A Presentable Enemy (on the future of U.S.-Russian relations)

April 01, 2017

Photo by Yasha Hoffman

Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin's foreign minister from 1991 to 1996, was in Madison Thursday for a talk on the future of U.S.-Russian relations. We covered a lot of ground at the public seminar and later at our house for dinner--a thrill for faculty and grads alike. What a moment to be discussing such issues, with a U.S. president under investigation for suspected ties to Moscow! And yet, Kozyrev was skeptical that Russia's relationship with the West had much to do with who occupied the White House.

Why this skepticism? The KGB (FSB) state in Russia needs an external enemy for domestic legitimacy. China will not do--it's too close for comfort. Ukraine and other countries in the near abroad are convenient foils but certainly not peers. Germany is an essentially regional power. Only the United States is a "presentable enemy you can show to people."

And so, even if Trump gives away the store, Putin "won't take yes for an answer." The Kremlin needs the Russian people to view America as an adversary. This is why Obama's "reset" failed--not because it was insufficiently accommodating, but because it promoted a vision of the West at odds with Russian propaganda.

My own view is that the Kremlin's propaganda machine has been impressively effective at adjusting to Trump's victory. The establishment candidate was supposed to win--the outsider did instead. But Trump's victory was an illusion. No sooner did he take power but the establishment pushed back, hard. If Trump ultimately fails to give Putin what he supposedly wants--recognition of Crimea as an integral part of the Russian Federation, the lifting of sanctions--this will be taken as evidence of the true nature of American power. And if he succeeds, he may paradoxically find himself as demonized as Obama.