“Russia is the nation with a unique level of spirituality. We are very different. As far as I am concerned, I would never get close with any foreigner. I simply do not feel them.” - Liza K., Student, Moscow State University for Foreign Affairs
Is the Putin-Trump bromance a short-term infatuation or will it turn into a lasting romance? Everyone is wondering what will happen when Putin and Trump formally get in bed together after Trump officially assumes the presidency.
After years of Putin-style brainwashing making America the whipping post for most of Russia’s ills, are we so naive to believe that the Russian people will suddenly fall in love with us? Based on my long experience making TV documentaries, news and children’s television in Russia, I am not optimistic.
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With news about Vladimir Putin and Russia increasingly dominating American media, and television anchors spinning tales of Russia’s cyber-tampering with U.S. presidential elections, not to mention the escalation of Russian forces in Syria, Americans are wondering whether Trump can really reframe a relationship suddenly characterized by volatility and ominous developments.
During my time in Russia during the 1980s, the Soviet government aggressively tried to brainwash its people to hate the United States, but its success was limited. Many credit this failure to the success of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the U.S. government-sponsored radio transmissions that beamed uncensored news to audiences behind the iron curtain and to strong opposition forces.
Later, in Yeltsin’s era, in the mid-1990s, when I executive produced an original series of Sesame Street in Russia with hundreds of Russian puppeteers, musicians, artists, and screenwriters, I could see that for them, the U.S. represented a distant but reachable ideal that their country could aspire to, even if they did not quite understand what democracy really meant.
Today, after years of being subjected to extremely sophisticated television and social media brainwashing techniques, the attitudes of young Russians towards the U.S. and democracy have shifted from euphoric confusion to deep skepticism.
In a recent visit to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I interviewed young Russians about their feelings and attitudes towards the United States. I was shocked by how much the picture had changed. Their responses confirmed to me what I already thought: Putin and his social media and cyberspace “trolls” are experts in marshaling support for Russian state objectives.
What is especially ironic about Putin’s cyber mastery is that Americans actually trained the Russians how to use social media at U.S. taxpayers’ expense. After the fall of the Soviet Union, I witnessed a parade of eager American media experts jumping over each other to share media and marketing know-hows with Russians, ostensibly to generate popular support for democratic institutions. The Russians were excellent students but, unfortunately, these new tools quickly became weapons of cyber destruction in the hands of Putin’s government for which Americans are now paying the price. We seem to have entered a “post-truth” era where leaders can make up stories and feed them to their respective populations to bolster their power without consequences.
From my perspective working extensively with young Russians for several decades, the U.S. is not going to be able to turn around our relationship with Russia any faster than George W. Bush was able to democratize the Middle East. With any new relationship, there’s a period of discovery and an even longer period of overcoming differences. President-elect Trump is in the discovery phase of his relationship with Putin and would benefit most from taking regular security briefings with our national security establishment instead of putting his finger on the button ...the Twitter button.
The U.S. can only be safe with smart examination of the global political, economic, and security forces motivating Russia. Otherwise.....Trump might wake up one day to discover that his new bed partner doesn’t really like him after all, and has pulled all the blankets over to his side of the bed and, worse is trying to suffocate him with a soft pillow.