October 2017. I was hiking in an national park near Krabi in Thailand and I came across this happy looking couple who immediately asked, “Excuse me, would you mind taking a photo?” in an accent that I identified as probably Eastern European. ‘Yes!’ I replied with an eager smile and which I obliged to take their photo. We talked briefly about how beautiful the park was, how far it was to the top of the mountain and the possibility of rain coming in. Finally I asked, “where are you from?” Russia! where are you from?” “USA,” I replied and with that I watched what was a happy couple turn sour immediately. The man immediately scowled and turned away and with his arm projected out towards me making a pushing away gesture. Shaking his head he walked away and the women who had an ear to ear smile on her face a few seconds ago, suddenly looked incredibly uncomfortable. “Thanks for the picture,” she said without an ounce of sincerity and turned to follow her partner. I stood there for a moment watching them go, perplexed. What started as a pleasant meeting and conversation ended with one party reacting as if I told them to literally, ‘fuck off.’ The moment stuck with me long after that day long hike and long after I returned from my travels in Asia. During my 3 month long backpacking trip, I had the pleasure of meeting so many different people of different nationalities and yet it was only Russians, overall, who I would say I had less than pleasant interactions with. Rather than just deciding that Russians were a mean, cold and bitter people, no that would be the easy thing to do, I decided I wanted to find out more. I became thoroughly interested, in finding out more about the current state of USA-Russian relations and just what exactly did that Russian couple see in me after I announced my nation of origin. I have been reminded routinely however, when ever I turn on CNN, that this animosity that was shown towards me in Thailand, defiantly is not a one sided phenomena.
You don’t have to read to far to get a sense of the strong russiaphobia that is sweeping the USA and Western Europe at the moment. It seems Putin and the Russians are the biggest threat to almost everything and source of virtually every problem. Not only do they ‘hack our elections’ but they are apparently, threatening the peace of the western world with their ‘aggression and war provoking actions’ in more places than just Syria and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the former KGB operative, has transformed Russia from a weak, economically struggling state, back into a world power at the forefront of the international scene. And at first glance of Putin’s Russia through the eyes of western media, many Americans and other westerners, do not like what they see. But as it is with every issue, there are two sides to the story and the other side, which is not being reported on by the media, turns out to be as captivating as it could be alarming.
Lets take a look at how Russia came to be where it is at in the current moment. Despite the democratic reforms and free market institutions being vigorously inserted into the new state after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 90’s, things quickly became disorganized. Russia’s economy quickly went down the tubes with its GDP only reaching 70% of it’s original pre-transition state during the 90’s. A huge gap between the rich and the poor developed and inflation was rampant. Despite a minor economic recovery taking place in 99 and 2000, an ailing Boris Yetsin had to step down and asked Vladimir Putin to take over the presidency. Many people had such high hopes for Russia after the collapse in 1991. Surely, people thought, Russia had a bright future with its new adoption of democracy and western values. With all the new found freedoms that weren’t there during the soviet era, the world would see a much more friendly and cooperative Russia. These hopes and aspirations were perhaps, not grounded in reality and more specifically, ignorant of Russia’s history and culture that those of us in the west have historically so often dismissed as being backward, savage and tyranical. And as writing this, it is hard for those words not to catch some resonance when one thinks of Stalins purges, the gulags, the bolshevik revolution, the furious rule of the Tsars in which the bulk of the Russian people lived in terrible poverty and had very few rights. But perhaps we just touched on something interesting right there. Russia has never had or been exposed to western institutions and democracy at the level that characterize western Europe and the United States. In effect, for a people who’s history derives in authoritarian rule, full fledged democracy like we have in the western world, may take awhile to find its place. Julia Ioffe who wrote a piece for Natgeo, “Why many young Russians see a hero in Putin,” sees the reality of this when she travelled to Russia and spoke with many young Russians. Regarding the introduction of Capitalism in the 90’s, she writes, “Russians struggled to adjust to this new foreign reality. It was a time of unprecedented freedom, but many found it deeply disorientating.” Ioffe goes on to elaborate that many Russians crave stability and normalcy that Putin has brought, in constrast to the great instability of the 90’s. Not only were these new democratic reforms a bit bewildering, it did not bring much stability as previously mentioned. The iconic soviet middle class collapsed and families struggled horrendously to make a living and put food on the table. A critical fact that many in the west are ignorant of, is that the United States eagerly funded and supported the econimic policies that president Boris Yetsin inacted in the 90’s and brought so much trouble and Chaos to the Russian Economy. Washington even went as far as funding Yetsin’s reelection campaign in 96. A disturbing irony given the headline of “collusion” we hear everyday if we turn on the news.
