Why the Russians and Americans can’t get along

Great comment by Satti questioning why the U.S. can’t get along better with Russia.

In general, I agree that it would be nice for the United States to have a cooperative relationship with Russia rather than a confrontational one. For the same reason I believe we made a mistake by turning our back on the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans Pacific Partnership, and the North Korean nuclear deal dating back to the Clinton administration. Talking is always better than fighting.

That said, despite their propaganda to the contrary, Putin really does not want a positive relationship with the United States. The United States is far more powerful and far richer than Russia. The U.S. economy is about ten times the size of Russia’s, and despite what some may argue, money is power. If the U.S. were to have a relationship with Russia, Russia would be the lesser partner, something that Putin cannot tolerate.

Furthermore, Putin needs an antagonistic U.S. as a foil. In fact, this situation goes back to just post World War II. In 1946, we were puzzled by the behavior of our one-time allies the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Stalin, they were behaving in ways we believed were irrational — being confrontational rather than cooperative. State Department Soviet expert George Kennan wrote what became known as the Long Telegram — so called because it was the longest diplomatic cable ever sent to that point. In the missive, Kennan explained that the Soviets needed the U.S. to be the villain they could point to in their effort to keep their populace under control. In other words, they needed the U.S. to be the enemy so they could claim they were defending their people from that enemy.

Clearly, Putin has taken a page from that book. This is unsurprising since he is a former KGB official who was a high ranking member of the Communist Party. He is well aware that his people are poor and his economy unsuccessful — especially when the price of oil is low. He has maintained his popularity largely through aggressive propaganda efforts painting the U.S. as a threat and he is the only one who can protect Russia from it. This type of fear of the “other” is a powerful motivator. Think of how Americans responded post-9/11.

Ironically, there was a moment where relations might have improved. Early on after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Boris Yeltsin was the leader of Russia. He was clearly very open to a relationship with the West. The problem is that the Americans, first in the George H.W. Bush administration, then in the Clinton administration, essentially danced on the grave of the U.S.S.R. Had those administrations treated Russia as more of an equal partner and built it up much as we did with our former adversaries in World War II, the resentments among the Russian people might not have built up based upon their sense that they were no longer respected. This is the opening that Putin took advantage of by playing upon that rage.

You need only look at the rise of Trump in the U.S. to see an example of how such resentments can be used by a demagogue for political purposes. Trump played on the sense of white men that they were being displaced from their position at the peak of American society. He gave them someone to blame — in his case immigrants — much as Putin gave the Russians the U.S. to blame. Such blame games can be powerful political tools since they direct attention away from the regime in charge, who in Putin’s and Trump’s case, is corrupt. They would rather be talking about anything other than that.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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