The growing tensions between the United States and Russia are made far worse by the incredible ignorance a lot of Americans display about that nation. The popular misconceptions about Russia; and America’s relationship with it, might be at the root of the conflict.
Much of the reason this ignorance exists is that unlike their parents of the Cold War era, modern Americans are not even bothering to learn about Russia or pay attention to it. This escalates the conflict because many American leaders either know nothing about Russia; or worse have their thinking shaped by Cold War conceptions that are either wrong, or hopelessly out of date.
The best means of countering these misconceptions is to “debunk” some of the popular myths about Russia. Unfortunately we can only scratch the surface here, but we can at least start clearing the air and open the way to new thinking.
The Top American Myths about Russia Debunked
- Vladimir Putin and his followers want to recreate the Soviet Union. This is false Putin is a Great Russian nationalist and an Orthodox Christian’ who wants to restore the historic Russian empire, not a Communist. Putin has even give speeches in which he condemned Soviet leaders and has stated he hopes Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin is burning in hell.
- The conflict between Russia and the United States constitutes a second Cold War. Not true, this conflict lacks the ideological dimensions and modern Russia lacks the military power of the Soviet Union. The roots of this conflict stem from the efforts to Russian nationalists to reassert their status as a great power not in Communism. Unlike the Communists, Putin and company are not trying to export an ideology or set up puppet states throughout the world. Unlike the Soviets, Putin has made no moves in Latin America or Africa and no effort to organize an anti-American alliance.
- Vladimir Putin is a powerful leader who rules Russia with an iron fist. Not true Putin is a very weak leader who has to share power with a number of elements including the Russian Orthodox Church and its leader Patriarch Kirill, oligarchs and the army. News reports indicate that Putin is bending over backward to please Kirill even allowing the church to write laws such one banning Protestant missionary work in Russia. Much of Putin’s posturing and military adventuring is a game designed to make Vladimir look stronger than he actually is.
- Russia and the Soviet Union are the same thing. Not true, Russia is a historic nation and empire that has existed in one form or another for over a thousand years. The Soviet Union was simply a government that existed from 1917 to 1991. The Soviet Union was based upon Communism; an ideology created in England by a German, Karl Marx. In fact the Soviets were openly hostile to a great deal of traditional Russian culture; including the church, and tried to destroy it. A major problem here is that a great many Americans; particularly on the left, believed the Communist Party’s blatantly false claim that it represented the Russian people. In reality the Communists were a tiny minority who ruled through terror and brute force and ignored popular opinion. Strangely enough a major cause of the current conflict and the crisis in the Ukraine is that many Russians; including Putin, view the political settlements and borders created by the Soviet Union as illegitimate and refuse to accept them. Unfortunately many Americans; including President Obama, regard those borders and political arrangements as legitimate and accept them.
- The Russians want to take back the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Not true. What Putin and company want is to restore the historic Russian Empire of czarist times. Their designs are on historic Russia territories like the Crimea not in rebuilding the Eastern Bloc.
- The United States needs to deploy troops and military forces to Eastern Europe to protect it from Russian aggression. The problem with this argument is that Russia is a poor economically devastated country that lacks the military power to achieve that. Russia military moves have been limited, and revealed its weakness.
- Russia is capable of challenging the United States militarily. Not true, Russia lacks the economic resources for major military operations. It was not even capable of deploying significant numbers of ground troops to Syria. Russia has large numbers of nuclear weapons and lots of technological expertise, but its modern military establishment is a pale shadow of the Soviet Union’s.
- Russia is a threat to democracy, capitalism and other American values. Unlike the Soviets; Putin has no designs to overthrow the US government or replace capitalism and democracy with a Communist system. Modern Russia also lacks a worldwide network of ideological admirers and sympathizers that worked to help its expansion like the Soviets had. Modern Russia is actually a Christian nation with a quasi-democratic government and a capitalist economy.
- Putin and his followers are Communists. Ideologically Putin is closer to the authoritarian anticommunist dictators; such as Spain’s Generalissimo Franco and Chile’s Pinochet, that America allied itself with during the Cold War than the Soviets. Like Franco, Putin is a conservative nationalist whose goal is to preserve or recreate what he sees as the traditional Russia not build a Marxist utopia. Like Pinochet, Putin uses the fear of Communism to justify his rule and stay in power. Some of Putin’s actions such as allowing Lenin’s tomb to stand in Moscow can be seen in this light.
- Conflict between the United States and Russia is inevitable. Not true. It would be fairly easy to work out compromises and devise a peaceful coexistance. The problem is that unlike the Cold War, there is no fear of nuclear war which inspired compromise in the 1970s and 1980s. Instead there is little incentive in either Russia or the United States for leaders to develop the kind of effective working relationship that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had.
These myths are dangerous and destructive and sadly enough widely held. Unfortunately they motivate two dangerous groups of American decision makers: aging leftists and Marxists who are nostalgic for the glories of Communism and professional Cold Warriors who want a new conflict for job security.
The aging Leninists will never forgive the Russians for turning their backs on Communism, so they denigrate them as ignorant barbarians. Sadly enough, many of these people would welcome a Communist government in Russia and support an effort to restore the Soviet Union.
The old Cold Warriors; and their ugly stepchildren the Neoconservatives, want a conflict to justify increased military spending and a massive expansion of military-industrial complex. Not to mention a pretext for the building of a new American empire.
The best way to stop these fools is to stop believing the myths about Russia. If we can see things as they really are we can have peace and avoid needless conflict.