Why fear of war weighs heavily for Russians in the New Year

The Russian public is worried about a full-on conflict with the US, fed in part by a drumbeat from the Kremlin and in part by US and NATO foreign policies.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/File
Russian servicemen equip an Iskander tactical missile system at the Army-2015 international military-technical forum in Kubinka, outside Moscow, Russia, in June 2015.

Magomed Tolboev, a former Soviet bomber pilot, says he feels that relations between Russia and the US are worse today than they were even in the depths of the cold war. In those days his job, for which he trained rigorously, was to take out a US air base in Turkey with a nuclear strike.

"There was some kind of predictable order in cold war times. Two camps, two leaders, and everything depended on them. Now there are so many different players, many of them not under control by either side," such as North Korea or the many factions vying for dominance in Syria. "So we have not only growing tension between Moscow and Washington, but all this complicated, many-sided discord. It's very worrisome."

Mr. Tolboev's fears are mirrored by many Russians, who say that for the first time since the collapse of the USSR 25 years ago, they feel the clouds of war gathering, exacerbated by an anti-American sentiment that has reached new highs. Older Russians say they've been through it before and can endure it again; some younger Russians seem more alarmed.

And though the cold war-era fears of nuclear exchange with the US may not yet be coming back, hot war has become a staple of nightly news shows. Neighboring Ukraine has been torn apart in the past couple of years by civil conflict and Moscow's annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin kept Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine's rebellion a now largely open secret – but has loudly advertised Russian military intervention in Syria over the past four months. Polls suggest Russians are overwhelmingly supportive of the move, but they also show undercurrents of anxiety about the country's first foreign military action since the former Soviet Union's disastrous nine-year war in Afghanistan.

When Turkey shot down a Russian bomber near its border with Syria, alleging airspace violations, it triggered a crisis in relations between the two countries and intensified fears that a wider war could erupt, if Turkey pulled in its fellow NATO members.

"I feel scared every time I turn on my TV set," says Natalya Knorre, who works as a cleaning lady in Moscow. "Watching the news, I just cannot summon any feelings of optimism."

Warning about 'the enemy'

Critics argue that the war fears and spiking anti-American sentiment have been artificially created by a massive pro-Kremlin propaganda machine.

Practically every broadcast stresses the provocative nature of US policy toward Russia, including pushing eastward NATO expansion, planning to install missile defense systems in Europe, backing Ukraine's anti-Moscow revolution, imposing sanctions against Russia, and backing rebels fighting to overthrow Syria's pro-Russian regime. 

The media-generated mood of a revived cold war standoff with the old adversary became official policy at the New Year. Russia published its new national security doctrine, which for the first time explicitly names the US as a "hostile" power. In a massive two-part interview with the German newspaper Bild this week, President Vladimir Putin explained his view of the world, leaving little doubt that he sees the US as the main threat facing Russia.

While Mr. Putin may face an uphill battle convincing Westerners, he's pushing on an open door with most Russians, says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow. Public opinion polls show that anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high, with 68 percent expressing a negative view of the US in an October survey by the independent Levada Center.

"Public opinion has really changed. It's a pity, since we have enjoyed nearly two decades of normal conversation with the West and a sense of physical security we never had before. Nobody in Russia really wants to go down this road, but our historical memory is kicking in," he says.

Russia has faced repeated, devastating invasions at regular intervals in its history, from the Mongols to Napoleon to Hitler. The long cold war confrontation with the US is a living memory that seems to be acquiring a new life amid the current spate of crises.

"Russia has almost always felt apart, put upon, and in a defensive mood. It's a mistake to expect us to react rationally to things like NATO expansion up to our borders. All those old animal spirits come out in us, and Putin is just riding on those emotions."

Shared responsibility

Some Russians insist the current anti-Americanism is just an official pose without public roots.

"I don't feel the least bit anti-American, and I don't see it in my circle of friends either," says Nadezhda Mamonova, a Moscow office worker. "It's just at the top, where they decide who we like, who we don't, whose sandbox we're going to play in and whose toys to steal."

However, public opinion polls do show a remarkable shift in the basic attitudes of Russians over the past quarter century. A poll done by the state-supported VTsIOM agency in 1990, the last full year of the Soviet Union, found that 35 percent of respondents thought the US was a "friendly" country, while just 3 percent answered that way in a similar 2015 survey. Just 2 percent viewed the US as an "enemy" state in 1990, but 59 percent thought it was in last year's poll.

Mr. Mukhin agrees that Russian state media plays a role in fanning this mood, but he also argues that frequent statements by Pentagon and NATO officials proclaiming Russia as an "existential threat" – heavily played up on Russian TV – help to confirm the Kremlin narrative in the minds of Russian viewers.

"I don't know what they're thinking when they bang this drum about the 'Russian threat' and declare the need to build up NATO forces in Europe, and so on. Perhaps they think it will scare Russians, but that didn't work in Soviet times so why would it now?" he says.

Tolboev, the former bomber pilot, says that leaders urgently need to relearn cold war lessons.

"The bottom line is that the US and Russia are the two countries that determine the climate in the whole world," he says. "They share the responsibility, just as they did in those days, to sit down and negotiate a way to live together and manage all these inevitable crises. Everything depends on that."

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