Many hoped that the long-awaited visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Russia would be a good opportunity to renew U.S.-Russian relations. But despite the pressure on both countries’ leaders to come to an agreement over the important matters of Iran, Afghanistan and nuclear weapons, the meeting of the heads of state has not caused much excitement among the Russian public.
Last Saturday the symbolic and by now clichéd red “reset” button, which had been given to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was on display in the center of Moscow. Ordinary Russians had the chance to have a go at pressing it and pondering which developments they would like to see in U.S.-Russia relations. But the results of two independent opinion polls found that most Russians were not well informed about their country’s relationship with the United States.
The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) found that 63 percent of those questioned could not identify the main issues of Russian-U.S. relations and were unsure what aims the two countries should strive toward through mutual cooperation. VTsIOM’s Communications Director Olga Komenchuk believes that the reason for this confusion is that most Russians are not interested in external politics. “It is a typical situation for people to be much more interested in the internal politics of their own country than in international politics. This is the case not only for Russia, but for Germany, France and others,” she said.
The economic crisis has only increased people’s concern about their own lives and dulled their interest in the wider world. But another reason for the Russian people’s indecisiveness about their country’s relationship with the U.S. is the conflicting messages that they have received from the Russian government in the last several years.
Russia increased its anti-American rhetoric following the August war with Georgia last year. The country’s leaders blamed the United States for helping Georgia and raising anti-Russian sentiment after Washington condemned Russia’s actions during the conflict. But according to Director of the Levada Center Lev Gudkov, Russia had to drop its aggressive approach when the country faced new difficulties. “There has been very harsh anti-American propaganda in Russia, which was only weakened by the economic crisis and the uncertainty of the Russian government on how to deal with it,” Gudkov said.
Indeed, Russian officials initially blamed the United States for the economic downturn and claimed that Russia itself would not be affected. But Gudkov doe not believe this is the only reason for the slight warming of relations. “After the rise of sympathy toward Obama following the U.S. elections, the American pro-Obama wave reached Russia and the relationship got a bit better,” he said.
Many commentaries have argued that Russia’s double-edged approach to America is the result of simultaneously held aspirations toward the U.S. model of power and feelings of competitiveness. Indeed, Medvedev’s speech on Monday, following the signing of a cooperation agreement with the United States, emphasized that the two countries are still the world’s leading nuclear powers. “We have a special degree of responsibilities in the field of strategic nuclear weapons, as our countries are the main carriers of the nuclear potential,” the president said.
And some analysts warn that the historic competition with the United States for global influence means that some cold war fears remain. Paul Starobin, a former Moscow bureau chief for Business Week magazine, argued last week that many Russians still think that America is out to weaken their potential rival superpower. “Many Russians believe in a message reinforced by state media propaganda, that America has a strategic plan to keep Russia weak by propping up former Soviet republics and maintaining a permanent military presence along Russia's soft southern underbelly in Central Asia and the Caucasus, extending to Ukraine in the Black Sea area,” Starobin wrote in an article for CNN.
Old Cold War fears manifest themselves in Russians’ mistrust of the United States. The Levada Center study also found that most Russians did not support Obama’s proposal for Russia to reduce its nuclear arsenal. According to Gudkov, there is good reason for this cautious approach. “All of the serious studies in both the United States and in Russia in the last couple of years have showed that mostly people want to lower the nuclear weapons levels only if there are certain guarantees in place. It is a very rational, wise and balanced approach,” he said.
The main question regarding Obama’s visit to Russia is whether the new liberal U.S. president will succeed in reaching out to the Russian people, as well as the government. But the Levada Center’s study found that public opinion is split almost evenly between those who believe that the U.S.-Russian relationship will improve after the meeting of the countries’ presidents (42 percent) and those who think that the meeting will not change anything (39 percent). Meanwhile, 71.2 percent of respondents to a poll on the Echo of Moscow radio station’s website said that the meeting would not improve relations between the two countries. These figures show the depth of ambivalence amongst the Russian public about the “reset.”
Much of that uncertainty may be a reflection of the contradictory portrayal of the United States in the Russian media. The media has recently moved away from traditional anti-American rhetoric to showing a Russia that is interested in building a relationship with the newly elected U.S. president. That in turn mimicked the Kremlin’s own rhetoric - prior to Obama’s visit Medvedev said that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the meeting in an interview to the Italian Raitalia TV channel and Corriere della Sera newspaper. But although the talks between the two heads of state on Monday were reciprocally friendly, it is unclear to what extent the Russian people will be affected by them.
Experts, however, do not think that the meeting will have much impact on the Russian people.
Gudkov thinks it unlikely that it will to produce anything more than an agreement of cooperation on issues that do not directly affect the two countries. “They will sign some customary protocols probably, but I do not think anything really new will come as a result of this,” he said. “Russians’ reaction to the consequences of the meetings between the two presidents will depend on the tone that is set by the mass media.”