US President Bill Clinton raises his glass to toast with Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a dinner reception in Moscow's Kremlin Hall of Facets, in Moscow, in May 1995.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File | Caption

Twenty years ago, Russians loved the US. Where did it all go wrong?

a shift in thought

In the immediate post-Soviet era, Russians held the US in high esteem. But that started to change amid economic woes and Western adventurism in the Balkans and Middle East.

MOSCOW – Looking back now, there's a hefty dose of sour irony in Time magazine's July 15, 1996, cover.

It depicts Russian President Boris Yeltsin, recently reelected at the time, grinning and clutching an American flag under the headline "Yanks to the Rescue!" The story tells of a group of high-powered US political consultants who were secretly brought to Russia amid the hard-fought presidential elections of 1996, in which a beleaguered Mr. Yeltsin was trying to battle his way back from single-digit public approval ratings to defeat a Communist challenger.

The consultants were kept holed up in a Moscow hotel suite lest any hint of their existence – and apparent American hand in Russian politics – leak out to the electorate. They coached Yeltsin's people in the tactics and technologies of modern political campaigning, and helped to secure his ultimate victory.

Judging by the tone of the Time story, few in the US at the time seemed to doubt that American involvement in the struggle for Russia's highest office was basically a good thing. Even Russians didn't seem to mind. Indeed, a tracking poll regularly conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow reported that a whopping 72 percent of Russians had a "positive" attitude toward the US just a year later, against just 18 percent who viewed it "negatively."

That 20-year-old episode can't be directly compared with the present furor over alleged Russian interference in the recent US presidential election. But the two events and their reversal of fortunes – including the two-thirds of Russians who now express a negative view of the US, per Levada – bookend the epic death of Russia's love affair with the US. Much of it may seem inevitable in hindsight, but some Russians argue that the relationship would be much healthier today if Americans had just not tried to "help" as Russians struggled with the fallout of their own country's collapse and painful transformation.

US and Yeltsin

In the immediate post-Soviet aftermath, Russian attitudes toward the US were sky high. And even that wasn't a major change from the Soviet days.

"What struck me in 1952 at the depth of the cold war, was how little actual anti-Americanism there was here," says Vladimir Posner, a legend of Russian broadcasting, speaking of the year he moved to Moscow from the US. Mr. Posner has lived in Moscow ever since. "Sure, people thought Wall Street and American leaders were to blame for bad things," as Soviet propaganda suggested, "but nobody thought ill of Americans in general. I can't tell you how many times over the years I've heard Russians say that our two countries are the world's biggest, and if they could just get together we could solve all the problems."

"The general idea in Russia at that time is that we would all be winners at the end of the cold war, that we should be partners," says Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist who worked as an aide in the Russian parliament during the early '90s. He says he knew that Moscow was filled with US advisers of various kinds during those years, but he saw it as largely positive cooperation. Even the news that American consultants secretly worked for Yeltsin's re-election "didn't seem like such a big deal to me at the time," he says.

In the US, the Clinton administration appeared to offer unqualified support for Yeltsin – despite growing evidence that millions of Russians were growing disaffected with painful economic reforms that they increasingly equated with Western-style democracy.

And when Russia's economic and social collapse did finally climax in the late '90s, it came to be closely associated with Yeltsin, and what is seen in retrospect as a naive faith in US friendship in general. "The feeling now is that the '90s were just a time of losing all our connections to greatness, and that our downfall was aided and abetted by all that US involvement. People think we were cheated," says Mr. Petrov.

Even the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the cold war and staked everything on a new world order based on cooperation with the West, has grown deeply disillusioned. His long-time personal translator, Pavel Palazhchenko, says that Mr. Gorbachev voluntarily agreed to disband the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance and accepted the reunification of Germany on the understanding that a new European security architecture would include Russia as an equal partner.

Later, although he was already out of power, Gorbachev watched with dismay as the West expanded NATO into the former Soviet sphere and took unilateral action to regulate the break-up of Yugoslavia.

"There was a lot of good will, but it turns out that there were a lot of illusions, too," says Mr. Palazhchenko, who now works at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow. "Some of it was just silly. People back then thought the US was some kind of paradise, and a force for pure good in the world. The pendulum was bound to swing back....

"But Gorbachev became disillusioned not because some specific promises were broken, but because the spirit of what had been discussed with US leaders was violated. Today we really feel the failure to design a new European security system that would have had strong preventive diplomacy, to deal with issues that have since come up like Georgia and Ukraine," he says.

Foreign policy divisions

While average Russians experienced the 1990s as a time of economic deprivation, including a horrific financial crash in 1998, the Kremlin began to break sharply with US global leadership when NATO launched a 78-day air war against its Yugoslav ally over the Albanian enclave of Kosovo in 1999. Then-Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, on his way to an official visit to the US, turned his plane around in mid-air when the bombing began.

"We had all rejected the Soviet propaganda view that the US was an aggressor state, but now it looked to be true," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "What the US believed to be a humanitarian operation was viewed by the Russian public as aggression against brotherly Serbs."

When Vladimir Putin came to power, championing a stronger and more assertive Russian state, the idea of a Russia-US partnership was already in tatters. Yet even Mr. Putin made an attempt to reach out, phoning George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to propose that Moscow and Washington form an alliance to fight terrorism.

At the time, Russia was in the midst of its own assault on its secessionist republic of Chechnya – whose rebel leaders had embraced extreme Islamism. But many in the US declined to acknowledge any parallel, in part because of the brutality that Russian forces used in Chechnya.

"Russia wanted to have a military partnership with the US, and was ready to cooperate," says Gleb Pavlovsky, head of the Foundation for Effective Policy, who was a close adviser to Putin in those days. "But we didn't find the right response from the Americans, and the opportunity was lost. Then the Americans invaded Iraq, and all faith was lost in the idea."

Russia enjoyed a relative economic boom in the first decade of this century, which helped boost Putin's popularity, which still hovers above 80 percent. But most experts believe it is the Kremlin's defiance of the US-designed world order, and Putin's efforts to restore Russia's great power status, that keep his image untarnished among Russians despite a sharp economic downturn in the past three years.

"I don't think it's about economics at all," says Posner. "Russians are a proud people, and for them a leader has to speak for their inner feelings. In Putin they see someone who stands up for Russia, makes the US realize they can't treat us as some kind of afterthought."

In more recent years, the US – like other Western countries  has expressed deep concern over the Kremlin's crackdown on Russian civil society, its seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, its backing of rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine, and most recently, its alleged hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. Yet that too has fed into Russian disenchantment with the US.

"Without being insulting, Putin expresses the widespread disappointment Russians now feel for the US and most of what it does, and he asserts Russia's place in the world," says Posner. "The love affair was always kind of one-sided, and now it is definitely over."