- Michael P. Barry, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D. Mount St. Mary's University Associate Professor of Economics

As we all watch the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, maybe it is a good time to consider our own views about the host country and its people. We all know the criticisms of Vladimir Putin and the Russian government. The Russian government deserves this criticism, but perhaps we Americans could push ourselves to think deeper about why Russians do what they do and think what they think. As an economist and lawyer who has lived in worked in both countries, I believe the very same is true about Russians and their thinking about Americans. Both sides need to see the good as well as the bad. Or at least think more about where there other is coming from.

Three thoughts for consideration might include: (1) Russia is more than Vladimir Putin; (2) Russia does have legitimate national interests to protect; and (3) both U.S. and Russian media serve their audiences with a very negative picture of each other's country. And maybe a fourth idea: we can do better.

1 - U.S. and Russian Media: The "4th Branch" is Failing Us

Start with the third idea, that media is serving us an incomplete picture. There is so much to criticize about Russia - well the millions who died under Stalin or who rotted in the Gulags for starters. But in recent months: the LGBT law, the authoritarianism of Putin, the power of oligarchs in the Kremlin, income inequality, the Russian policy towards the Ukraine, jailing of dissidents, corruption, Syria, adoption policies, Magnitsky, Robert Kraft's Super Bowl ring, Chobani Yogurt, and on and on. This list is serious, and by no means should we ignore these issues. At the same time, though, how many good things do Americans know about Russia? Or at least how many do American TV and media show us? Not many. As the "4th Branch" of government, the media should inform us better and make us think more.

Russian media is guilty of the same. We have Russian satellite TV at my house in Maryland, and watch the Russian news each night. The news stories Russians see about America are (mostly) true, important stories. Crime, racial inequality, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. politicians going to jail, Wall Street insider trading, income inequality, the role of money in U.S. politics, obesity, adopted kids being neglected, Guantanamo Bay prisons, and more. But the news is always bad news. And some is simply offensive. For example, a large part of the Russian population has seen a TV documentary, convincing them that the U.S. attacked itself on 9-11 to give an excuse to attack Iraq and take over its oil. Many Russians tell me that Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon was really a Hollywood studio shot. They saw the report on TV. I think Russian readers and viewers also deserve better from their media.

Despite Putin's recent NYT op-ed against "American exceptionalism," I think America is the greatest country on the planet. We have issues, of course. But the list of good things is huge - the Bill of Rights, economic freedom, creativity, opportunity, an embrace of dissent, scientific achievement, charitable people, humor, music, arts, sports, national geography, you name it! Be a cheerleader, I think. Most of us have relatives, ancestors, or friends who have died fighting for this greatness. I wish Russian media would help Russians see some of it better. Instead, Russian media is largely owned by the government, and to a large extent, the government shows the population only good stories about Putin and only bad stories about America. No Russian should be expected to think Americans are somehow more exceptional or better than Russians, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't hear about our great country.

At the same time, though, let's remember how many Russians have family and friends who have died fighting for their country. Yes, there are the major issues in Russia. But remember the good stuff, too: the beautiful language, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, the ballet, art, engineering achievement, victory over Hitler, Russian cinema, mathematics brilliance, and more. We love Russian vodka, fly on planes made with Russian titanium, wear Ovechkin hockey jerseys, admire Russian tennis and figure skating stars, and consult Sergey Brin's Internet site 5.9 billion times per day. Peter the Great, Catherine II, Gogol, Goncharov, Dovlatov, Kaverin, Lomonosov, Mendeleev, Sakharov, Kuznets, Leontif, Yuri I, Gagarin, Pugacheva, Ryazanov, and on and on. Russia is interesting and deep. Maybe we Americans would enjoy knowing more than we do. Couldn't our newspapers and TV news help us better in this endeavor?

Media helps shape attitudes. And attitudes have sharply shifted. Almost 20 years ago, I left for Russia to live in Moscow and work with the US Department of Treasury. We worked inside the Russian Ministry of Finance, building economic models for the Yeltsin government on how to pay for their exploding government debt and how to forecast their weak, oil-dependent GDP. Russians generally thought very highly of Americans, and there we were, American government workers invited inside the Russian government.

But no more, of course. In a striking New Year's night speech on Russian TV 14 years ago, Yeltsin handed the reins to the unknown Vladmir Putin. The lower level government functionary Putin was quickly elevated to power, and adopted what we all see now as a much more nationalistic approach. Perhaps humiliated by the loss of the Cold War, and bolstered by a genuine pride in the Russian state, Putin changed policy and rhetoric. No more Americans in the Ministry of Finance. No more western ownership of national resources. No more Mr. Nice guy. He arrested dissidents, canceled the electoral process in the regions, and took over mass media. As seen, Russians are fed a steady diet now of pro-Russia, anti-American news and rhetoric. And it has had a strong effect.

2 - Both Sides have National Interests

Onto the second point: both the U.S. and Russia have legitimate national interests at stake. When we disagree with Russia on important issues, both sides are quick to explain it away with: "Putin is bad," or "the Americans are bad." Can't we go deeper?

