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The evolution of the West's negative narrative about Russia

By       Message Angela Borozna     Permalink
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Photo of Red Square by Vladimir Golstein

"Now we do not have an Iron Curtain, we have a newspaper curtain. "

Evgeny Yevtushenko. [1]

Though Russia has gone through significant domestic changes since 1991, the extent of Russia's achievements rarely have been acknowledged in the Western media. Instead, Russia has been continuously criticized for not developing fast enough. Western media, especially that of the USA, ignores Russia's positive developments and concentrates on the negative.

Russia made significant changes from the Soviet totalitarian system, but instead of acknowledging this progress, the country is characterized by simplistic and misleading historical analogies associated with the KGB, the Soviet Union, and repressive government control. [2] The opinions of Russian citizens on their political system or their president, as well as the actions by the Russian state that do not fit the description of 'dictatorial power' are typically omitted from Western media coverage. [3] The result of this selection bias builds up over time to make an overall negative image of the country and its president.

Creating an external threat in the eyes of Americans and Europeans is now an instrument of uniting these countries on foreign policy issues, as expressed by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his The Grand Chessboard: "As America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat." [4]

The news on Russia became consistently negative after 2000. Any news on positive development inside Russia, or about Russia's positive international involvements were ignored, meanwhile, negative news received immediate attention. Just few examples from that period can illustrate this claim.

William Safire's article in The New York Times in 2004 concluded: "NATO must not lose its original purpose: to contain the Russian bear." [5] In 2006, the Wall Street Journal editorial described Russian foreign policy as "openly, and often gratuitously, hostile to the U.S." and therefore it concluded that "it's time we start thinking of Vladimir Putin's Russia as an enemy of the United States." [6]

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In July 2007, Richard Pipes, who has been for decades a fierce critic of Russia, declared to an Italian newspaper that "For Europe, Russia could be even more dangerous than the threat of Islam, more hazardous than Bin Laden" [7] . According to Pipes, Russia is trying to regain its superpower status and will use economic tools as pressure on the European or even global economy to achieve its goals. Pipes insisted that Russia has always been hostile to the West, and that the best policy that the West should adopt toward Russia is to avoid any contact. Oil companies should stop making contracts with Russia, and banks should cut out any investments. Not surprisingly, Pipes has been a fervent supporter of the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe to prevent the spread of Russian influence there. [8]

Similar to Pipes's Russophobic stance, Vice President Dick Cheney frequently characterized Russian foreign policy as threatening to the United States and therefore has been advocating a policy of isolating Russia. Other officials in the George W. Bush administration who helped to inflate anti-Russian rhetoric are the Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Senator Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

David Kramer is particularly descriptive of Russia's purported sins: "With this renewed sense of pride comes an arrogance, cockiness, assertiveness, self-confidence, and even aggressiveness that is combined at the same time with paranoia, insecurity, and hypersensitivity." [9] And Bohn sees Moscow acting out of stubbornness, and as a 'spoiler': "Now Moscow has trouble projecting its way it can still project its strength globally and particularly vis---vis the United States is to be the spoiler in international affairs, a modern-day version of 'Mr. Nyet.'" [10] One must ask: What precisely is Moscow 'spoiling', and why? Said answers are tellingly avoided in much of this predominantly Western-based anti-Russian commentary.

The commentators, politicians and media personalities consistently portray a negative picture of Russia: "aggressive", "non-cooperative", "imperialist" are very common descriptions in the mainstream Western media. Negative media on Russia became especially intense after the five-day Georgian-Russian War in 2008.

Without an investigation of the sources of the conflict, Western media nonetheless immediately took the side of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and disregarded any evidence that Russia submitted to the United Nations; Russia was immediately labeled the "aggressor". [11] While Russian version of the conflict did not get any coverage, while Saakashvili's pleas to be protected took front page in major Western newspapers.

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After Joe Biden visited Georgia and Ukraine in 2009, he expressed his predictions in The Wall Street Journal that Russia will collapse in no less than 15 years, given its "withering economy" and shrinking population base. [12] Biden dismissed any goodwill on Russia's nuclear disarmament, attributing it to Russia's inability to maintain its nuclear arsenal: "All of sudden, did they have an epiphany and say: 'Hey man, we don't want to threaten our neighbors?' No. They can't sustain it." [13]

Russian analyst, Sergey Roy, expressed the feeling in Russia toward the negative remarks by Biden on Russia:

"Biden's harangues have done more good than harm. Russia's leaders, starting with Mikhail Gorbachev, have been too gullible in their dealings with the United States and the West generally. Biden's Dick Cheney-like stance shows only too clearly the kind of "partner" with whom we are supposed to enter "a new era of mutual respect and improved relations," as promised by Obama. [14]

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Angela Borozna is Ph.D candidate in political science, writing dissertation on Russian foreign policy.

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