towards critically-minded liberals and Westernisers.
Putin’s first public reaction to the protests was to blame the US. “Certain figures in Russia,” he said, “heard the signal and, with the support of the US Department of State, began active work.” In the following months, the term “GosDep” (the Russian acronym for the US State Department) became a political slur that stood for the “evil America” that was plotting against Russia. The pro-Kremlin propagandists launched a smear campaign aimed at discrediting the protesters by portraying them as serving the anti-Russian interests of the West. These accusations were soon extended to liberal journalists as well as civic and political activists, who were commonly condemned as the “fifth column” and “national traitors”.
In 2012 USAID was kicked out of Russia. The new US ambassador, Michael McFaul, was attacked by the Russian media and became the target of personal insults, intimidation, and harassment,.
In spring 2013 a nationwide government campaign against foreign-funded nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) affected hundreds of NGOs across Russia. The campaign was based on a new legal requirement that NGOs receiving foreign grants and engaged in (very loosely defined) political activity brand themselves as “foreign agents”, a term associated with espionage.
TV reports repeatedly informed Russian audiences of Russian orphans being mistreated, abused, and even killed by their Western adoptive parents
Between 2012 and 2014, a stream of new legislative initiatives aimed at shielding the Russian people from Western influence came into force. The adoption of Russian orphans in Western families was banned. (TV reports repeatedly informed Russian audiences of Russian orphans being mistreated, abused, and even killed by their Western adoptive parents). A US education exchange programme for Russian high school students was terminated. Large categories of Russian civil servants were de facto banned from travelling: according to one estimate, about 4 million can no longer leave Russia to go abroad. A “de-offshorisation” of the Russian business was introduced: this measure is aimed at Russian businesses operating in offshore zones and barred Russian companies from using foreign jurisdictions. And foreign stakes in the Russian media were restricted to a maximum of 20 percent.
Propaganda and moral condemnation
In 2013 modernisation was rejected, both as a word and as a policy. It was replaced by a de facto counter-modernisation course that included social conservatism and an emphasis on Russian “traditional values”. In the past, Putin would occasionally speak of the West as an unfriendly competitor or a force that seeks to do Russia harm. But in his third term, he also assumed a posture of moral condemnation. In his public speeches in late 2013, Putin sounded like a preacher: he harshly criticised the “Euroatlantic” countries for their decadence and immorality. He said they had abandoned their roots and their Christian values and equated “belief in God with belief in Satan”. He condemned European multiculturalism and dismissed the policy of tolerance as “neutered and barren”. And a wide range of officials and loyalists eagerly took up Putin’s words.
One clever propaganda trick was to enhance the image of the evil West by merging together the social conservative and the anti-Western posture. In this way, the West and Westernisers, gay people, liberals, contemporary artists and their fans, those who did not treat the Russian Orthodox Church with due respect, and those who dared to doubt Russia’s unblemished historical record were all presented as one “indivisible evil”,” a threat to Russia, its culture, its values, and its very national identity.
The Kremlin had rightly calculated that anti-Western propaganda would fall on fertile ground. The ubiquitous anti-Western message deepened existing resentment of the West, and new waves of propaganda matched increased demand. This mutual reinforcement steadily broadened the conservative, xenophobic consensus.
The coverage of the Crimea crisis was framed as a deadly clash between the “fascists” and “ours”: a “replay” of World War II, the most revered memory in Russian history.
Following the dramatic developments of 2014 – the political crisis in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the Western sanctions imposed on Russia, and the armed conflict in Ukraine’s east – Russian television turned into a ruthless propaganda machine. The news shows grew longer, with nightly news often lasting over one hour. The tone was more aggressive and the content focused almost entirely on Ukraine, with persistent mentions of the malicious role of the West. News shows began to attract larger audiences: in some weeks of 2014, news programmes had more viewers than entertainment shows and even TV series. The coverage was framed as a deadly clash between the “fascists” and “ours”: a “replay” of World War II, the most revered memory in Russian history. Throughout the years of the post-Soviet development, Crimea had been broadly seen in Russia as a historically Russian territory, and the tone of Putin’s Crimea speech suggested that the annexation of this Black Sea peninsula represented its legitimate return to the Russian fold – a victory akin to the great Soviet Victory of 1945. A significant part of the speech was devoted to a long list of invectives toward the West, which, Putin said, “prefers not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun” and still continues “the infamous policy of containment, led [against Russia] in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries […] They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner because we have an independent position. […] But there is a limit to everything. And with Ukraine, our western partners have crossed the line”.
The point of no return?
