By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — It's a mantra of Vladimir Putin's presidential campaign: The United States is working to weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse.
In a wave of anti-Americanism reminiscent of the Cold War, the prime minister has cast his opponents as U.S. lackeys and the new American ambassador has found himself under unprecedented attack, including being targeted in an offensive YouTube video that implies he is a pedophile.
Putin's posturing as a defender of national interests may help him win the March 4 election, but possibly at the cost of the "reset" of U.S.-Russian relations that has been one of the foreign policy achievements of Barack Obama's presidency.
"The current campaign is laden with anti-Americanism," said Sergei Oznobishchev, head of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, a Moscow think tank. "It's like clothing they dust off and put on for certain occasions, currently for electoral purposes."
Putin has frequently criticized the United States throughout his 12-year rule, first as president and then as prime minister, accusing Washington of seeking to secure global domination. After a period of relative warmth thanks to the reset, relations have worsened again over U.S. missile defense plans and Moscow's support for the Syrian government despite its violent crackdown on protests.
With the election approaching and pro-democracy protests gaining momentum, anti-American rhetoric on state TV channels has risen dramatically in pitch.
Shortly after the arrival in mid-January of U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who had served as Obama's Russia adviser and helped engineer the reset, Channel One state television aired a program describing him as a "specialist in the promotion of democracy" who came to Russia to organize "a revolution." As a Stanford University professor, McFaul has written extensively on fostering democracy.
A video posted on YouTube this week shows an anonymous pollster asking people on the street in Moscow to compare photographs of McFaul with a man convicted of pedophilia, and say which one looks like a pedophile. Everyone in the video points to McFaul. The authors could not be tracked down, but the video has the hallmarks of those made by pro-Kremlin youth groups to tarnish Putin's enemies.
When McFaul met with representatives of the Russian opposition, camera crews from Kremlin-controlled stations were waiting at the gates to harass them and try to cast them as U.S. stooges.
McFaul has indicated that behind the scenes, Russian officials have been more welcoming.
"Productive meetings this week with Russian govt officials, even as we disagree on Syria," he tweeted on Feb. 8. "Sharp contrast with public anti-US statements."
In a documentary broadcast this month by Channel One, Putin charged that the U.S. wants to subdue Russia, fearing its nuclear might.
"Our partners don't want allies, they want vassals," Putin said. He dismissed as lies U.S. assurances that the planned missile shield is intended to counter a missile threat from Iran, insisting that its real goal was to erode Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Moscow has sought legal guarantees from the U.S. that the future missile shield will not be directed against it; failure to reach agreement has fueled tensions that may further escalate in May when NATO members are to sign an agreement in Chicago on the U.S.-led missile defense.
The annual summit of the Group of Eight, which includes Russia, is being held in Chicago at about the same time. Putin is expected to attend, for what would likely be his first major foreign trip after his likely election and inauguration in early May.
Putin's anti-Americanism may have roots in his 16-year KGB career, but many believe that it is really driven by political expediency rather than ideology.
Facing growing public frustration over pervasive official corruption and rising social inequality, Putin appears to be trying to redirect public anger at foreign forces.
"Putin has revived the Soviet-era argument: We are poor because we are surrounded by enemies," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who was among the founders of the League of Voters, a public organization set up to promote fair elections. "That serves both as an explanation for the economic inefficiency and an argument against a leadership change."