Talk Isn’t Always Cheap: Campaign Rhetoric and the Conflict over Ulyanovsk

Apr 10, 2012

By Stephen Weil
NMCB-11 boards military helpicopter for transport to Special Forces Camp Vladimir Putin turned to Soviet-era propaganda during his recent presidential campaign, painting the United States as a hostile power that is responsible for Russia's many ills. Putin hoped that this rhetoric would exist for domestic consumption only, allowing his pragmatic cooperation with the West to restart after election day. The recent backlash to Russia's agreement to host a NATO "transit hub" in the city of Ulyanovsk has demonstrated, however, that Putin may be forced to eat his own words.

Vladimir Putin’s escalating use of anti-American campaign rhetoric was well documented by foreign and domestic observers alike. The President-elect pointed fingers both at the domestic opposition, which was portrayed as the arm of the C.I.A., and at American officials, who were accused of orchestrating an “Orange Revolution” in Russia. State-owned media outlets even unleashed a bizarre personal campaign against America’s newly appointed ambassador, Michael McFaul, in an attempt to discredit the opposition leaders who had the audacity to meet with him.

Many Western analysts were hopeful that Putin’s rhetoric would remain just that: grandiose yet ultimately meaningless bluster. While tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship continue to linger, there are nevertheless signs that these analysts’ wishes may be fulfilled. Once President Obama got around to congratulating Putin on his electoral victory, the two leaders reportedly agreed that their campaign rhetoric should not become an obstacle to cooperation. That verbal commitment started to evolve into reality as reports surfaced that Russia would allow a NATO transit hub in Ulyanovsk to assist with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The decision has yet to be finalized, but it is telling that Putin and other major administration officials, notably Dmitry Rogozin and Sergey Lavrov, have led the charge in favor of the agreement.
   
It appears, unfortunately, that this seemingly mutually beneficial arrangement will not come about smoothly. Putin has encountered strong pushback from some opposition forces who accuse the Prime Minister of selling out Russia’s national security. The irony of the situation is that Putin is faced with the logical consequences of his own virulent campaign rhetoric. Given the context created by Putin’s anti-American campaign, Alexander Khramchikhin, chief analyst at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, is not remotely surprised by the “hysteria” that currently surrounds the proposed base. Tatyana Stanovaya has deemed the situation a “propaganda trap” (пропагандистская ловушка), in which officials are now forced to reassure the public about threats that those authorities themselves manufactured.

The Communist Party has been quick to exploit the situation by portraying the transportation hub as a sanctioned military presence on Russian soil, something that should presumably be an affront to any patriotic Russian. Failed presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov referred to the agreement as a “gift from Putin to the U.S. for the recognition of the election,”1 a shrewd political maneuver intended to refute the administration’s claim that the Ulyanovsk base would actually serve Russian national interests. Lavrov and Rogozin took to their Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to refute the Communist accusations, pointing out that Ulyanovsk would serve as a transit point only for non-lethal goods, and not NATO soldiers. This defense has failed, however, to fully assuage Russian concerns, and the authorities have even been confronted with protests in Ulyanovsk on top of the frustrating media coverage and Internet-driven backlash.

From one point of view, this situation is reflective of Russia’s generally contradictory attitude towards the U.S. presence in Afghanistan; they don’t want us to stay, but they also don’t want us to go. Lavrov defended the Ulyanovsk agreement by arguing that Russia should do what it can to help those who are “preventing threats that are creating problems for Russia within Afghanistan.”2 Those threats include the spread of Afghan heroin and the risk of instability and Islamic radicalization reverberating throughout Central Asia. At the same time, Moscow is very sensitive to foreign military intervention in its “sphere of privileged interests.” For now, at least, Russian and American interests in Afghanistan seem to converge, but Moscow has no interest in seeing Western influence expand further into Central Asia.

There is more to this situation, however, than Russia’s ambivalent position on Afghanistan. What is most intriguing is the fissure between official rhetoric and the demands of the Russian citizenry. For most of his political career, Putin has found himself able to guide public opinion in whichever direction he found necessary. In the aftermath of controversial elections and the emergence of the Russian protest movement, Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institute believes that “Putin will have to deal with the outside world without being confident that he has a solid political base at home.” Russian analyst Igor Torbakov made a similar diagnosis even before the conclusion of the presidential campaign, noting that Putin was beginning to lose touch with what had been one of his core constituencies—nationalists.

In courting the nationalists back into his electoral camp, Putin perhaps overplayed his hand. The struggling Prime Minister created an atmosphere reminiscent of the Cold War, in which enemies from abroad were surrounding Russia and making her weak. Public enemy number one was the United States—that hostile power which attempted to destabilize Russia and subvert the will of her people. Putin intended this rhetoric to serve simply as an electoral ploy; the campaign was made for domestic, not international, consumption. The problem was that the Russian people took Putin’s words to heart. A Levada Center survey held shortly after Putin lashed out at the first wave of protests revealed that 23 percent of respondents believed the protestors were paid by the United States, while a staggering 47 percent had difficulty answering. A recent VTsIOM poll showed that most Russians could not remember Putin’s specific campaign promises, but it is apparent that the broader narrative caught hold.

Putin is now left to chew on his own words. Despite the valiant defense put up by Lavrov and Rogozin, the idea of a NATO “base” in Ulyanovsk was seen by the Russian population as unacceptable. Eventually, NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen was forced to release a statement clarifying that the alliance had no intention of opening a base on Russian soil. Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov explained that NATO would coordinate with the Russian Transportation Ministry, rather than the Defense Ministry, as the arrangement would only facilitate the transportation of non-lethal cargo, and not NATO personnel. Other officials provided assurances that all goods would be checked through customs and pose no threat to Russian citizens. Even Sergei Lavrov, who had initially indicated that Ulyanovsk would host both non-lethal cargo and NATO personnel, eventually decided to retreat from that position towards a defense of the more limited view of Ulyanovsk espoused by Rogozin and others.

In the end, the public backlash is unlikely to actually block the agreement, but it is nevertheless telling that the Putin administration has been forced to work hard to spin the deal and assuage the concerns of the Russian population. Moscow’s hands have also been tied in a fashion that will prevent any expansion of Ulyanovsk’s role to include personnel or military equipment, severely limiting the value of the transit hub for Washington. It is unlikely the government would have felt similarly constrained even just one year ago.

The important take-away from this episode is that talk isn’t always cheap. When world leaders make public statements, it becomes difficult for them to easily back down. By fostering domestic constituencies that are suspicious of the United States, Putin has raised the cost of any positive engagement with Washington. In the short term, Putin’s pragmatic foreign policy will almost surely win out over domestic opposition. But if Putin’s political position were to falter further, then the administration could well be forced to accommodate these growing nationalist impulses at the expense of its preferred agenda. Hopefully Putin can recognize these long-term concerns and right the rhetorical course before digging himself too much deeper.

1"подарок от Путина США за признание выборов"
2"Мы заинтересованы в том, чтобы те, кто пресекает угрозы, создающие проблемы для России внутри Афганистана, эффективно выполняли свои задачи"

Stephen Weil is a research intern at the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.