The annexation of Crimea can be seen as the crucial point (of no return?) of a definitive rupture with the West. Lev Gudkov, the director of Levada Center, Russia’s main independent polling agency, points out that the annexation also seemed to act as a kind of moral deliverance: Putin demonstrated on the world stage that he would not be bound by international rules and norms, and at home, Gudkov told me,he “allow[ed] the masses to feel enormous relief upon discarding the burdensome normative obligations associated with the West”.
The Western sanctions seemed to confirm the narrative that Putin put forward: now the West was really seeking to do harm to Russia, to punish it so that it would suffer more.
The Western sanctions originally imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea seemed to confirm the narrative that Putin put forward: now (and especially with the new rounds of sanctions later in the year) the West was really seeking to do harm to Russia, to punish it so that it would suffer more. What seemed especially outrageous to the Russian people was that the sanctions were imposed as a penalty for what they saw as Russia’s/Putin’s most glorious achievement. The common propaganda line – that the West is determined to prevent Russia from standing strong and proud – was thereby fully and graphically substantiated.
However, the anti-Western propaganda that rages through Russian society is not especially focused on the sanctions. Putin has even emphasised that the sanctions “are not related to [Crimea]”, but are part of aperennial policy of containment that was not invented yesterday, but has been pursued against Russia “for many years, decades if not centuries”. “Each time when somebody thinks that Russia has become too strong, independent, all these instruments are immediately put into action.”
The anti-Western line has become ubiquitous and overwhelming – from political rhetoric at the highest levels and national TV broadcasts down to small-time local initiatives, such as, for example, a New Year holiday show for young children. This year, instead of the usual fairy-tale performance, young Russians in the city of Lipetsk watched a heavily politicised performance in which aggressive but stupid Americans, including President Barack Obama and State Department spokes woman Jen Psaki, were opposed by Russia’s missile systems, represented as Russian warriors.
The West is continually cited as the force behind the coup in Ukraine. "The Ukrainian crisis,”Putin told the Egyptian daily Al Ahram, “[…]emerged in response to the attempts of the USA and its Western allies who considered themselves ‘winners’of the cold war to impose their will everywhere.”He went on to accuse the EU ‘s “Eastern Partnership” of attempting to “tear states which had been parts of the former USSR off Russia and to prompt them to make an artificial choice ‘between Russia and Europe’”. The West is also broadly assumed to be backing the Ukrainian armed forces (Putin recently said that those who oppose the insurgents in Donbas are in fact a “NATO foreign legion”).
The West is seen as being behind all the “colour revolutions”, from Georgia to Egypt; its goal today is considered to be “regime change” in Russia.
Moreover, the West is seen as being behind all the “colour revolutions”, from Georgia to Egypt; its goal today is considered to be “regime change” in Russia. And former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is regularly cited as having said that it is “unfair” that Russia’s territory is so large and endowed with such a wealth of natural resources; “other states”, Albright allegedly said, should be assured of free access to them. No source for any such quote has ever been found and Secretary Albright stated in the past that she had neither said nor thought anything like this. But Russian officials, most recently Secretary of the National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in February 2015, still cite it nonetheless.
The West is routinely portrayed as evil incarnate, and an aggressive mix of facts and fantasy fills the media, the internet, and the daily discourse. Below is an excerpt from a popular pro-Kremlin website:
Russia has a historical geopolitical enemy, which has for many centuries regarded our country as a threat to its global dominance, and does everything to do damage to us. And it will continue to do so in the future, for such is […] the very essence of the Anglo-Saxon attitude to Russia as a force that interfered with London’s plans for global domination two centuries ago and interferes with the global project of Washington and London today. This is not surprising, such is the nature of the two opposite (spiritually and geopolitically) civilisations. What is surprising is a significant part of our post-Soviet elites does not recognise this simple truth. Maybe this is why they are increasingly being referred to as the “fifth column”.
A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Russia regards itself as a “fortress under siege”: its hatred of the West is broad, genuine, and raw.
The polling data cited at the beginning of this paper shows that, on the contrary, those who do not agree with “this simple truth” are anything but significant in number. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Russia regards itself as a “fortress under siege”: its hatred of the West is broad, genuine, and raw. According to Lev Gudkov’s colleagues at Levada Center, who have recently conducted focus groups, those who do not accept the official line are resented by their compatriots. “Even more than the West,” point out Aleksey Levinson and Lyubov Borusyak, “the participants hate the ‘fifth column’, those who ‘undermine the country from within’; you constantly hear them say that such people should ‘get out of Russia’.”