In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
David Filipov arguing with Leonid Kalashnikov

A Moscow Reporter’s Notebook: Myths, Misunderstandings and 6 More Years of Bad News for US-Russia Ties

January 12, 2018
David Filipov

It’s hard to imagine now, but 2017 started out with an air of wild optimism I’ve rarely seen in Moscow. Donald Trump’s improbable presidential election victory had generated widespread anticipation of a reversal in the downward spiral of U.S.-Russian relations. The investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election still seemed like the "death throes” of the Obama presidency, as officials never tired of telling me. No one expected Trump to move quickly to lift sanctions, but a goodwill gesture, such as returning Russian diplomatic compounds seized at the end of December, looked possible, if not inevitable.

A year later, only two things seem inevitable: On March 18, Vladimir Putin will be reelected president by a wide margin. And no turnaround in the course of U.S.-Russian affairs is in sight.

After spending the past 13 months in Moscow (and 14 years before that), I have come home with a few firm convictions: (a) Americans and Russians woefully misunderstand each other; (b) Moscow does not, and will not, accept complicity in or responsibility for any of the breakdowns in the bilateral relationship, at least since the fall of the U.S.S.R.; (c) Russia’s senior leadership has internalized the assertion that the country is hemmed in by hostile forces determined to keep it from assuming its rightful place as a world power. None of this bodes well for U.S.-Russia ties.

In Moscow, the notion that Russia is under siege is at the heart of TV talk shows, political debates and Putin’s own policy statements. Every major international event is viewed as a zero-sum proposition, and the player on the other end of the game board is the United States—or, rather, the deeply Russophobic mainstream that refuses to cede power to the Trump White House and the Americans it represents.

Consider this recent exchange on Russia’s state-run 24-hour news station involving one of Putin’s so-called rivals in the presidential race. Communist Party nominee Pavel Grudinin was detailing his plans to raise living standards, invest in infrastructure and repatriate the huge sums held by Russians in offshore accounts, when the interviewer interrupted him: How could a Russian president find the time to focus on the economy, she asked, “when someone is trying to take Crimea from us and push us off the world stage?”

This view of the world may have started out as a politically expedient way to deflect attention from pressing domestic troubles, but the whispers in Moscow’s corridors have it that, with time, it has become Putin’s genuine conviction. (He certainly sounded sincere at a foreign policy conference last October when he said that Russia’s biggest mistake in dealing with the West had been trusting it too much, and the West’s biggest mistake had been taking that trust for weakness and abusing it.) I honestly can’t say what Putin believes, but I do subscribe to another widely held view among Russian analysts: that Putin gets his information from a very limited set of sources, which provide exactly the facts and analysis that support the idea of a Russia under siege.

Viewed from Moscow, there are more than enough examples to back up this interpretation. Last year I appeared on a Russian TV talk show where I tried using a map to show how the Baltic states view Russian military presence in the region as an existential threat; this was shortly before Russia’s large-scale Zapad war games, which had some Western observers worried Moscow would invade its Soviet-era territories. Before my sketch was done, Leonid Kalashnikov, a Communist lawmaker in the State Duma, parliament’s lower house, was shouting in my face that it was Russia, not the Baltics, who was surrounded, and Vyacheslav Nikonov, another virulent critic of U.S. policy in the Duma, sketched out a line of U.S. nuclear destroyers moored off Russia in the Baltic Sea.

Sadly, portrayals of Russia-related affairs in the U.S. can be so one-sided and ill-informed—particularly in today’s ultra-polarized political climate—that they too often feed into the Russian elites’ narrative. Ahead of Zapad, for example, some American media rang alarm bells about the possibility of Russian aggression and even an invasion of a neighboring country under cover of the exercises; no such attack happened, but the overwrought tone was set. Likewise, U.S. officials and Beltway pundits have often swept aside Russian claims that Western leaders had promised NATO would not expand into Moscow’s Soviet-era domain; yet recently declassified documents show that high-level Western officials, including then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, did give Moscow such assurances in the 1990s. Meanwhile, U.S. military officials accuse Russia of violating the 1987 INF Treaty on medium-range missiles without publicly providing proof; while they pay short shrift to Moscow’s counter-accusations about U.S. violations, a retired American general last month explained how the launcher used by Washington in its Aegis Ashore missile-defense system does in fact appear to violate the letter of the treaty.

The lack of understanding cuts both ways, of course. One thing officials in Moscow seem not to get is the ferocity or nature of the battles among stakeholders in U.S. politics. A senior Russian diplomat asked me in exasperation last year why America’s foreign policy elite can’t agree on a unified position and stay on the same page. “We all agree,” the diplomat said of the Russian side, “and only then do we talk.” Moreover, after news broke last fall that in March 2017 Putin had offered the White House a plan for the “wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military and intelligence channels,” analysts were left wondering how well the Russian leader understands the mechanics of American democracy. Did the Russian elites really buy Trump’s rhetoric and think he’d be able to single-handedly turn the relationship around? Does that explain the optimism of early 2017?

Putin didn’t invent Russia’s siege mentality, but he has worked hard to cast his primary role as guardian of the interests of the Russian state in a world order that seeks to exclude it. He now limits his involvement in domestic affairs to gestures—upbraiding underlings for their poor performance, making annual televised shows of interest in his constituents’ affairs, spitting out statistics about macroeconomic growth or the size of this year’s grain exports. Domestic affairs may return to center stage as the issue of succession looms in 2024, but as long as Putin is president, Russia, according to semi-official doctrine, will be under siege from the West, led by the United States. And hand in hand with the myth of the West’s eternal siege goes the legend of Russia’s imperviousness to external pressure. The big question, I suppose, is: Will the West find just the right pressure points to help improve relations and, with them, global security? Or will Washington and Moscow keep pressing all each other’s wrong buttons and ramping up the risk of full-blown conflict?

David Filipov is a former Moscow bureau chief of The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. He has (thus far) spent a total of 15 years in Russia.