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Russia and the US: strained relations and ways to fix it

Read more on:  Putin, Obama, China, Magnitsky, Reset, Human Rights

10:45 21/09/2012
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets U.S. President Barack Obama

After the end of the Cold war the public opinion research demonstrates that in both countries the perception of the other side as an enemy decreased, but not disappeared. In the United States this perception remains pretty stable: while Mitt Romney named Russia as America’s number one geopolitical adversary, opinion research shows that the majority of Americans do not perceive Russia as a Cold-war-style adversary.

On the other hand, Americans now are convinced that China is catching up or already overtook the United States as the next “peer-competitor” - not Russia. Islamist terrorism is also perceived as transnational threat, not Russia.

In Russia, on the other hand, the perception of the United States as an adversary fluctuates, it depends on the situation and media coverage. For example, Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Georgia (2008) conflicts produced peaks of anti-American sentiment in Russia. The anti-American tenor remains in Russia, shaped by the tone of propaganda in state-owned channels, especially on television. TV viewers are exposed to a lot of old Soviet films that hail secret services. Sometimes, new programs engage in anti-American conspiracy theories -- from the quarters that you don’t even expect, like Alexander Gordon who brought people to discuss the US involvement in and the roots of 9/11 attack.

Programs anchors like Michael Leontyev, Maxim Shevchenko and others clearly are carrying water for a particularly anti-American party line. With Russia playing a positive role supporting U.S. mission in Afghanistan in terms of transit, with a discussing a transit base for NATO in Ulyanovsk, it is high time to put behind this very nasty language and these images of an adversary, when we have common challenges from rising China.

In fact, the rising China is a bigger challenge to Russia because of long land border between the two countries in Siberia and Far East, because of the uneven levels of population. In Heilongjiang Province bordering the Russian Far East China has 35 million people (as of 2000), while east of Lake Baikal there are something between 7 and 8 million Russian citizens. So, this is a serious long term challenge for Russia and for everybody else. It may be not a military challenge, but it is a security and an economic challenge.

That issue, as well as the issue of terrorism fueled by religious radicalism, such as Dubrovka, Beslan and other tragic attacks on civilian population in Russia, motivated by the same hatreds as the attacks of 9/11. This brought about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The language of the US-Russian relationship isn’t optimal nowadays. There is too much emotion and too little practical discussion of important issues between Russia and the United States.

Let’s take a time retrospective. In the first term of Vladimir Putin, the US-Russian relationship was most cooperative. This is the time when the Russian president offered assistance to the U.S. after 9/11, and at that time anti-Americanism was not a dominating factor. However, as early as 2007, with the Munich Security Conference speech, and then laying the blame on the United States for Georgia and for the global economic crisis, it was all downhill from there. These are not secrets, these are all public statements.

Vladimir Vladimirovich is being quite harsh in apportioning guilt and blame. While the United States tends not to respond to such accusations, it is not necessarily helpful. Today, blaming of the United States and the U.S. currency continues in Russia’s rhetoric. Meanwhile these statements don’t decrease the amount of U.S. dollars in circulation in Russia, or the currency mix of deposits of those Russians who are fortunate enough to have significant foreign currency deposits. Today, the euro is, of course, a higher risk currency than U.S. dollar. Every other currency is quite problematic.

What we can do to built trust between the two countries – is reciprocity. If the United States opens its media environment to RT (Russia Today) – and I have it in my house, right next to Al Jazeera and BBC TV and Deutsche Welle, and as we have radio Voice of Russia broadcasting in English in the United States, equal time can be presented to the Russian public for U.S.-funded stations, like The Voice of America and Radio Liberty.

Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t even have a product, it doesn’t have a global TV channel that is funded or sponsored by the U.S. government like RT is sponsored by the Russian government or CCTV is sponsored by the government of China, or Al Jazeera which is an excellent news channel in English and is sponsored by the Emir of Qatar. So in that respect there is some lack of equality, but beyond that if you compare the people who receive their education in the U.S., there are tens of thousands over the years, hundreds of thousands of the millions of Chinese, there are very few Russians.

The United States is attractive, it offers excellent education, it is expensive, but other governments in Eurasia – Kazakhstan with Bolashak Program, Azerbaijan and others - pay their students to go all over the world to study. And I don’t see why the Russian government should not: a) invite Americans to come and study in Russia; and b) fund Russian young men and women to come to the United States to study.

We actually know from history that some of the most notorious leaders like Pol Pot and Zhou Enlai studied in France, but that didn’t make them great democrats. So, some of these people who received education did not necessarily embrace Western values. Another good example was Muhammad Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood leader. He hated America, he was an exchange student as a young government official in the late 1940’s, and when he came back, he said that American women are immoral and American culture is bad. And this was the time of very conservative America as opposed to what happened in 1960’s.

I am active on Facebook including in Russian, and one always reads how Americans are fat and stupid. And when you point out that American men live 20 years longer than Russian men, that American average citizen has GDP per capita is 4 times higher; and that U.S. still is a home for innovation from iPhones and mp3 files to breakthrough drugs that save lives, this somehow doesn’t count towards American intelligence or American health. The USA is a great country and there is a lot of things people can learn, enjoy and appreciate if they come to America and vice versa – if Americans go to visit Russia.

The trade between the US and Russia is 40 billion dollars a year, it is less than our trade with Belgium or the Netherlands. One issue that is bothering American business people and American law makers is the case of Sergey Magnitsky. And it is not about Sergey Magnitsky, it is not even about Russia, it is about people who violate human rights, but at the same time benefit from these violations. That is why the Magnitsky legislation is suggesting that the ill-gained assets by gross human right violators will be subject to seizure around the world, and it is not just the United States, it is other countries like Canada and a number of European countries that are moving in that direction.

The Magnitsky legislation is also about how business is done, because Sergey Magnitsky was working for a Western investment fund and the way that fund clashed with some corrupt officials, people that two Russian presidents Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev called “the werewolves in epaulettes”. That is something that this legislation is trying to address in the environment in which both the Russian lawmakers and the Russian law enforcement failed to address it.

I view the Magnitsky legislation as a positive development and I say only in half- jest that the Russian government should give senator Ben Cardin (Democrat) and senator John McCain a medal for attracting attention to the real issue of corruption in law enforcement, tax authorities, etc. Everybody agrees that there is a big problem there. Mr. Putin (in his first and second term), Mr. Medvedev and now Mr. Putin again stressed that corruption is a huge issue. So, this is one of the ways to address it, as well as the whole issue of abuse of state power, of law enforcement power.


In the meantime, when people who abused Magnitsky were promoted and given awards after the Presidential Human Rights Commission published reports about the Magnitsky case. The Russian Presidential Human Rights Commission itself said that Magnitsky was tortured or suspected that he was tortured and in any other country there would be an impartial investigation. However, nothing like that happened in Russia. I think it is actually better not to sweep these issues under the rug.

Ariel Cohen is a Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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