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Russia's enemy No. 1? Mystery campaign smears Obama

How others see it

Russians have long blamed the US for many global problems. But what appears to be an organized and well-funded ad campaign raises the bar.

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Somebody is bombarding Russian social media and Moscow buildings with professionally produced messages that condemn President Obama as a murderer and a threat to world peace.

It's not an unpopular message. An opinion poll by the state-run VTsIOM agency last June found that 37 percent of respondents named the United States and Mr. Obama personally as "the main enemy of our culture and values."

Another survey conducted by the independent Levada Center in late 2014 showed that public attitudes toward Obama had shifted radically in the previous five years. Whereas 21 percent of respondents viewed him "positively" in 2009, just 2 percent did so in the later poll.

Alexei Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada Center, says the growing disdain for Obama in Russia is “very much the product of the current geopolitical situation" and perhaps personal disappointment with his presidency. The 2014 poll found that 67 percent of respondents thought US-Russian relations were worse under Obama than they were under former President George W. Bush.

Some of the anti-Obama sentiment clearly has a grassroots flavor. One widespread example is the "Obama is a shmoe" meme that's appeared on T-shirts, bumper stickers and, in a clearly doctored image that's swept the Russian Internet, on the runway of the Russian airbase in Syria.

But the latest wave of public Obama-bashing appears to be an organized and well-funded ad campaign. It began earlier this month with a 60-second film depicting Obama as the world's "killer No. 1" and projected on walls around the city. The same message was later emblazoned onto the front of the US embassy in green laser light. 

Then a two-minute video appeared online that purports to show groups of students standing in front of several major Russian universities and demanding that Obama be turned over to the Hague for war crimes. The video has gained over a half-million views on YouTube since it was uploaded on Feb. 11.

In the campaign’s latest stage, posters began appearing in glass display cases at bus stops across Moscow that depict the US president smoking a cigarette with the message: "Smoking kills more people than Obama, though he's killed a lot of people."

Escalating tensions

In some ways, deteriorating Russian attitudes toward the US and its leader mirror those in the US, where Russia and President Vladimir Putin's stock has sunk to near all-time lows. One explanation for this could be that the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, which have contributed to heated tensions between the US and Russia and revived cold war antagonisms.

Russians generally agree with the Kremlin's view that NATO has surrounded Russia with a ring of hostile military bases, that US support for Ukraine's Maidan revolution was intended to tear a historic ally out of Moscow's orbit, and that Washington has been supporting terrorism by backing rebel forces in Syria.

But personal animosity is clearly part of the mix, with some of the messages tinged with racism. Some analysts say that Obama's propensity to publicly taunt Russia – as when he derided it as a "regional power" that "doesn't make anything" and whose economy is "in tatters" – are frequently repeated in the Russian news and offend average Russians.

"If our TV is constantly telling people how bad the US and its leader are, why should it be any surprise that Russians think of Obama as enemy No. 1?" says Yuly Nisnevich, a sociologist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

An anonymous campaign 

Although the anti-Obama posters and videos largely conform to views shared by both the Kremlin and Russian public, no one seems willing to take responsibility for them.

Officials at the universities where dozens of young people, some wearing school colors, were shown reading the anti-Obama testimonials, all insist they had nothing to do with it and that their students were not involved.

"Look, we are a government-funded institution, and such unsanctioned actions of students are not permitted," says Alexander Kozharikov, a dean at Moscow's prestigious Financial University, which is featured in the video. "After this video appeared, the deans of all our faculties gathered and began to look for these students. We've been searching for a week; these people are not students here."

Nikolai Starikov, head of the ultra-patriotic Anti-Maidan movement, which has organized public demonstrations in front of the US embassy, says he has no idea who is producing the messages. But he approves of them.

"I am personally disillusioned with Obama. When he received the Nobel Peace Prize, it was like an advance on good deeds," he says. "But we see the US going on as before, wreaking havoc around the world. The trust was not justified."

Many observers insist that the anti-Obama campaign couldn't be carried out using prominent Moscow buildings, or students filmed on major campuses, without the tacit approval of the Kremlin. But others suggest that, while some level of authority must be involved, it might actually be aimed at embarrassing Mr. Putin rather than helping him.

"The mechanisms in play here are familiar, and it's no surprise it's all being done anonymously," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

"I don't think the Kremlin is doing this,” he adds. “But perhaps some people close to the Kremlin are trying to create a little mood music of their own? Putin talks regularly with Obama, so we have to ask whether this is being done by his wish, or against it?"

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