There are numerous think tanks, both in the United States and Russia, which are deeply concerned about the state of Russian-American relations. Places like the Moscow Carnegie Centre or the Brookings Institution in Washington DC are regular go-to places for the media when seeking expert opinion and analysis. However, these centers of independent knowledge production have had a decided slant in allocating blame for the poor bilateral relations to the Russian side, with the explanations ranging from the fairly simple to the rather mystically esoteric.
“If America did not exist, Russia would have to invent it. In a sense it already has: first as a dream, then as a nightmare. No other country looms so large in the Russian psyche. To Kremlin ideologists, the very concept of Russia’s sovereignty depends on being free of America’s influence. Anti-Americanism has long been a staple of Vladimir Putin, but it has undergone an important shift. Gone are the days when the Kremlin craved recognition and lashed out at the West for not recognizing Russia as one of its own. Now it neither pretends nor aspires to be like the West. Instead, it wants to exorcise all traces of American influence.”
It is not difficult to find this Freudian-type of political psycho-babble today when it comes to ‘analyzing’ Russian positions. The United States is the victim of being the object of a global oedipal complex when it comes to Russia. It is important to remark how most countries around the world would actually find it dangerously myopic and unhealthy to base its own foreign policy on earning the ‘approval’ of another country. With ease the far more standard approach to foreign policy formulation is to determine a country’s own national interests and security dilemma and craft an independent position that can best achieve optimal goals for said country.
And that, not ironically, is what is being described above in America as a ‘shift’ away from craving attention to striving to exorcise American demons. In reality there is no shift at all: Russia has always been about Russia, as it expects America to be about America, France to be about France, Nigeria to be about Nigeria, so forth and so on. What Russia usually finds so irksome is that when it does what everyone else literally does on the issue of global positioning, it is judged as psychologically unstable or deficient. What the American media outlets and think tank personalities fail to recognize is how much of this judgment is coming not from explicitly observable behavior or direct quotes from relevant actors, but is placed instead by so-called experts that are pushing a decidedly one-sided interpretation of the agenda.
Russia is not supposed to aspire to be a copy of or mimic for the West. Nor should it be allowing any particular American influence over its policy decisions. This is not said as an anti-American statement but rather as base and simple logic: America would never strive to copy another country and it most certainly does not endorse another country trying to force-influence its foreign policy. So why should Russia? It is this very simple and straightforward question that seems to never be asked by what are otherwise august media institutions and impressive political think tanks in the West.
Sometimes this tendency can reach near farcical levels. When Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign-relations committee, spoke about ridding Russia of dependence on America and even ridiculously commenting about fining cinemas that show too many foreign films, it was up to Western experts on Russia to recognize the absurd for what it is: just absurdity. Failure to do so is especially egregious given so much Western political analysis over the past fifteen years has lamented the strengthening and deepening of Putin’s own presidential power system. Decrying how little power sits within the legislative or judiciary branches of Russian government means it is nonsensical to then highlight parliamentarians as having real impact and relevance on Russian-American relations. But this happens quite a bit in American media outlets and think tanks without anyone ever taking the time to point out the blatant contradiction.
There also tends to be a failure to place Russian analysis through the looking glass of reciprocity. What this means is that current American thinking emphasizes how untrustworthy Moscow decision-makers are, or how there is no real point in talking with the Kremlin, while completely ignoring or dismissing the very real Russian criticism that lobs the same complaint back at Washington. President Putin openly and publicly discusses his lack of trust in American power and in the specific policy decisions emanating from the White House. It is because of this skepticism, even cynicism, that he claims forces his own lack of desire to engage the United States. There are simply too few voices at present trying to analyze this declared mindset as a legitimate position. As far as can be determined, the only reason this is not analyzed more seriously is because the competing alternative – that Putin is untrustworthy and Moscow is the cause of all communication breakdowns – is simply too powerfully accepted as a de facto axiom. In short, if the United States does not trust Russia, it is because of how Russia behaves on the global stage and because of its own history on said stage. If Russia does not trust the United States, that is simply Russian posturing and a case of political transference, wanting to blame its own self-made problems on someone else so that it can avoid any accountability or being held responsible for poor performance. The issue at hand is how this is simply accepted rather than investigated. And how few so-called Russian experts are at present willing to step forward and shine a light on this intellectual insincerity.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Security and Intelligence Studies program at Bellevue University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.