So many nyets: Why the chasm between US, Russia is so hard to bridge

Many in the West see a perplexing obstructionism in Russia's stands on everything from Syria to adoption. But Russia is working from a fundamentally different understanding of the post-cold war world.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks at a news conference in Moscow Thursday. Mr. Lavrov has shown a knack for deftly skewering what he sees as Western double standards.

For many in the West, Russia remains the brain-twisting, multi-layered enigma of Winston Churchill's overworked cliche.

Though it may not be the USSR any longer, it still seems like a through-the-looking-glass kind of place in the eyes of most outsiders. And in international affairs, it appears almost as devoted as its superpower predecessor to countering US power, nyet-saying in the UN Security Council, and critiquing the West in general.

Whether it's Moscow's recent harsh ban on US citizens adopting Russian orphans, accompanied by some of the most extreme anti-American rhetoric since the cold war, the Kremlin's repeated vetoes of Western-sponsored UN resolutions for collective action on Syria's crisis, or even incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry's inability to get his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the phone over six days last week for an urgent discussion about North Korea and Syria, Americans sometimes just throw up their hands and conclude that it's impossible to understand Russia.

But unlike Soviet times, when the view from Moscow was determined by rigid ideological certainties, a lot of Russians today appear similarly perplexed, and vexed, about the West. Experts here insist that Russia generally knows its own geopolitical mind and acts accordingly, while to them the West appears to have no coherent strategy or consistent values at all.

Who failed whom?

The Western narrative sees Russia struggling to implement democratic reforms and trying to be a team player with the West after it crawled out of the wreckage of the USSR in the early 1990s, but gradually beginning to backslide. In this view, after Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Russia embarked on a full-scale revival of Soviet rhetoric and ways.

The Russians say that as the cold war wound down and the Soviet Union crumbled two decades ago, they had been assured by US leaders that military blocs would be abolished and a "new world order" would take shape – in much the same way the end of World War II inspired world leaders to envisage a whole new architecture of global security, including the United Nations and other key global institutions. But instead, Western leaders read the cold war's end as a triumph for their side, and proceeded to isolate Russia and push their own institutions, particularly NATO, into the former Soviet sphere.

"Lord knows, we tried," to join with the Western world, says Sergei Karaganov, honorary chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, one of Russia's most prestigious political think tanks.

"Unfortunately, the consensus of most of our elite today is that Russia was fooled, betrayed, and sidelined. Now we don't regard the West as an enemy, but it's lost its magnetism, its former aura of infallibility, for us. We can work with it on various issues, but we're not going to be trusting, as we were in those early post-Soviet days.... We have very different interests. In terms of economics, geopolitics and culture Russia is located elsewhere. We are coming to better understand who we are."

The "wrong turn at the cold war's end" theme is a core staple of Russian diplomacy, but is seldom given a sympathetic hearing in the West. At the annual Munich Security Conference this month, Lavrov indicated that Russia believes it's not too late to wind down cold war vestiges like NATO and design a modern system that would include Russia as an equal player.

"We consider such a narrow-bloc (NATO) approach to be of no avail.... It is hardly applicable to building politics in today's global world, when we share the threats," Lavrov said. "It is time to take a broad and comprehensive look at the whole complex of relations in Euro-Atlantic region and try to define approaches and the remaining discrepancies between us, including with regard to conflict situations in other parts of the world that influence our mutual security."

A chilly view of revolution

Russia, a country with a revolutionary history that most Russians now regard as a curse, tends to take a sour view of revolutionary enthusiasms wherever they may break out. Many Russian experts add that Mr. Putin has constructed a version of the classic Russian state – centralized, militarized, and increasingly authoritarian, but lacking in social roots and electoral legitimacy – which could make it vulnerable to the same fate that overtook czarist Russia and the USSR in the past century.

Moscow was deeply shocked when pro-Western and democratic revolutions broke out in a string of post-Soviet republics in the past decade and two of the new regimes, Ukraine and Georgia, applied to be put on a fast-track to NATO membership. Georgia launched a military assault to retrieve a Moscow-backed breakaway territory, leading to a brief war with Russia in 2008.

