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CIAO DATE: 05/03

The Russian Perception of the American "War on Terror"

Vladimir Rukavishnikov

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
September 2002

Social scientists knew a lot about Soviet and American perceptions &-; and misperceptions – of one another. Faulty perceptions, especially those of political elite in both countries, considered by various scholars as responsible for the deterioration of East-West relations after the World War II and the nuclear arms race. 1 Less attention has been given to the study of perceptions of former adversaries after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile in post-communist epoch Russian and American perceptions and misperceptions of former enemy's intentions remain factors that form foreign and security policies to a certain extent.

In this paper we deal with the Russian perception of the American "war against terror" started after the September 11th , 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. The analysis is based on data of opinion surveys, official documents and messages conveyed to the public by the national electronic and printed media.

We show how the Russian perception of the American "war on terror" has changed during the first year of this war - from September 11th 2001 to September 11th 2002. The time frame of our analysis is very important, because it seems to us that the second year of the 'global war against terrorism' may differ dramatically from the first one.

It is worth remembering, in this connection, that the immediate mass reaction on any human tragedy is always a mix of emotions with more or less rational interpretation of what has really happened. The reaction on the terrorist attack on the USA was not exclusion. Any discussion of the Russian perception of the American "war on terror" should proceed from the assumption that in various evaluations, registered in polls, or declarations presented to the public the emotional and analytical ingredients are twisted together. Sentiments do matter and emotional details cannot be excluded from consideration if one explore the perceptions of events and policy actions by masses and the elite. But people do not rely only on emotions, president's declarations and media information making own assessments and judgements concerning foreign events, because historical memory and attitudes implanted in brains long time ago also influence perceptions and misperceptions.

It makes more and more sense, the farther in time we are from 9/11, to separate sentiments and popular explanations of what had happened and why it had happened, from the public opinion towards subsequent policy actions based on rational calculations and national interest. Conceptions of interests, if they are to be of any value, ought to at least be durable. Therefore such questions as why had Russia joined the anti-terror coalition and why does Russia disagree with the US proposal of the pre-emptive strike on Iraq lie in the framework of our analysis.

In our view, the proper understanding of the Russian reaction on 9/11 has global significance – it is central to step-by-step construction of a secure international system, in which the Russian Federation wishes to play an important role. It is the point that connects the "war against terror" with the Chechen war and NATO enlargement eastward as well as the whole set of global security, disarmament and arms reduction problems with the perception of identifiable threats, risks and dangers. The Russian perception of the American war on terror is linked with popular attitudes toward President Putin's foreign policy and a change of attitudes toward the USA occurred in the post-Cold war period.

The special attention is made on continuity of popular attitudes toward former adversaries both in Russia and America, on Russo-phobia and anti-Americanism and NATO-phobia. The change of attitudes is not the simple substitution of one static state for another, but an enduring process. Therefore history of the US-Russia post-Cold war relations are taken in account either. The paper shows how deeply such events as the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia and the US withdrawal from the 1972 ABM treaty affected the Russian public’s basic postures towards security and foreign policy affairs.

There is a view spread among the part of western experts on Russia that the Russian leadership is absolutely indifferent to domestic public opinion toward its foreign policy. It is just a myth, despite the fact that Russia is quasi-democracy. The variety and dynamics of attitudes toward foreign and security policy is carefully monitored by the authorities, because external affairs and a domestic political discourse are interconnected. Eventually, the approval or disapproval of foreign policy impacts voter's behavior to a certain extent and cannot be ignored by the president.

Because national media plays an important role in framing individual's attitudes toward foreign policy, the following comment seems to be necessary:

The structure of this paper is as follows. The first section describes the immediate reaction of the Russian leadership, political elite, media and the public at large on the terrorist attack against the USA on September 11, 2001. Then, in the second section, we turn to the issue of interests and the Russian perception of the new US grand strategy. The third section focuses on how the public opinion toward the US and Putin's policy of reconciliation with the West was changing during the first year after 9/11. The forth section compares the American and Russian public opinion long trends with the special emphasis on factors that shaped attitudes and policy developments after the collapse of the USSR. In the fifth section the popular perception of external threats and NATO is discussed. The paper ends with a brief conclusion.


Note 1: See, for instance, Ken Booth. “US Perceptions of Soviet Threat: Prudence and Paranoia”. In: Jacobsen C.G. (ed.) Strategic Power: USA/USSR. Macmillan, 1990, pp. 50-71; .Intriligator M.D., Jacobsen H-A.(eds.) East-West Conflict: Elite Perceptions and Political Options. Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1988. Back