Putin and the Politics of Anti-Americanism

Russia's autocrat turns to conspiracy theories and slander to win public support.

When Russia joined China this weekend in vetoing a U.S.-backed resolution calling for  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, it was more than a gambit to protect a fellow authoritarian regime and a lucrative market for Russian arms. The lifeline to Assad also was an attempt to boost Vladimir’s Putin’s flagging domestic popularity by casting Russia as a major player in world affairs and a defiant rival to the United States.

Considering that Putin has spent the past decade stamping out Russia's fledgling democratic reforms and consolidating his control over Russian politics, one might think that he wouldn't need to engage in such crudely symbolic politicking. But stung by the rebuff of the December 4 elections, when his United Russia failed to win a decisive parliamentary majority despite rigging the results, and apparently shaken by the growing disaffection of urban middle-class Russians, who have poured out in record numbers to take part in anti-Putin demonstrations, Putin has sought to shore up his tarnished domestic standing by resorting to the familiar tactic of anti-American incitement.

If recent developments are any guide, anti-Americanism will feature centrally ahead of the March 4 presidential election, which is intended to restore Putin to the presidency. Russia's state-run television networks, having caused a sensation by providing surprisingly balanced coverage of the recent anti-Putin demonstrations, have again fallen into line by cranking up the dial on anti-American programming. Last week, for instance, Russia's leading government channel aired "A Bridge Over the Abyss," a documentary film that, according to the Wall Street Journal, depicts Putin as Russia's savior following the fall of the Soviet Union while the U.S. and the West are portrayed as villains trying to impose their will on Russians. Putin, who was interviewed for the documentary, complains about these "foreign" bullies. "It seems to me our [foreign] partners don't want allies, they want vassals," Putin says in the film. "They want to direct things, but Russia doesn't work that way."

This self-serving narrative dovetails neatly with Putin's version of a Russia put-upon by hostile foreign forces. Yet it’s hard to argue that outside influences are to blame for Putin's political woes when much of the opposition comes from inside Russia. Since the December 4 elections, there have been three massive anti-Putin demonstrations, each of which has provided an opportunity for Russians to protest the government's rank corruption and to demand a "Russia Without Putin." The latest of these took place this past weekend and reportedly involved some 120,000 people, who braved Moscow’s arctic temperatures to make their voices heard. While the government expected the demonstrations to peter out with the approach of winter, the organizers of this weekend's protests claimed that this was largest turnout yet. Bone-chilling cold or not, the demonstrators will not simply disappear.

Confronted with such impressive evidence of internal discontent, Putin has tried to play the anti-American card. Ever since he accused Hillary Clinton of sending "a signal" to demonstrators to oppose the December election results, the government has ratcheted up the conspiracy theory of foreign manipulation. Thus the government has made a concerted effort to smear the new American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, as an agent of American subversion who is personally supporting the Russian opposition movement. Russian television has gotten in on the act, most recently when it screened a documentary called "Foreigners Will Help Them." The documentary purports to show secret video of Russia's opposition leaders receiving instruction from U.S. officials. Most brazenly, Russia's top investigative agency, the Investigative Committee, has claimed that the widespread video evidence of fraud and ballot stuffing during the parliamentary elections was actually faked by American saboteurs – a claim that is hard to square with credible accounts of 140 percent turnout in some regions during the recent elections and findings such as the one from a local electoral commission that discovered 6,000 "dead souls" on the ballot.

Not content to rig its own election, the government has also tried to rig its own popular support. To counter images of anti-Putin rallies, the government in recent months has staged its own pro-Putin demonstrations. This weekend, while the opposition rallied under the banner of free and fair elections, the government organized a competing demonstration around a less inspiring theme, "We Have Much to Lose." Demonstrators warned of the dangers of a government without Putin while speakers, echoing the government's anti-American themes, denounced the pro-democracy demonstrators as “lackeys of America” who want to undermine Russia from within. Aside from their striking contrast in tone – one hopeful, the other angry and conspiratorial – the two rallies were distinguished by the nature of the protesters. While the opposition rallies were voluntary, the pro-government rallies were compelled. State employees, including postal workers and school teachers, complained that they were threatened with fines and demotions if they refused to attend. Of those who attended the government rallies, many were paid to do so. Even then turnout failed to match the opposition rallies. As during the recent elections, the government had to compensate for the lack of genuine popular enthusiasm in the only way it knows how: by wildly inflating the official turnout.

Time will tell whether any of this will sway the Russian public. Anti-Americanism has become a standby of politics in the Putin era, offering as it does an opportunity to deflect the public's concerns about Russia's political stagnation and corruption onto a familiar foe. But with the ascendance of the Internet and the growing political engagement of the middle class, this message may not be as effective as it once was. More and more, Russians seem determined to hold the government to account not for what America does but for what their own leaders have failed to do.