Russia and the West’s tense relationship explained

Journalist and historian James Pearce explores some of the myths surrounding Russia. Is it true that Russians don’t like Westerners? If not, where does this idea come from?

 

Why is our relationship with Russia so tense?

The communist flag. Russia was once under the rule of Communism

Communism; all are equal…ish

Russia was once a country under the banner of Communism.

Communism is a political system where (in theory at least) all means of production are owned by the community rather than by individuals.

Russia was known to the world as ‘the Soviet Union’ or ‘USSR’ (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The revolution of October 1917 created a new kind of system which strived to create a communist state (by implementing the ideas of philosopher Karl Marx) in Russia. Before this point Russia was ruled for centuries as an autocracy by a ruling class called the Tsars.

The West (e.g. America, Britain and the rest of Europe) had adopted a system called Capitalism. This means trade, industry and the means of production are mostly privately owned and operated for profit.

Map showing the various sides and alliances in the cold war between Russia and the West

Cold War; in the red corner – Russia, vs. the West, in the blue corner

Because of these two different political ideas, Russia’s relationship with Western countries became strained. The West saw the Soviet Union as the true enemy to Western capitalism and civilisation.

As well as this initial reaction to the appearance of the Soviet Union, the post WWII world witnessed a nuclear arms race between America and Russia as a way of showing ideological superiority. The consequence of this was the staunch anti-Soviet rhetoric on one side in the West, and the anti-American policy complemented by strict censorship in the Soviet Union.

However, in Soviet times, the citizens would turn off the sound when images of America were shown on television. Ordinary people knew little about America and wanted the story beyond the anti-American propaganda of the Soviet government. Particularly in the 1980s when the incumbent leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, began to allow more freedoms in the media with his policy of glasnost (openness).

Today, this situation has changed dramatically. A recent survey by Levada found that around 70% of Russians have a negative opinion of Americans. Many will recall a laser image on the U.S Embassy of president, Barack Obama, eating a banana. Such actions come about as a result of the bad press abroad, particularly in the U.S. With the continued negativity throughout the media is it any wonder? This is not to defend these actions, but this combined with the geopolitical tone towards Russia has sparked a new feeling of anti-Westernism in Russia.

 

What is the Western media saying about Russia?

Screenshot of the Guardian asking "Is Western media biased towards Russia?"

Is Western media biased towards Russia?

There is no Soviet Union anymore, but Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis has witnessed the return of negative stories about Russia in the Western press. However, the Russian press also produces negative stories about the West and these two prejudices play off one another.

EXPLORE: the Ukraine crisis, and how Russia is involved?

It’s an easy task to find headlines which adhere to the anti-Russian style, and doing so is also essential. As well as slamming Russia’s democratic record, the Western press has largely been focussing on Russia’s military capability, especially since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

For example, there was a copy of Time magazine which depicted Russian President Putin and the remains of flight MH17 in his shadow. MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, and there was speculation that Russia was involved. This has not been proved. That didn’t stop The Sun newspaper referring to downing of flight MH17 as ‘Putin’s Missile’ on its front page.

EXPLORE: the “annexation” of Crimea – did Russia steal a country

Obscene titles such as ‘Putin has Asperger’s’ or ‘Russians need to suffer to survive’ provide no real information about the situation, but do reveal the growing obsession with condemning Russia.

It is the belief of some, such as former CNN producer Danny Schechter, that the majority of Americans ‘completely trust’ their news channels. He told Russia Today “they don’t speak Russian and there is no background or context. As a result, they are willing to believe the worst”.

 

War Games

Russian military forces stand in front of a tank

War games; Russia’s military presence worries the West

Moscow has repeatedly denied claims of Russian troops being present in Ukraine and recently started developing new nuclear missiles and tanks.

According to Test Tube News, Russia has around 8,500 nuclear warheads, of which 1,800 are operational, and around 845,000 active troops. These missiles are only a deterrent, meaning any launch would result in the same amount of destruction in return. The troop size is actually one of their stronger points. Military funding in 2015 is expected to be at around $81 billion compared to the U.S’s $831 billion. Much of Russia’s army is also ill equipped with modern technology, yet they operate more tanks than the U.S.

President Obama has described Russia as only a ‘regional power’, something which still plays into the hands of the press. In an article for Russia! magazine, Mark Galeotti wrote that Russia’s military is ‘good enough to chew through Ukraine and Georgia, but not for more advanced purposes’.

This was enough justification for the West to send extra troops to the Russian border in Estonia and Latvia (also Poland). Stories about Crimea and Russian ‘volunteers’ fighting in Eastern Ukraine create the impression of an imminent Russian invasion.

Russia and the West; President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin sit awkwardly in silence

Tension, what tension?

In another example, the visit of former Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras to Moscow caused panic. An article by Timothy Heritage for Reuters highlighted how realistic it would be for Greece to link up with Russia. Ties of culture and religion keep them closely acquainted and sympathisers to each other’s situation.

For months after the visit the press talked of Greece leaving the Eurozone and becoming a prospective member of BRICS (the countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, all deemed to be at a similar stage of new economic development). If this happened it could open a space for Russian business and military bases on the European continent.

