Ukraine crisis takes anti-West sentiment to streets of Moscow

Does he even want to? Despite the international agreement to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine, anti-Western sentiment seems to be growing on the streets of Moscow.

Can Putin put Russia's anti-West genie back in the bottle? Does he even want to?

Thousands of pro-Russia, anti-West marchers, mostly young people, shout slogans during a rally in central Moscow in March in support of Russian speakers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. (Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters)

After months of recriminations, Russia and the West have finally agreed to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine.

But despite this positive diplomatic development, it may not be all that easy to shut off the vitriol as the war of words between Russia and the West over Crimea and eastern Ukraine has spilled onto the streets of Moscow.

Signs reading, "Barack Obama is banned from entering," have been plastered on the doors of Moscow boutiques and subway cars in recent weeks.

There was even a rather flamboyant pitch by the leader of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, to rid the country of its 420 McDonald's restaurants — a move supported by 62 per cent of the population, according to one survey.

The popularity of McDonald's — which has served more than two billion customers in Russia between 1990 and 2010 — has shown no sign of declining.

But Visa and MasterCard, the West's preferred modes of payment, will no longer work when Russia creates its own national payment system, which it announced last Wednesday, just one day before the foreign ministers of Russia, the U.S., the EU and Ukraine agreed to tackle the tensions over Ukraine.

A Western vibe

Although Moscow exudes a Western vibe — the city of 12 million is awash with gleaming Audis and iPhones — the capital can hardly conceal the growing anti-Western sentiment that has been fueled these past several weeks by state-run media, government officials, a chronically bruised national ego and, many Russians would argue, by the West itself.

McDonald's shut its outlets in Crimea earlier this month, like this one in Simferopol, in the midst of Russia's takeover because of "manufacturing reasons," it said. Its almost 400 outlets in Russia are still open, but activists have called for them to be shut down. (Reuters)

A poll conducted in late March by the Levada Centre, an independent research organization based in Moscow, found that 61 per cent of Russians view the U.S. "generally badly or very badly." It also found that 53 per cent view the European Union in the same way.

Since the outbreak of the crisis in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin's government has repeatedly asserted that the West supported the ouster of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in order to undermine Russia's interests in the region.

The visits of Western politicians to Maidan Square, the focal point of the uprising in Kyiv — a long list that includes Foreign Minister John Baird — did nothing to assuage Russia's distrust of the West.

In fact, the visits only fueled Russia's narrative about Western meddling in Ukraine.

Double standards

Russian authorities also have scoffed at Western sanctions.

Gennady Timchenko, the most high-profile business figure to be sanctioned, said it was an "honour" to have been targeted by the U.S. (Baird retorted that Russia's tit-for-tat sanctions against 13 Canadian officials were "a badge of honour for the prime minister and a badge of honour for all of Canada.")

But a key factor that has nourished anti-Western sentiment in Russia is the sense that the West is applying double standards in its foreign policy.

"Russia views NATO countries as having the right to do anything they want, to violate international law and not have to deal with the consequences of their actions," Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S. and Canadian Studies Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, said in an interview.

"But Russia, it seems, is not allowed to do the same. These double standards are a source of frustration for both Russian authorities and ordinary citizens."

'Don't fool around, America'

Russia has also taken subtler, and even musical, jabs at the West in the past few months.

At the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, an instrumental version of the popular Russian song "Don't Fool Around, America," a semi-humorous plea for the U.S. to return Alaska to Russia, played as Olympians marched into Fisht Stadium.

And at the opening ceremony of the Paralympics in early March, Russian paralympians paraded in to "Goodbye America," a popular 1980s Russian rock ballad.

But other recent efforts to cleanse Russia of Western influence have been harsher.

In early April, Russia's justice ministry ordered the Russian branch of American Councils, a U.S. non-profit organization that oversees student exchanges and educational programs, to suspend operations indefinitely.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov speaks to media after diplomatic talks in Geneva on Thursday resulted in an agreement to try to de-escalate tensions over Ukraine. Russia doesn't want to send troops into Ukraine, he said. Though Putin hasn't ruled that out if the situation deteriorates. (Reuters)

The Russian foreign ministry has also warned Russians against travelling abroad, especially to countries with extradition treaties with the U.S. The warning states that the U.S. is trying to make a "routine practice out of hunting for Russian citizens."

But of course, anti-Western attitudes have existed long before the crisis in Ukraine. They are deeply rooted in Russian history.

"Russia has undergone a different historical development than much of Western Europe," observed Paul Robinson, a professor of Russian history at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"The schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and the Mongol invasion cut Russia off from the outside world," he said. "This brought a certain degree of isolation, which in turn led to suspicion of foreigners, including from the West."

Centuries later, in the mid-1800s, two intellectual movements emerged in Russia — the Slavophiles and the Westernizers — that had different goals for the country's development.

Unlike Westernizers who thought Russia's development was incumbent on the adoption of Western ideals and technology, Slavophiles argued that Russian society should develop in a way that would match its traditions and values.

Both these tendencies have endured in modern Russia.

But a Levada Centre poll earlier this month found that only 21 per cent of Russians today think their country should follow the "European civilizational path."

Nobody likes to lose

In Kremenyuk's view, Russia's current bitterness towards the West largely stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Anti-Putin demonstrations, like this one in Times Square New York on March 2, have popped up all over the U.S. and Europe. The vitriol and characterizations have been equally harsh on both sides. (John Minchillo / Associated Press)

"Russia still feels terribly insulted," he said. "The USSR collapsed at the end of the Cold War, and the West basically remained the same.

"Nobody likes to lose. This frustration remains an important part of Russians' attitude towards the West to this day."

But Russian authorities and many ordinary citizens here seem to feel that the demonization of Russia in the West is far worse than any anti-Western sentiment in Russia today.

"Russophobia has reached levels unseen since at least the early 1980s," Robinson said.

"This precedes even the recent events in Ukraine, as witnessed by the incredibly hostile reporting of the Sochi Olympics in much of Western media."


Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber

Moscow correspondent

Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber is a Canadian journalist who lives in Russia and writes for the English-language Moscow Times.