Russian leaders see these events as foreign-inspired, and possibly foreign-financed. When protesters hit the streets of Moscow to complain of fraudulent Duma elections in December 2011, Putin  immediately blamed Hillary Clinton for "giving the signal."

"Russia, on principle, doesn't want the US intervening at will around the world. It opposes regime changes that are backed from abroad," says Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

When the Arab Spring broke out, the Kremlin took a dim view of its prospects. After then-President Dmitri Medvedev was persuaded to abstain on a Security Council resolution allowing NATO to intervene in Libya "to protect civilian lives," his then-prime minister, Putin, publicly opposed the decision.

The Russians now say they were "deceived again," because NATO immediately employed the resolution as a mandate to give Libyan rebels full air support in their ultimately successful bid to overthrow dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

People in the West sometimes see Moscow's stubborn refusal to accept any unified international action to ease out Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, even after a two year revolt that has killed more than 60,000 people, as a case of Putin choosing to side with a fellow dictator, or perhaps just a defense of Russia's $5 billion in arms contracts with Syria and other material interests.

But Russian experts argue the Kremlin is far more concerned about its own seething north Caucasus region, where an Islamist insurgency has been simmering for years and sometimes projecting bloody terrorist strikes into downtown Moscow itself.

"The Arab Spring is seen as Islamization by Russian leaders, and when it becomes violent the more extreme, radical elements are likely to dominate," says Mr. Trenin.

"They view Syria as a violent generator of jihadism that can break open and spill instability around the wider region – even to our own north Caucasus. If the rebels win, they see Syria mutating into Afghanistan-on-the-Mediterranean, and it profoundly worries them," he adds.

Moscow's suave and articulate foreign minister, Mr. Lavrov, has honed this skepticism into a style that increasingly wins points for Russian diplomacy.  He has a knack for deftly skewering what he sees as Western "double standards" – such as accusing Russia of doing things the US is arguably just as guilty of – and of having a naive enthusiasm for exporting democratic revolutions to places where they inevitably backfire.

Over the past year he has slammed the US for its longtime support for Middle Eastern dictators, as in Egypt, only to flip into a capricious embrace of revolutionary masses in the streets. He's scolded that the West's support for rebels who overthrew Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi merely led to better-armed and enabled Islamist militants, who are now destabilizing the wider region. He warns that arming anti-regime fighters in Syria might lead to far more deadly blowback.

'This is the Russia you get'

Since Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third term as president, Russian domestic politics have taken a hard turn to the right. Many experts argue that Putin is embracing the prejudices of Russia's deeply conservative, Orthodox majority in order to marginalize the increasingly vocal urban middle class, who have been the backbone of the anti-Kremlin protest movement.

Anti-American rhetoric polls well in Russia's working-class heartland, and Putin has deployed it with increasing emphasis beginning with his election campaign  a year ago.

New Russian laws to limit protests, curb Internet freedoms, crack down on foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations and drive gay people out of the public sphere  have shocked the Western public and escalated the diplomatic chill over larger strategic differences.

Many in the West viewed the imprisonment of two members of the Pussy Riot performance art group last summer, over an offense that boiled down to blasphemy, as a sign that Russia has ceased even trying to be a modern, secular state.

But some Russian foreign policymakers say they're sick and tired of being lectured to by the West about how to arrange their own affairs, and angry about "intrusions" like the US Magnitsky Act, which levels visa and economic sanctions against Russian officials deemed to have committed serious human rights violations.

"The Magnitsky Act is an example of pure double standards," says Alexei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee.

"Why single out Russia? They know if they made it universal, they'd have to extend it to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China, and so on. They don't want to deal with that.... We're willing to engage in civilized rivalry with the US, but what we see is this fervent desire to make us over into the Russia they want. It's curious that they accept China pretty much as it is, but not us," he says.

"The USSR was a country that wanted to export its values all over the world, and we all remember how well that went down in Washington. Russia no longer tries to export its values, but we do insist on our right to choose our own path.  We don't tell the West they shouldn't be liberal societies that accept gay marriage and so on, we just don't want it exported here...."

"We're at a very different stage. The Russia the West wants us to be is not the Russia the majority of our population wants. This is a more conservative place, and this is the Russia you get."

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