By the press focusing on a fear of what Russia might do as opposed to why such a move may have suited Greece, it in turn showed Russia as a real threat to the national security of Western nations.

Regardless of Russia’s military capability, the belief of a dangerous Eastern neighbour exists. There is a clear anxiety shown in reports of Russian planes entering NATO member airspace or submarines just off shore. A visitor to my university, Chuck Snodgrass who worked in the U.S military and closely with the CIA, told us of the ‘Pearl Harbour Syndrome’ America has. The Western press echoes the American fears of being caught out again with their planes on the ground like in 1941.

This paranoia coupled with Russian planes entering UK airspace and their large nuclear arsenal creates a very tense situation with the potential to worsen. The nuclear of Russia arsenal leads the West in to thinking a war would be disastrous. This is an area where they cannot compete.

 

What do the Russians think?

LGBT activists were attacked during an action "Day of Kisses" against a homophobic bill that would prevent "non-traditional sexual relations propaganda among minors", aka the "gay propaganda ban" in front of the State Duma in Moscow, Russia. Москва. Акция активистов ЛГБТ сообщества "День Поцелуев" против приниятия гомофобного закона у ГосДумы в Москве закончилась избиениями активистов и задержаниями.

Russia has been criticised as being homophobic –  LGBT activists under attack in Moscow

On my first visit to Russia in 2013, I stayed with friends in their apartment in Southwest Moscow. As is the ‘done thing’ here, we started drinking in the kitchen and discussing politics. When America came up in conversation, my friend Svetlana said something I had never considered, yet perpetually do now. Specifically discussing Russia’s gay propaganda laws, she exclaimed:

“How can America lecture us on what to do and how to live, then justify going to war with everybody?!”

This viewpoint is similar to that of Russian film maker, Andron Konchalovskiy. Whilst discussing Russo-Western relations with Russia’s most famous journalist he said:

“It’s too bad we’re not blue, green or purple, because if we were, then the world would treat us differently […] The West expects us to act like they act. They go after us all the time. Do you know why? It’s because we look like them. If we looked different they’d get off our backs. Take the Chinese. Does the west ever go after them for not being democratic, for not living up to Western standards? No. And why not? Because the Chinese look different. I tell you, the problem is that we look like westerners, but in fact we’re not, we’re different”.

The feeling in Russia, by at large, is one of mistreatment. The population feel that their situation is not entirely understood, especially concerning Ukraine, a crisis with local roots. Despite Russia not being considered a part of the ‘civilised world since the time of the Mongol occupation, there is still a huge expectation among Western nations for Russia to play along. They look like westerners, but they are not. When Communism fell, the expectation was that Russia would change overnight and jump on the free market economics band wagon; it did not.

It is also possible that Russia does not understand America’s situation since both have little in common as nations; their histories have been completely different.

With regards to the UK, the reaction is mixed. 62% of Russians have a negative attitude towards to EU, although this merely scratches the surface. Since the Iraq War, many Russians see the Brits as the flag carrier of U.S foreign policy, which may explain the claim that the UK is becoming a ‘diplomatic irrelevance’.

The editor of The Moscow Times (Moscow’s English language newspaper), Nabi Abdullaev, wrote in The Guardian that the West’s bias ‘robs it of its moral authority’:

Russia's president Putin at an international summit

Enigma; the West wonder what Putin’s end game is

“Most western media cover the crisis in Ukraine mainly by concentrating on the Russian President’s cynicism and imperial ambitions. There is excellent field reporting from Ukraine in the western media, but they make only a modest part of the general message”

He also went on to say that covering key issues like the U.S’s intentions with Ukraine, Ukraine’s future government and Putin’s paranoia regarding NATO are rarely, if at all covered. For instance, most Crimeans welcomed their reincorporation to Russia, but the West focused on how illegal it was.

Indeed, the NATO paranoia is evident from the president to the people; to be portrayed as a threat and then encircled (and sanctioned) is something Russians view as unacceptable. Not least because Gorbachev was promised NATO would stay put after Germany’s reunification. Now NATO sits on Russia’s border. Having a president who stands up to the West and asserts Russia’s authority is the anecdote.  

Unlike Americans however, Russians do not appear to be fearful of a military conflict. Levada’s report this August showed Russians fear poverty more than a new war. Moreover, it revealed greater numbers of people feel stability inside the country compared with 2013.

 

Bias? If not, what’s happening?

Russia will always be a country which provokes a wide spectrum of views. Evidence usually makes people change their minds, although the line between facts and fiction appears to be blurred. Both sides claim a different truth with a lot of it left unsaid at either end. Without question, the West routinely downplays the Russian side of the story, but 90% of Russians receive their news from state run channels, and therefore also receive biased information.

After the Soviet Union became the new Russian Federation. Russia will not become a new, different kind of country until those who were born in the Russian Federation come to power and start controlling things. However, closing itself off to the West will also not improve the situation at home.

 

James is a Moscow based journalist and historian who also writes for The News Hub and Russia! magazine. Follow him on twitter @JamesPearce_101

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