John Lough
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's announcement on 15 March that the US will build up its missile defences in Alaska and Japan to counter the threat from North Korea and abandon plans to deploy interceptor systems in Poland and Romania should, in theory, remove an important irritant from US-Russia relations.

Moscow had bitterly opposed the original plans, claiming that interceptors located so close to Russia's borders in Europe could potentially destroy Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles during their boost phase and undermine strategic stability.

Yet, the Russian Foreign Ministry's statement in response to Hagel's announcement offered not even a glimmer of recognition that one of Moscow's apparently key security concerns was no longer a problem as a result of Washington's change of policy.

Domestic politics

Over recent years, Russia's leaders have found the missile defence issue a useful tool to underpin their continued depiction of the West, and the US in particular, as untrustworthy and at root hostile to Russia's security interests. It has served to maintain inter-elite consensus and to consolidate society around the view that the Putin system reliably defends the interests of the country.

While Russia's security establishment continues to cling to the certainties of a necessarily adversarial relationship with the West, much of Russia’s political class and business elite has unquestioningly made itself at home (in some cases literally) in the West.

At the same time, there are signs that the external 'enemy image' is becoming harder to sustain as parts of Russian society develop a better awareness of the outside world through a combination of access to a wider range of information sources and opportunities to travel.

The cognitive dissonance of the ruling class is reflected in public attitudes towards the US. According to the Levada Centre, a respected non-governmental polling organisation, only 18% of respondents in a January survey conducted across Russia said that the US was the country with which Russia should cooperate, predominantly on foreign policy issues, compared to 31% in 2001. At the same time, 50% said that they had a generally positive view of the US.

Relations at their Nadir

The latter is a striking statistic given that US-Russian relations are in their most difficult phase since President Obama came to office in 2009 and 'reset' relations with Moscow. Bilateral ties have come under considerable strain since Obama’s signing into law last year of the Magnitsky Act, which blacklists Russian officials accused of rights abuses, and Russia’s retaliatory countermeasure, a law banning Americans from adopting Russian children.

On this occasion, however, Russia's response has been widely condemned in Russian society and was even criticized by some members of the government. The banning of adoptions follows a set of measures to restrict western but especially US funding of NGOs after Vladimir Putin blamed the US government for instigating the large demonstrations of December 2011 against the results of the Duma elections.

Despite the aggressive vilification of the US through state media over the past year, it seems that the rhetoric of anti-Americanism is having less impact than a decade ago. The condemnation of the West by Russia’s leaders after NATO’s use of force over Kosovo in 1999 had a powerful and lasting effect on Russian public opinion. But this occurred before the take off of the internet in Russia, when state media held an even more influential position.

Russian sociologists note that society is becoming increasingly divided between those that rely on state media for information, who tend to be poorer and less educated, and those who use the internet widely, who are typically wealthier and better educated. The majority, who rely on TV as a source of news, are in any case starting to trust it less, a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation suggests.

Foreign policy may no longer be the easy issue it once was for manufacturing consensus in Russian society but this does not mean that the Kremlin will stop trying to use it. On 27 February in an address to military leaders, President Putin noted 'methodical attempts being undertaken to tip the strategic balance' citing as examples US missile defence and, more cryptically, 'the sounding out of possibilities for further NATO enlargement to the East'.

While for years, the Kremlin has tried to present the US as the main source of threat to Russian interests and the EU as a lower-ranking player and source of concern, it will be interesting to see whether Moscow will find a new bogeyman in the form of the EU.

With the EU Commission's anti-trust probe against Gazprom gaining momentum and the Eurozone countries' targeting of Russian deposits in Cypriot banks to support a bail-out package for Cyprus, a convenient new figure for vilification may have appeared at the right time.

However, it is likely to be a much harder one to sell to Russian society.