- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2012

MOSCOW As he hones his presidential campaign theme, Vladimir Putin is accusing the United States of working to weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In a wave of anti-Americanism reminiscent of the Cold War, the prime minister has cast his opponents as U.S. lackeys, and the new American ambassador has found himself under unprecedented attack, including being targeted in a YouTube video that implies he is a pedophile.

Mr. Putin’s posturing as a defender of national interests may help him win the March 4 election, but possibly at the cost of the much vaunted “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations that the Obama administration has been championing.

“The current campaign is laden with anti-Americanism,” said Sergei Oznobishchev, head of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, a Moscow think tank.

“It’s like clothing they dust off and put on for certain occasions, currently for electoral purposes.”

Mr. Putin has frequently criticized the United States throughout his 12-year rule, first as president and then as prime minister, accusing Washington of seeking to secure global domination. After a period of relative warmth thanks to the reset, relations have worsened again over U.S. missile-defense plans and Moscow’s support for the Syrian government during its violent crackdown on protests.

With the election approaching and pro-democracy protests gaining momentum, anti-American rhetoric on state TV channels has risen dramatically in pitch.

Offensive YouTube video

Shortly after the arrival in mid-January of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who had served as President Obama’s Russia adviser, Channel One state television aired a program describing him as a “specialist in the promotion of democracy” who came to Russia to organize “a revolution.” As a Stanford University professor, Mr. McFaul had written extensively on fostering democracy.

An offensive video posted on YouTube last week shows an anonymous pollster asking people on the street in Moscow to compare photographs of Mr. McFaul to a man convicted of pedophilia and say which one looks like a pedophile.

Everyone in the video points to Mr. McFaul. The videographers could not be tracked down, but the video has the hallmarks of those made by pro-Kremlin youth groups to tarnish Mr. Putin’s enemies.

In another incident, camera crews from Kremlin-controlled stations harassed oppositions leaders after they left a meeting with the ambassador at the U.S. Embassy.

Mr. McFaul has indicated that behind the scenes, Russian officials have been more welcoming.

“Productive meetings this week with Russian govt officials, even as we disagree on Syria,” he said in a Twitter message on Feb. 8. “Sharp contrast with public anti-US statements.”

In a documentary broadcast this month by Channel One, Mr. Putin charged that the United States wants to subdue Russia, fearing its nuclear might.

“Our partners don’t want allies. They want vassals,” he said.

Mr. Putin dismissed as lies U.S. assurances that the planned missile shield for Europe is intended to counter a missile threat from Iran. He insists that its real goal is to erode Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

Moscow has sought legal guarantees from the United States that the future missile shield will not be directed against it. Failure to reach agreement has fueled tensions that may further escalate in May when NATO members are to sign an agreement in Chicago on the U.S.-led missile defense.

Putin redirects blame

Mr. Putin is expected to attend the annual summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, which includes Russia, also in Chicago at about the same time. The visit would be his first major foreign trip after his likely election and inauguration in early May.

Mr. Putin’s anti-Americanism may have roots in his 16-year career with the old Soviet KGB secret police, but many think that it is really driven by political expediency rather than ideology.

Facing growing public frustration over pervasive official corruption and rising social inequality, Mr. Putin appears to be trying to redirect public anger at foreign forces.

Putin has revived the Soviet-era argument: We are poor because we are surrounded by enemies,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who was among the founders of the League of Voters, a public organization set up to promote fair elections.

“That serves both as an explanation for the economic inefficiency and an argument against a leadership change.”

Anti-U.S. rhetoric works well for Mr. Putin’s core electorate of blue-collar workers, farmers and public servants, many of whom harbor deep suspicions of U.S. intentions after years of anti-American propaganda on state-controlled television stations.

“People have been poisoned by television, and many sincerely believe in U.S. aggressive intentions,” said Alexander Konovalov, a political analyst.

He said Mr. Putin has taken the risk of damaging ties with the U.S. because his desire to return to the presidency outweighs other concerns.

“The focus now is on showing the domestic audience that he doesn’t fear standing up to the United States,” Mr. Konovalov said.

Mr. Putin has accused the U.S. State Department of instigating the protests that drew tens of thousands of people after a Dec. 4 parliamentary election that was manipulated in favor of Mr. Putin’s party. Russia’s top investigative agency then claimed that videos chronicling vote-rigging were faked and originated from a server in California.

Russia’s only independent election-monitoring group, Golos, dismissed the claim, saying the only specific video the Investigative Committee had pointed at as fake was in fact genuine and came from a server in Moscow, not California. Golos’ statement was ignored by state television stations.

State broadcasters also have given prominent coverage to incidents involving Russian children adopted by American families.

The Foreign Ministry sprang into action over the weekend, accusing U.S. authorities of failing to adequately punish parents charged with killing or mistreating their adopted children and urging a suspension of further adoptions.

Despite the rise of anti-American rhetoric, few expect the current frictions to escalate into a bigger conflict.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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