Syria and its chemical weapons have emerged as a temporary opportunity for cooperation between the United States and Russia. The problem of Afghanistan drug trafficking may be another, a more lasting one. There are more issues where cooperation is problematic to say the least. Most importantly there’s no basis—such as trust or solid mutual interest—for sustainable relations between Russia and America. When trust is missing in a relationship, one way to avoid tensions is to reduce relations to a minimum. But even if the two parties try to pass over difficult and divisive issues, unexpected developments—another Snowden or another Magnitsky—can undermine the seeming calm. There may be no return to the confrontation of the Cold War—the world is just too different today and the disparity of power between the United States and Russia too broad—but the inability of the two nations to come to terms and a reluctance to understand each other is at times reminiscent of the Cold War period.

Almost half of the Russians share a negative perception of the United States, up from 27 percent just two years ago. This sharp decline is the result of the anti-American line pursued by the national television networks, which persistently portray the United States as a force for evil:  Russian nongovernment “agents” recruited by Americans undertake to weaken Russian statehood; Russian orphans are maimed by their adoptive American families; alien American culture is imposed on Russia in order to undermine its traditional values.

In the course of post-Soviet development, tides of anti-Americanism rose several times, but then a more reconciled tone would set in. This time there’s more to the current trend than merely an anti-American slant on TV. After all, the coverage of Russia in the American media can hardly be described as a model of objectivity. But in Russia, the intense anti-American rhetoric has not subsided for over two years now. And this rhetoric is accompanied by anti-American moves and policies, such as the harassment of the American ambassador, the eviction of USAID, or a ban on American adoption of Russian orphans, to mention just a few. Most importantly, anti-Americanism has become a major element of Russia’s quest for a national identity.

Although two decades have passed since the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, up until recently Russia remained uncertain over the nature of her new statehood.  The Kremlin, and Putin in particular, were evasive on what post-communist Russia stood for. Russia was no longer communist or totalitarian, but she failed to produce a reasonably consensual narrative of what the Soviet past was about. She did not fully embrace the principles of a market economy or liberal democracy, but neither did she reject them. Nor did she decide whether or not she was essentially “European.”

Uncertainty and evasiveness were convenient because they helped muffle societal divisions. But in late 2011, public acquiescence was broken by the Moscow protests, and the Kremlin felt the urge to consolidate the majority against the Moscow troublemakers. This called for more clarity on values and principles, and a new identity. Over the past two years, this identity has gained explicitly anti-Western and antiliberal shape. The Pussy Riot trial, the “anti-gay” legislation, the overt and self-righteous xenophobia, or the detention of Greenpeace members are but a few examples of overt rejection of Western values. These and other antiliberal, antisecular, antimodern developments are driven by the  political shifts inside Russia, but today Russia’s foreign policy stance, and relations with the United States in particular, are largely shaped by her domestic policy agenda.

The identity currently in the making may be not too solid—there’s too much “against” about it and too little “for”—but for the moment it resonates well with the broad public mindset. As long as Russia’s quest for identity takes the anti-Western and anti-American path, this will preclude constructive or reliable relations with the United States. America can hardly make a difference in this process, especially since the United States itself is currently facing soul-searching questions regarding its own role in the world.

Maria Lipman is editor-in-chief of Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra journal.

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationshipproject produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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