- - Sunday, June 29, 2014

MOSCOW — It was a mere five years ago that smiling Kremlin officials welcomed President Obama’s ambitious bid to “reset” frosty bilateral ties between the U.S. and Russia. Today, the smiles are long gone.

As Washington and Moscow face off over Ukraine in the biggest challenge to East-West relations since the Cold War, anti-Americanism is rocketing in Russia.

An opinion poll published this month by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center indicated that just over 70 percent of Russians currently view the United States in a negative light — the highest figure since the collapse of the Soviet Union. About the same percentage of respondents described U.S. policy toward Russia as “hostile.”

It’s not only among ordinary Russians that anti-U.S. sentiments are rising. Fringe conspiracy theories have been gaining mainstream acceptance among the political elite: The most bizarre of these is the idea that “U.S. agents of influence” have infiltrated the Russian government and have been secretly shaping Kremlin policy since the early 1990s.

“Russia is a U.S. colony, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is leading the war for national liberation,” Yevgeny Fyodorov, a senior lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, told The Washington Times.

“The United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and since then it has been imposing its own order in Russia,” said Mr. Fyodorov, who co-authored last year’s ban on American families adopting Russian orphans.

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Mr. Fyodorov’s unorthodox ideas have been echoed by several prominent figures, including Alexander Dugin, a high-profile academic with strident, anti-U.S. views who lectures at the prestigious Moscow State University.

Mr. Dugin declared this week, in comments aired on the main Channel One evening news TV bulletin, that Washington is losing its position as the world’s “political and moral leader.” He also said the United States is entering its “political, economic and moral death throes.”

Comments such as these have become commonplace on Russian national television in recent months. In March, Dmitry Kiselyov, an influential presenter at the Rossiya 1 TV channel, boasted on-air that Russia is “the only country in the world genuinely capable of turning the USA into radioactive dust.”

Mr. Kiselyov, whom Mr. Putin recently appointed to head Russia’s main state news agency, also suggested that President Obama is “graying rapidly” because of his concerns over the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal.

“We haven’t seen such aggressive anti-U.S. rhetoric in Russian state media since the Soviet Union collapsed,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst who is head of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute. “Putin has convinced himself that the United States is really responsible for all the revolutions in both former Soviet states and the Arab world.”

This explosion in anti-U.S. sentiments has its roots in the unprecedented protests against Mr. Putin’s long rule, which broke out in late 2011 and continued through 2012. As demonstrators filled the streets of central Moscow, Mr. Putin alleged that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had “given a signal” to opposition figures. State television claimed the protesters were being paid “cookies and cash” by the State Department to attend anti-Putin rallies.

The controversial appointment of Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and author of “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution,” as U.S. ambassador to Moscow just weeks later raised tensions to near fever pitch.

“The Russian authorities are always inspired by the Soviet past and, when the protests started, they simply looked back to see what worked then,” said Andrei Soldatov, a respected Moscow-based investigative reporter. “And even in the early 1980s, before perestroika, there was anti-Americanism and a belief in Western plots — ideas that were quite common among even ordinary people.”

Mr. Putin may have all but crushed opposition to his rule, but there has been no letup in the rhetoric. Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned recently that U.S. Special Forces are “hunting down” Russian nationals abroad. That warning sparked the introduction of Soviet-style travel restrictions for some 5 million government employees, who are now banned from traveling to countries with extradition agreements with the United States.

This month, Mr. Putin signed a controversial law making it a criminal offense to fail to report dual citizenship. U.S. passport holders who are also Russian nationals face fines of up to $6,000 if they do not inform the Russian authorities they hold dual citizenship. The law is aimed at rooting out “foreign agents.” A proposed bill would make it illegal to use foreign words such as “hamburger” and “smartphone.”

In Washington, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that despite Mr. Putin’s “macho” tactics, the U.S. must strive to engage Russia in order to deal with common threats such as Islamic extremism and Chinese aggression in the Pacific Rim.

“Putin’s been doing what he thinks is in his national interests. Sometimes that is obviously not in our national interest,” the California Republican said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”

Meanwhile, U.S. expatriates in Moscow say that while there has been no sign that anti-Americanism is about to turn violent, they have noticed a definite hardening of attitudes.

“I definitely have experienced anti-Americanism on an individual basis, and there is definitely a social shift when it comes to rejecting American values,” said Anastassia Paloni, a Moscow-born U.S. citizen who grew up in the United States before moving to Russia in 2012. “But American degrees and good English are still highly valued here.”

Still, the Kremlin’s policy of demonizing the United States could come back to haunt Putin, said Mr. Belkovsky, the analyst.

“Stirring up such passions could easily backfire on the Kremlin,” he warned. “These are unpredictable forces that could easily be directed against the government in the future.”

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