Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Western Negative Perceptions of Russia: "The Cold War Mentality" over Five Hundred Years

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Western Negative Perceptions of Russia: "The Cold War Mentality" over Five Hundred Years

Article excerpt

In a recent CNN interview, former National Security Advisor and professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies, Zbigniew Brzezinski, compared the Russian military's indiscriminate bombing of the Chechen capital, Grozny, in late 1999 and early 2000 to Stalin's murder of 15,000 Polish officers at Katyn in 1940. He called the Russian war in Chechnya "genocide" and Russia's then acting-president Vladimir Putin "a brute ... a form of a political gangster." (1) In an article in the New York Times published three months earlier, Brzezinski argued that Russia's ruling elite "is still driven by imperial nostalgia" and its generals "thirst for revenge for the defeat they suffered in Chechnya four years ago." (2) Likewise, U.S. Senator John McCain, during his campaign for the Republican party's nomination for president in early 2000, warned on ABC's "Meet the Press" that Putin "is from the KGB. He could use the military to reassemble the Soviet Union. The U.S. President should speak far more harshly about what is happening in Chechnya." (3) Sheila Heslin, a former director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, voiced similar concerns, arguing that Russia had not yet become a "normal" power. She asserted that "unconstrained, Russia tends toward heavy-handedness because it underestimates popular commitment to independence [in the former republics of the Soviet Union as well as in its own break-away regions] while overestimating its ability to impose order. Armed to the teeth Russia gets itself in trouble, fomenting instability in the Southern Caucasus and increasingly in its own Caucasian provinces." (4)

Others wary of Russia hearken back to the imperialism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seeing Russia's moves as part of a zero-sum game between Russia and the West. William Satire wrote in a recent New York Times column that "The newly emboldened Russian military has now embarked on a modern version of what Rudyard Kipling in 1901 called `the Great Game'--that struggle against the West for economic and political power in the Caucasus and the Middle East." Satire went on to call the war in Chechnya, a "systematic massacre of the dark-skinned Muslin trouble-makers" carried out to win votes for Russian politicians running for office in parliamentary elections. He further pointed to Russia's meddling in the affairs of other nations such as Georgia, whose president Eduard Shevardnadze "has survived three assassination attempts that many think were KGB-inspired," (5) as yet more examples of Russia's quest to maintain or reestablish its empire. Many foreign policy experts in the West see efforts to unify the former Soviet space, such as the CIS and the various treaties designed to bring Russia and Belarus into closer union, including efforts to create a customs union and a single currency, as further proof that Russia is attempting to expand. (6)

Why are such negative views of Russia, often attributed to the "Cold War Mentality," still being voiced and heard more than a decade after the end of the Cold War? Why did such negative views of Russia reappear so soon after the break-up of the USSR (assuming they ever disappeared)? (7) It may seem strange that in 1996, Henry Kissinger would still speak of Russia as being driven by "ancient imperial drives" and "relentless expansionism," while journalist and political commentator George Will would still argue that "expansionism is in Russia's national DNA: the populace has a `expansionist gene.'" (8) The fact is, that such negative views of Russia predate the Cold War by several centuries, and therefore, since they are not products of the Cold War, they are not likely to go away simply because the Cold War has ended.

An understanding of the origination of these negative views long before the Cold War is important since these negative views will affect how we deal with Russia and the Russians in the future. …

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