Befriending the Bear

The pose is almost menacing. Two penetrating, steel-blue eyes gaze downward at the viewer, the mouth calm but clenched. Russian president Vladimir Putin, Time’s 2007 Person of the Year, projects a threatening image in the magazine’s cover shot. The same could be said about Russia’s current image in the West. Western observers have decried Moscow’s silencing of opposition leaders and state control of the press, as well as Russia’s use of its natural gas monopoly to exercise undue influence in former Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine. Moscow chafes at proposed NATO missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, which it sees as threats to Russian territory. In the Time feature article, author Adi Ignatius describes Putin as “frequently agitated” during their interview - a sign, Ignatius thinks, of “[Putin’s] perception that Americans are out to interfere in Russia’s affairs.”

The often turbulent relations between Russia and the West have deep historical roots, predating the Cold War and the Russian Revolution. At several points in its history, Russia has been invaded by outside forces, from the Swedes in the eighteenth century to the French armies of Napoleon in the nineteenth century and finally twice by Germany in the twentieth century. In all these encounters, and particularly during the Second World War, the Russians suffered great losses—Soviet casualties in World War II were estimated to be over 24 million, more than all the other belligerents combined. With such a history of hardship, Russians “have a sense of victimization towards the West,” explains Padma Desai, a Columbia economics professor.

This sense of victimization has manifested itself in Russian foreign policy, both past and present. Josef Stalin justified the Soviet establishment of satellite governments in Eastern Europe by arguing that it created a buffer zone for a potential attack from the West. Under Putin, Russia has intervened in the affairs of its former constituent republics, protesting as they grow closer to the US and the EU. The accession of the Baltic States to the EU and NATO has been regarded as especially threatening, and Russia opposes moves by Georgia and Ukraine to do the same. Since the election of reformist, pro-Western governments in the two countries, there have been continual disputes with Russia over natural gas prices, charges of espionage aimed at Georgia, and even deportation of Georgian citizens from Russia.

“[Putin] got this idea that there was a special threat to the stability of Russia embodied in what had happened in Georgia and Ukraine,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a Columbia political science professor and a former Clinton administration adviser on Russian affairs. “Most people don’t think that was the case … creating a kind of special … legitimacy for what Putin had done by saying [that he was] fighting off efforts to interfere in Russia’s internal affairs was something very attractive to him and his political allies.”

Meanwhile, American moves to install an anti-ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which the US claims is targeted at Iran and North Korea, have revived Cold War-era fears of Western belligerence. Despite a lack of evidence to support these suspicions, “Putin is insisting that there’s a big military threat,” claims Sestanovich.

What a change from ten years ago, when friendly images of Bill Clinton walking closely with Boris Yeltsin were the norm. The change in relations has coincided with Russia’s change in economic and political welfare over the past decade. The 1990s saw Russia transformed from “a superpower … into a super-beggar,” according to Desai. Weakened from the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy suffered, as Western advisers sought “shock therapy” to reinvigorate it. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s attempt to bring democracy to the country resulted instead in widespread corruption and the emergence of a few, immensely wealthy “oligarchs” who controlled most of Russia’s industry. Sestanovich explains that during the 1990s there was an effort made by the Yeltsin government that “involved a kind of endorsement of and commitment to meet European standards” of democracy and free trade. With the economic recovery under Putin, most Russians “don’t like that idea,” Sestanovich says. “The idea is that … everything that Russia accepted in the 90s was humiliating. Russians remember … that the 90s were a tough decade.”

Along with economic recovery under Putin has come government cultivation of anti-Western rhetoric. The association of the painful 1990s with Western economic intervention has turned many Russians against conforming to Western standards. Putin’s approval ratings have soared due to what Desai calls the “feel-good factor” among Russians, who see their living standards rising and their country once again acting as a great power on the world stage. An independent stance in the international arena, unmoved by Western demands, appears attractive to most Russians so long as wages continue to increase.

The West has viewed such Russian economic and political muscle-flexing uneasily. The consolidation of the media under the Kremlin and the marginalization of opposition parties under Putin’s “sovereign democracy” have democracy advocates worried. American and European officials view Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine as contrary to those countries’ rights to self-determination, prompting memories of Cold War Russian expansion. Characterizations of Putin as a new Russian tsar abound in the Western press. Time’s Person of the Year article on Putin was even titled “A Tsar is Born.”

When asked whether there was a lingering Cold War mentality in the West, Desai answered, “I would think so … It is not only apparent and evident in the Cold War thinking in the administration, but I also find it among a whole lot of commentators in the Western media. There is considerable Putin-bashing.”

Sestanovich disagrees that there is a concerted effort to demonize Russia, and offers a critique of that view. But, he cautions, “[Putin]’s not Stalin. Keeping our analytical bearings is important, because once you get into that sort of hyperbole, you start making people wonder what your other agenda is, [and] whether you’re Russophobic.”

If anything, according to Sestanovich, a Cold War mentality is more common in Russia than in the West. It was easy for the West to move beyond the Cold War, he says, because “there was no defeat involved for us.” To the Russians, however, the end of the Soviet Union diminished the importance of Russia’s place on the international scene. With a rise in political and economic power under Putin, Russians have gotten used to the idea of their nation once again playing a role as a great power, even if the West has not. Sestanovich notes that, when discussing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, the Russians “are actually offended when you say that these things are not directed at them because it belittles Russian power.” Russians have “viewed a lot of these issues through the lens of their revival as a great power,” Sestanovich explains. “And that’s made it tempting for them at every turn to think, ‘Which policy will aid our revival?’ and, ‘Isn’t a rivalry good for our increased international standing?’”

There seems to be a lens that distorts Russia’s image in much of the West, propped up by old Cold War-era notions of a threatening and totalitarian nation from the East, an ideological opponent with which to spar. Putin’s image on the cover of Time and his attitude towards his interviewers seem to confirm this. Coming to power less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, his governmental expansion and his opposition to many American and European interests have placed him in the role of the traditional authoritarian Russian leader. But at the same time, he is an entirely new leader in Russia, a man who has led his country out of the turmoil of the 1990s and built it into an energy titan. Putin’s appeal to the traditional sense of Russian victimization is an appealing one. And the image of Russia as a resurrected power, acting in its own interest and independently from others, has proven popular with the people. But to much of the West, Putin’s rhetoric sounds threatening and dangerous, and many assume that he intends to start a new Cold War.

Is Putin a Soviet-style leader or a modern Russian president with some bellicose policies? This is a question that must be answered. Though some may deny its existence, it is clear in the eyes of many that Russia still has not completely emerged from the Soviet Union’s shadow. These conflicting images of Russia as a simultaneous reincarnation of the USSR and a new and emerging economic power are a problem in the West, and one that must be resolved if relations are to improve. In order to accomplish this, it may be wise to stop letting history dictate our views of the present.