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Why Russia Needs Respect

The Consequences of American Overconfidence

With new revelations about the possible connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign emerging every day, Public Seminar contacted some specialists to answer the question: “What do Americans need to know about Russia to understand why Vladimir Putin interfered with an American election?”

On Monday, Richard D. Anderson argued that carefully managed conflict with the United States allows Putin to balance the competing demands of kleptocracy and nationalism without giving in to forces on his left or his right. On Wednesday, historian Abby Schrader explains that eliminating economic sanctions may be critical to the stability of Vladimir Putin’s presidency — and that American conservatives may have an investment in stabilizing his power. Today, Russia and Slavic Studies scholar Eliot Borenstein argues that it is perilous to ignore Russia’s longstanding desire to be taken seriously by other nations.

America’s relations with post-Soviet Russia are at an all-time low.  From a mainstream American perspective, it’s not hard to see why:  Crimea, Ukraine, hacking, and collusion immediately come to mind.  But none of this explains the vehemence of anti-American sentiment in today’s Russian media, nor the apparent popular support for Putin’s policies at home and abroad.  American leaders and opinion makers need to learn a simple lesson: pay attention to Russia, and treat it with respect.

That lesson is not a call to support actions or policies that warrant criticism, nor is it a suggestion that the current Russian political system should serve as a model (despite the Orange Counter-Revolution that seized the Oval Office this January).  But we should recognize that one of the reasons we now see Russia as a threat is that we have spent too long treating it like a joke.

Things were a bit different in the first few years after the Soviet collapse, when American hopes for a liberal democratic Russia meant that the country was portrayed as something we could improve or fix, as if the Russian political system were a neglected brownstone in an up-and-coming neighborhood.  With just a little bit of capital investment and the judicious application of a more refined sensibility, the thinking goes, Russia could have turned the post-Soviet space into the Williamsburg of European democracy.

These dreams of political gentrification did not die alone: they took our limited capacity to treat Russia seriously along with them. American leaders have made the situation worse by either overdramatizing or minimizing Russia’s global influence. Mitt Romney was ridiculed in 2012 for suggesting that Russia was America’s “greatest geopolitical foe,” and it would be a mistake to think that the last five years have proved him correct. Barack Obama’s dismissal of Russia as a mere “regional power” in 2014 was equally misguided, but far more damaging.  If there’s one thing Putin’s third term has made clear, it is that Russia would rather be feared than ignored.

Traditionally, the United States and Russia, formerly rival superpowers, have been polar opposites when it comes to their sense of worth and power as relative newcomers to a world stage dominated for centuries by continental Europe. If my readers will forgive the unforgivable generalizations, America takes its supremacy for granted, and therefore shows little interest in comparing itself to other countries. Our fatal flaw is clueless narcissism (“The freest country in the world!”), a stance now sadly personified by our Commander in Chief.  Post-Cold War Americans even see no need to brag about their country’s accomplishments; they even barely see a need even to know what they are.

Russia, on the other hand, with its centuries-long history of alternately embracing and rejecting foreign influence and attempting total transformation from above, is always looking over its shoulder. Russians are keenly aware of their country’s contributions to science, high culture, and the salvation of Europe from fascism, and are more than happy to list them at a moment’s notice. Rather than approaching Russia with disdain or exoticizing it as the Motherland of YouTube fail videos, we should recognize both greatness and insecurity for what they are: the basis and the need for respect.  If we’re going to criticize the Russian government for its treatment of protesters and political opponents, for instance, we should preface our critique with a reminder of the cultural patrimony tarnished by such abuse: the country that gave us Dostoevsky and his compassion for the insulted and the injured should be capable of so much more.

Eliot Borenstein in Professor of Russian & Slavic Studies at New York University, editor of the All the Russias blog , and author of the forthcoming book Plots against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy after Socialism

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Eliot Borenstein

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