America has clear national interests to protect in this scary world. When looking at Russia, any responsible White House must consider many issues: (1) nuclear weapons and non-proliferation, (2) counter-terrorism, (3) geopolitics, including managing China's emergence as a global power, (4) Afghanistan, (5) energy, (6) international finance, (7) and strategic geography. Given these concerns, the U.S. State Department and the US government work in our interests in doing many things vis-à-vis Russia. As argued in a recent study, the United States must (1) prevent the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, securing nuclear weapons and materials, and preventing proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons, (2) maintain a balance of power in Europe and Asia that promotes peace and stability with a continuing U.S. leadership role, (3) prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American Homeland, (4) ensure security, and (5) assure the stability of the international economy.[1]

So the U.S. worries. Will Russia allow Iran to get nuclear weapons? Will Russia blackmail Europe with its massive oil and natural gas supplies? Will the U.S. have access to Central Asian energy? Why won't Russia help more with ending the oppressive regime in Syria? Are more Chechens or people from Dagestan going to bomb American marathons? Is Russia home to cyber-hackers aligned against US industry? Where does Russia stand vis-à-vis the growing power of China? How many Russian warheads are still aimed at us?

At the same time, regardless of whether we like Putin or not, Russia has many interests of its own. Any responsible Russian government needs to consider their own list of worries: (1) preventing the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction against Russia; (2) preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems in the post-Soviet space; (3) maintaining Russia's nuclear deterrent capability as a guarantor of Russia's sovereignty and great power status; (4) preventing major terrorist attacks in Russia; (5) sustaining Russian influence in the post-Soviet space and denying competing powers or alliances the ability to dominate the post-Soviet space; (5) assuring continued revenue flows from Russia's energy exports and ensuring that other states are not able to exercise leverage over Russia's energy exports; (6) protecting the security and stability of Russia's current political system; (7) protecting and advancing the economic interests of major political-business alliances within Russia's elite.[2]

So, Russia is worrying, too. If America supports revolutions in countries around the world, would it support one against Russia? Russia used to have 14 fellow Soviet republics to ally with, but how many are now under US influence? Will Russian oil and gas prices stay high enough to pay for Russian GDP growth and government finance? How much U.S. money is supporting opposition parties in Russia? When oil revenues decline, what will become of Russia? The list goes on.

3 - Let's Think Deeper than "Putin Bad, U.S. Good."

As seen then, U.S. and Russian interests often differ. So, for example, when we see protests on Independence Square in Ukraine, perhaps we see the spread of democracy, a stronger ally with our EU friends, a more diversified energy supply system, and a closer trade partner. But Russia might see it as a loss of the birthplace of the ancient Rus homeland, loss of natural gas revenues, increased NATO threat, and a precursor to protests or an Orange Revolution back in Russia's Red Square.

When Americans see the Russian government banning American adoption of Russian orphans, we see neglected kids denied a loving home and a Russian government using kids as pawns in a fight over economic and human rights sanctions. But Russians see some isolated cases of adopted Russian kids being killed in the US and one sent back alone on a plane. Americans see a way to share the greatness of America with unfortunate children. Maybe Russians see it as a humiliation of a former Superpower unable to take care of its own young.

When western oil companies see Russia's new nationalism, they see a Kremlin intent on dominating energy and reneging on contractual relationships. Westerners see Putin as imposing surprise taxes and threatening investors with tax prosecution or prison. On the other hand, Russia sees its GDP dependent on energy and natural resources. Economic and political security seem attached to better control of their own national wealth: oil and natural gas. If Russia is to maintain economic growth, it thinks it needs better control of its energy resources. What happens to Russia when it has no oil?

My point is not to pick an argument. Just to try and get us all thinking. Every disagreement is complicated - more than just, "Putin bad, U.S. good." Russia is more than Vladimir Putin, just as the U.S. is more complicated than Russian NTV shows every night.

Conclusion

Twenty five years ago, the world was basically split into two parts: East and West. Countries aligned with the US and countries aligned with the USSR. Almost every political, economic, and global issue was settled along these lines. In some ways, it was much simpler. Our grade school teachers had to talk about where to hide if nuclear bombs started falling, but still, the answers to the big questions seemed clearer.

In the fuzzier aftermath of the Cold War, US-Russia relations have naturally had to find a new equilibrium. That balance has wobbled from bromance in the early 1990s to extreme frost in the last few years. The Russian "reset" has not quite grabbed hold yet, but let's keep trying. In America, we are reeling over the Great Recession and a 1-2% decline in GDP for a short time. It has been horrible for us. But let's remember Russia - it suffered a 60% decline in GDP. Life expectancy for men fell to 57 years. Poverty, alcoholism, corruption, crime, pollution, brain drain, great human suffering. Russia is often not friendly to us, but there is a backstory to at least remember. Maybe things can improve.

In a week or two, my university is sending a group of American students to Russia on an exchange trip which I had the pleasure of helping start 6 years ago with another professor. I wish our students could take everyone with them. And I wish they could bring all Russians back with them. Let both sides learn more of the other. As a liberal arts university, we are pushing students to see and think in big-picture terms. I like that in general, but see a specific need for it when we think of US-Russia relations.

My wife is Russian, and my kids speak Russian at home. Russia has given me a field of study and a career. I am an American, and I will always side with the US. But I do know Russia is a place we all could know better. I am American, and am proud to be on my home team. But in this Olympic season, maybe it's ok to say I respect the other team, too. What about Russians over there? What about you?

 

 


[1] Center for National Interest at the Belfer Center for International Affairs, The Task Force on Russia and U.S. National Interests Report, "Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why Americans Should Care," October 2011.

[2] Ibid.