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The Paranoid Style in Russian Politics

An old saying in politics in Moscow is that relations between the United States and Russia are always better when a Republican rules in the White House. We are statesmen, and the Republicans are statesmen. Because we both believe in power, it is easy for the two of us to understand each other.

The problem with this saying is the paranoid mindset behind it, for it implies that the nature of Russian-US relations has not changed fundamentally since the Cold War’s end; that the animosities that exist between the two countries are those of two permanently implacable geopolitical opponents. Russians, it seems, can only feel good about themselves if they are contesting the world’s great power head to head. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin considers the Soviet Union’s collapse “the largest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”

As a result of this mindset, key elements in the Russian elite have tried mightily – and with some success, especially in recent years – to bring about a deterioration in Russian-US relations. The Kremlin appears to be seeking systematically to obstruct the US, even when obstruction does not seem to be in Russia’s national interest.

Thus, Russia sells high-technology weapons, including bombers, submarines, and perhaps an aircraft carrier, to China, which not only shares the world’s longest border with Russia, but also disputes parts of that border. Russia’s assistance to Iran in realizing its nuclear ambitions also falls into the category of self-destructive folly. Not only is Russia building a civilian nuclear reactor in Iran, thereby helping to advance Iranian knowledge of the nuclear process; it is also reluctant to support efforts by the United Nations Security Council to press Iran not to develop nuclear weapons.