Obama Faces Rising Anti-U.S. Sentiment In Russia

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U.S.-Russia relations are at a low point, following Russia's invasion of Georgia in August. And anti-American sentiment is spreading among Russians, bolstered by Kremlin threats. President-elect Barack Obama faces a delicate balancing act: don't look weak, but don't give up on Russia as a hopeless case.


Here's another trend that is a source of concern: the increasingly poor relationship between the Unites States and Russia. The U.S. and Russia begin talks in Geneva today with the aim of replacing a nuclear arms agreement from 1991. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, runs out next year. And it's a reminder of just how important dealing with Russia is going to be for President-elect Obama. NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow about the challenges ahead.

GREGORY FEIFER: Congratulations may have been pouring in from around the world in the wake of Mr. Obama's victory, but Russia greeted his election with a threat.

(Soundbite of music)

FEIFER: Hours after the U.S. election was called, President Dmitry Medvedev swaggered into a massive, gilded Kremlin hall to give a state-of-the-nation speech.

President DMITRY MEDVEDEV (Russia): (Russian spoken).

FEIFER: Medvedev called U.S. policies egotistical and dangerous. He lashed out against U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe, saying Moscow would be forced to respond by stationing its own missiles near Poland. Such threats find deep resonance among many Russians who believe Western countries connived to weaken Russia in the 1990s and are now upset about Moscow's oil-fueled resurgence. Those ideas are especially strong among the young.

(Soundbite of chalk on chalkboard)

FEIFER: A teacher writes on a blackboard in a history class at one of Moscow's most prestigious schools. Student Dima Asahfkin(ph) condemned the United States for meddling in the affairs of other counties.

Mr. DIMA ASAHFKIN (Student, Moscow, Russia): (Russian spoken).

FEIFER: The United States has pursued anti-Russian policies in Georgia and other former Soviet countries on our border, he says. That's unfair and we don't like it. Another of the 17 year olds agrees. Daniel Koznitzov(ph) says Medvedev was right to threaten to deploy new missiles.

Mr. DANIEL KOZNITZOV (Student, Moscow, Russia): (Russian spoken).

FEIFER: It wasn't just tied to the American election, he says. It was a smart move because the United States has been surrounding us with its own missile bases. Such wide spread suspicion of Washington troubles scholar Giorgi Mirski(ph), a longtime observer of foreign affairs.

Mr. GIORGI MIRSKI (Foreign Affairs Observer): Our people are much more nationalistic, much more chauvinistic and anti-democratic than Putin himself. So, the current regime is by no means the worst that they could have.

FEIFER: Mirski says Prime Minster Vladimir Putin and others in the Kremlin don't believe their own propaganda. He says Russia's elite, which regularly travels to the United States and sends its children to study in British and American universities, is exploiting popular anti-American feeling to blame the United States for Russia's problems, especially the deepening financial crisis.

Mr. MIRSKI: From this point of view, it is quite clear that our government, our leaders, are not really interested in reducing the level of anti-Americanism.

FEIFER: Yuriy Korgunyuk of the INDEM Research Group agrees. He says Moscow's posturing on the world stage reflects the dynamics of power inside Russia. Putin still rules the roost six months after having handed power to his prodigy.

Mr. YURIY KORGUNYUK (INDEM Foundation): (Through translator) Putin holds all the levers of power because he doesn't trust Medvedev, who might try to take them for himself. To remain remotely credible, Medvedev has to show himself in public to be as tough as Putin.

FEIFER: That will surely complicate any negotiations over a nuclear arms treaty. Mirski says in dealing with Russia, the new Obama administration faces a delicate balancing act. Appearing to give in to Moscow's demands over such issues as NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine would be taken as a sign of weakness. But Mirski says giving up on Russia as a hopeless case would only play into the hands of Russian hardliners painting the United States as an imperialist power. Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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