WASHINGTON — An old saying in politics in Moscow is that relations between the United States and Russia are always better when a Republican rules in the White House. We are statesmen, and the Republicans are statesmen. Because we both believe in power, it is easy for the two of us to understand each other.
The problem with this saying is the paranoid mind-set behind it, for it implies that the nature of Russian-U.S. relations has not changed fundamentally since the Cold War’s end — that the animosities that exist between the two countries are those of two permanently implacable geopolitical opponents.
Russians, it seems, can only feel good about themselves if they are contesting with the world’s great power head to head. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the Soviet Union’s collapse “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
As a result of this mind-set, key elements in the Russian elite have tried mightily — and with some success, especially in recent years — to bring about a deterioration in Russian-U.S. relations. The Kremlin appears to be seeking systematically to obstruct the U.S., even when obstruction does not seem to be in Russia’s national interest.
Thus, Russia sells high-technology weapons, including bombers, submarines, and perhaps an aircraft carrier, to China, which not only shares the world’s longest border with Russia, but also disputes parts of that border. Russia’s assistance to Iran in realizing its nuclear ambitions also falls into the category of self-destructive folly. Not only is Russia building a civilian nuclear reactor in Iran, thereby helping to advance Iranian knowledge of the nuclear process; it is also reluctant to support efforts by the U.N. Security Council to press Iran not to develop nuclear weapons.
Diplomatic obstruction is not the only means Russian elites use to foster antagonism with the U.S. They also seek to inflame domestic public opinion. To maintain their influence, it seems, they believe that they need to create an image of America as Russia’s implacable enemy, which, by extending NATO membership to ex-communist countries, is bringing an existential threat right to the country’s doorstep.
Of course, this demonization is nothing like what we saw during the days of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Putin still considers it necessary to pose in front of television cameras every few months to report that Russian scientists have developed some new missile that can penetrate any antiballistic missile system that the U.S. may erect.
Why Putin’s advisers and public-relations managers encourage him to make these banal triumphalist announcements is difficult to fathom unless one comprehends the sense of grievance that almost all Russians feel at the loss of Great Power status. That trauma burns even deeper among Russia’s rulers, where it has generated a powerful and persistent psychological complex.
For them, the U.S. and the West remain the enemy. Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Russia’s rulers appear to live by the credo, “I resist America, therefore I am great.”
Consider the words of Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of the weekly Moscow News, on the recent U.S. elections. According to Tretyakov, “the coming to power of a Democrat as president in America is incomparably worse for us than the savage imperialism of today’s Republican administration.”
Whereas “the Republicans’ actions are not aimed at us, but instead at Islamic terrorists and rogue states,” under a Democratic president, Russia would likely “become a prime focus of antagonism, due to our authoritarianism, our lack of democracy, stifling of freedom, and violation of human rights.” Thus, for Tretyakov, “bad Bush and his Republicans are better for us than the very bad Democrats.”
Tretyakov is hardly alone. On the contrary, his morbid logic is a perfect reflection of the paranoid vision that has taken hold in the Kremlin.
But what if these people get their wishes, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization collapses and Islamists triumph? Who then will stop their advance toward Russia’s southern borders from Afghanistan and Central Asia? The problem with diplomatic paranoia is not that someone is after you, but that you are unable to tell the difference between a real enemy and an imagined one.