Putin is being painted as the new Tsar, as an aggressor and even an enemy of the free world. The western media is so aggressive in reporting on Putin and Russia that they even use the powerful phrase “Russia is attacking us.” in reference to the so called hacking of the 2016 election. They even called Trump’s meeting with President Putin “traitorous.” It is the author’s opinion that it is absolutely unfathomable that our own media is being this irresponsible in promoting conflict with Russia, which is unquestionably a conflict that is in no one’s best interest. Professor of Russian Studies at New York University Stephen F Cohen who is often called a “Putin apologist” in the media, nails it when he refers to it as, ‘an issue of existential importance.’ But perhaps what is even worse, the media are reporting false information and arguably propaganda, in what could be called some of the worst media malpractices in years. The reality is there is ZERO evidence that Russia’s government was involved with any type of “attack” or hacking of the 2016 election. We are told that Russian intrusions into Crimea and Ukraine are treacherous and acts of war. That their developing of new missile technologies and systems is threatening and challenging to the western world. Well actually, from a Russian point of view Putin’s actions are not so much offensive as they are in fact, defensive. The United States made a promise to Moscow after the collapse of the USSR that after Germany became a member, NATO would not expand an inch more east ward. This promise was violated starting with the Clinton administration and today Russia is nearly surrounded by NATO nations, an alliance of nations that was founded solely on the principle of protecting themselves from the Soviet Union, a nation and government now long gone. Now the US, starting under Bush the younger in the early 2000’s, is trying to get Russia’s neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. Its important to note that to many Russians, these moves are seen as a huge betrayal and act of deceit by the United States and not to mention a reminder of historic and cultural tensions between Russia and the West. With Nato’s armies now in artillery range of St. Petersburg, many Russians are reminded of the German Invasion in WWII that saw the deaths of over 25 million Russian citizens. 25 Million deaths, now that is number that most of us can’t even comprehend and yet we are told it is was the USA and Britain that defeated the Nazis. To be clear and fair, we played our part and made our share of sacrifices in the war, and solely defeated the Japanese but it was the Russians who defeated the Nazi’s. The soviets suffered more civilian and military casualties than all the other Allied powers combined.
Despite Putin’s unfavorable status amongst the west today, it is probably for many, pretty interesting to learn that it was Putin who first called President Bush offering condolence and Russia’s assistance in the wake of 9/11. In fact, I am sure most Americans are unaware but it was Russia who was America’s greatest ally in the invasion of Afganistan and fighting the Taliban. In return for this, Putin hoped for a genuine US, partnership but instead he seemingly only got bewilderment. President Bush’s advisors, including Donald Rumsfeld, adamantly protested forming any sort of partnership with Russia and it was clear Bush began to heed their advice. The confusing moves by the USA and it’s Western European allies continued particularly with the US withdrawal from the Anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002 signed in 1972 between Russia and the US. Now the United States is taking the liberty to literally incircle Russia with anti ballistic missile systems. Washington has since said this is solely a preemptive measure against possible terrorist threats but to Russia, these measures seem to be very much aggressive along with NATO military forces advancing into new member states close to Russia’s own borders. More on, in 2008, Bush desperately began pushing Ukraine and Georgia to become NATO members, despite this course of action actually being vetoed by France and Germany. Though their membership wasn’t approved, the NATO summit promised eventual membership to these two nations. In August of that same year, in a move that is very hard to be seen as unrelated, Georgia’s president, a US educated Lawyer, launched an attack on Russian protectorate South Ossetia, inside Georgia. The military operation ended up killing a number of Russian citizens. The Russians responded militarily and suddenly the western News outlets light up with headlines, of “Russian Aggression” and “Invasion.”
Given the build up of these events, the Ukraine crisis in 2014 is hardly to be seen as anything less as a consequence of the sour relations between the east and west. After Ukraine President, Viktor Yanukovich rejected a deal with the EU that would bind Ukraine to trade with Europe and ban any economic deals with Russia, protests erupted led by so called ‘democratic and western leaning rebels.” Further after the presidential election in which Yanukovish was elected against a Pro-EU candidate, all hell broke lose in Kiev. Prodded on by US state officials to protest the election, which was made more evident by a leaked phone call between a US state department official and the US ambassador to Ukraine that revealed a plan to install a new successor government, tensions became white hot in Kiev. Eventually the violence became so intense that Yanukovich was forced to sign a peace agreement, brokered by 3 EU officials that formed a coalition government between the opposition parties and set up a new early presidential election. Unfortunately for Yanukovich, who has been portrayed as a friend of Putin, even though Putin has publicly called him ‘greedy’ and ‘an opportunist,’ was violently overthrown and forced to flee the country the day after this agreement was signed. So despite there being a democratic election agreed upon to take place, Obama broke his promise to Putin and a new western supported and funded government was installed in Ukraine and pro-Yanukovich parties; banned. Among the rebels that were apart of this so called, “Democratic revolution,” were a paramilitary group who were members of a fascist political party who equally despised Russia as they did the EU. It is reported that snipers from this group were responsible for killing over 80 people. So in 2015, is it any wonder that Putin acted with arming pro Russian rebels in Ukraine, who has for most of its history been apart of the Russian state but now is a nation that is beaming on becoming apart of a military alliance that excludes Russia?
As the years continue on, it seems relations with Russia continue to deteriorate. Just this year, our own president was called a traitor just for meeting with Vladimir Putin. Who would have ever thought that an act of diplomacy by our president’s administration, in order to deescalate the tensions that our now bordering on the level of a new Cold War, would be denounced in such a ferocious and unprecedented fashion? It is just very hard not to think, that there seems to be a very large group of special interests in the USA and Western Europe, who desire conflict with the Kremlin. After exploring, however briefly, the other side of the story of this red hot international issue, I would be very naive to think I understand everything now and that I have genuinely grasped the full picture. But having to begun to understand how Russians interpret the actions of our country (USA) it is hard for me not to have some sympathy for their perspective. The United States and other western nations have long been the shining beacon of freedom, opportunity and prosperity in the world. I just worry we could continue to lose ourselves in an self inspired arrogance that propels us to police the world and negate and contradict the values we have long stood for.