Russia Beyond the Headlines: A war of words in U.S.-Russia relations

File Photo of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama Seated Before Russian and U.S. Flags

(Russia Beyond the Headlines – – Pavel Koshkin – December 17, 2014)

The press has hyped poll numbers showing an increase in anti-Americanism in Russia, but experts argue that the numbers need context.

A popular T-shirt sold in central Moscow features a man in a martial arts costume resembling Russian president and known judo enthusiast Vladimir Putin knocking down his opponent, a clear stand-in for U.S. President Barack Obama, with a firm kick.

Kiosks selling T-shirts such as this one alongside others with slogans like “My Iskanders think your sanctions are funny,” began popping up in March, just after the conflict in Ukraine began to heat up.
Less than a year ago, seeing people on the streets of the Russian capital in such attire would have been very unusual.

According to a poll on U.S.-Russian relations conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (F.O.M.) in February, only 18 percent of Russians viewed the U.S. negatively. Today the situation has changed, and the attitude of Russians towards the U.S. is indicated by more than fashion choices. A Nov. 16 poll by F.O.M. showed that 37 percent of respondents have a negative attitude towards the U.S.

Reality or hype?

The situation may not be as bad as it seems at first glance, however. Media reports about these polls tend to highlight the headline-making negative numbers while failing to give sufficient space to the more positive responses.

In the Nov. 16 poll, for example, 62 percent of respondents said bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia need to improve, while 50 percent agreed with the statement that the Kremlin “should aim to improve its relations with the U.S.”

David Foglesong, a professor of history at Rutgers University and an expert in U.S.-Russia reactions, said that journalists “have hyped the recent deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, particularly by comparing it to the Cold War.” According to Fogelsong, such comparisons are reckless and “inappropriate,” primarily because the Kremlin doesn’t claim “to offer the world a model of political and economic development that rivals American liberal capitalism.”

Andrei Tsygankov, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University, also lays the blame for the negative numbers at the feet of the press. “Media on both sides follow the state line with vigor,” Tsygankov said, adding that the press is responsible for “hyping up the U.S.-Russia disagreements.” While the American media spread stereotypes of “revisionist” Russia, their Russian counterparts describe the U.S. “as the epitome of all geopolitical and cultural problems in the world,” Tsygankov said.

Victoria Zhuravleva, a professor of American history and the director of the American Studies Program at the Russian State University for the Humanities, said that American coverage of Russia feeds into the negative coverage of the United States by the Russian press.

“American cartoonists, journalists and politicians often represent a value-based approach to the image of Russia,” Zhuravleva said. “Russia, in its turn, uses this American approach to foster anti-American sentiments through the state-controlled mass media in order to shape the image of a hostile American ‘other’ and to maintain its besieged fortress mentality.”

Historical context

In the view of experts on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s also important to remember that polls are simply a snapshot of a particular moment in time. Gregory Feifer, a former NPR correspondent in Moscow, argues that Russia has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. that has ebbed and flowed over the years, and that Russian authorities play upon popular feelings of envy toward the West in public statements and through manipulation of the state-owned domestic media.

“When Putin calls Washington a threat to global stability, many profess to agree whether they really believe it or not,” Feifer said. “The Public Opinion Foundation poll, if accurate, appears to reinforce that view.”

Ivan Kurilla, a former Kennan Institute fellow and professor at Volgograd State University, argues that from a historical point of view, U.S.-Russian relations today are just in “one of the recurrent periods of hostility that were always replaced by periods of rapprochement, and from this point of view the situation is not as catastrophic as some journalists paint it.”

He added, however, that in his opinion, the recent poll results released by F.O.M. were not overly dramatized, “as the anti-Americanism in Russia is high indeed.”

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus in the department of political science at Columbia University, agrees that even though historically Russians have had shifting views of the U. S., today “the depth of animosity toward the U.S. both in the media and among the public is deeper than any time I remember in years.”

Foglesong believes that the current rise of anti-Americanism in Russia is more serious than earlier ones because it is the result of concrete actions. “[Anti-Americanism] stems in large part from a series of actions by the U.S.,” Fogelsong said, citing such events as NATO’s eastward expansion, the bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and support for Georgia in the 2008 Five Day War between Russia and Georgia. “I believe that series of actions has made a deep and lasting impression on many Russians,” Foglesong said.

Likewise, Ivan Tsvetkov, an associate professor at the School of International Relations at S. Petersburg State University, believes that although Russians’ attitude to the U.S. has fluctuated in recent years,the current spike in anti-Americanism in Russia is linked to specific events and therefore may last “until the factors that caused it are eliminated.”

Gregory Feifer is not so pessimistic in his assessment of the situation, however. Reflecting on his time as a reporter in Moscow, Feifer said: “When I spoke to Muscovites during Barack Obama’s first trip to Russia as president in 2009, I was surprised to hear a great majority say they admired him and believed his presidency would help restore relations with the United States,” he said. “That wasn’t very long after the war with Georgia, when many were saying very nasty things about America and its leaders.”

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