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The Kremlin's Shock Troops

In the weeks since the New START was signed on April 8, committing Russia and the United States to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to 800 delivery vehicles and 1,550 warheads, Russian security analysts have been debating whether Moscow should decrease its nuclear arsenal any further or whether this would weaken the country’s national security.

Many liberal-leaning analysts argue that Russia, in unison with the United States, can and should reduce the number of warheads to 1,000 or lower.

But the consensus among leading conservatives is that if the two sides reduce their nuclear arms to these levels, Russia’s nuclear deterrence will be rendered ineffective against the United States. This is a Cold War-era argument that is needlessly stoking public fear — and all with the support of a Kremlin that is supposed to be resetting ties with the United States.

The hawkish voices leading this anti-U.S. campaign include Alexei Pushkov, host of TV Center’s “Postscriptum” analytical show, and Mikhail Leontyev, host of “Odnako” on Channel One, both of whom never miss an opportunity to warn Russians of subversive U.S. plans to weaken and take advantage of Russia.

But a group of more radical conservatives have taken the fear of U.S. aggression to new levels of absurdity. “You should not forget that the U.S. nuclear policy was always structured to give the United States the ability to deliver a nuclear first strike,” warned retired General Leonid Ivashov, who often appears on leading political talk shows, in an April 10 interview with Sovietskaya Rossia. He said the New START would “destroy Russia.” ? 

The rhetoric of Zavtra editor Alexander Prokhanov — another favorite guest of television talk shows — is very similar to the classic anti-U.S. propaganda of the Soviet era: that war and violence are the favored tools of U.S. imperialism, starting with the very beginning of the formation of the United States (massacring Native Americans and importing African slaves) and continuing through the 20th and 21st centuries (dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, and the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan). U.S. imperialism, he believes, is a continuous history of war, genocide, exploitation and global domination.

But Kremlin-friendly analyst Sergei Kurginyan, president of the Experimental Creative Center think tank, topped them all when he said on Channel One’s “Sudite Sami” talk show April 8 that if Russia keeps decreasing its nuclear weapons, its position could be weakened to such a degree that Washington could “destroy us unilaterally without [Russia’s] ability to deliver a second strike.” Notably, none of the other seven analysts on the program challenged Kurginyan’s statement.

The fear that Russia could be next on the U.S. attack list is, thankfully, not voiced by President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and is limited largely to a group of hawkish journalists, retired generals and think tanks. But these voices are given prime-time slots on government-controlled television and reinforce anti-U.S. sentiments among millions of Russians — particularly those over 40 who remember how the Soviet Union for decades depicted Americans as warmongers.

Giving these hawks a public platform — while at the same time denying the same platform to the most vocal and well-known Kremlin opponents — might appear odd amid the current warming of U.S.-Russian relations after the New START signing and on the eve of this weekend’s Victory Day parade on Red Square in which U.S. troops will participate for the first time.

But there is a certain logic in the Kremlin’s tacit support of the archconservative camp. At first glance, it might appear that the conservatism contradicts the Kremlin’s current liberal bent toward better relations with the United States. But by promoting the hawks’ regular appearances on popular political talk shows, Medvedev can maintain a cleaner, more diplomatic reputation and leave the “dirty work” to others.

This is yet another manifestation of Russia’s double-headed eagle. In the best of Byzantine traditions, one head (Medvedev and the Foreign Ministry) promotes the reset and warm relations with the United States, while the other head (a group of Kremlin-friendly, hawkish journalists and pundits) constantly warns that the United States is Russia’s main adversary. The hawks urge the Kremlin to not repeat the same mistakes of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, President Boris Yeltsin and his Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, whom they deride as having been weak and naive in their admiration of the West and whose concessions cost the Soviet Union and Russia their sovereignty. The hawks say U.S. missile defense, U.S. support of color revolutions, U.S. funding of nongovernmental organizations in Russia and now the New START are all being used to weaken — and perhaps even attack — Russia.

The Kremlin’s PR efforts have paid off generously, according to several opinion polls. In an August survey by the independent Levada Center, the respondents chose the United States as Russia’s largest enemy, followed by Chechen separatists, the Baltic countries and Georgia, and NATO. In a more recent March 23 poll by Levada, respondents were given four choices for the question, “What is the biggest threat to Russia’s national security?” A total of 55.4 percent picked the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems near Russia, while 12.5 percent chose Iran’s nuclear program, 13.2 percent chose North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and the rest had difficulty answering.

Both surveys highlight the success of the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign against the United States. The second survey, in particular, shows the successful campaign against U.S. missile defense that started in 2007, when then-President Putin said U.S. missile defense plans in Poland could start a new Cold War, and peaked in November 2008, when Medvedev threatened to put Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.

The hawks are the Kremlin’s “special forces” — its public relations OMON — that allow it to keep the coals of anti-U.S. sentiment hot in the country. During times of reset, the hawks need to be heard on television to assure concerned conservative Russians that the government is not letting its guard down and is determined to defend the country’s national interests against U.S. subversion. And during times of tension, the Kremlin needs these PR “shock troops” even more.

The history of U.S.-Russian relations over the past century shows that periods of detente or resets don’t last long, and they are inevitably replaced by much longer periods of tension and confrontational rhetoric. Unfortunately, the Kremlin more often than not believes that the political benefit from having bad relations outweighs the economic and other benefits from having better relations.

For reasons very specific to Russia, the country’s political dinosaurs still survive and prosper in certain circles in journalism, the military and think tanks. While it is often intriguing to hear their outlandish statements on television — as if the clock has been turned back to the 1950s — it is disturbing to know that they are fanning the flames of irrational anti-U.S. feelings among millions of Russians.

Dinosaurs are fascinating creatures, but it is far better to study them in encyclopedias or museums than to tackle them in the flesh. The sooner the Kremlin declares these Cold War dinosaurs extinct, the better.

Michael Bohm is opinion page editor of The Moscow Times.

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