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Engaging Directly with the Russian Society

Many Russians are profoundly wary of U.S. intentions and often subscribe to myths about American society and foreign policy.

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Many Russians are profoundly wary of U.S. intentions and often subscribe to myths about American society and foreign policy. Anti-Americanism—which is both a result of Bush administration policies and the Russian government’s propaganda—has unfortunately become prevalent. A January 2009 BBC poll found that only 7 percent of Russians think the United States is a “mainly positive” influence in international affairs, while 65 percent think the United States has a “mainly negative” influence.

At the same time, Russians appear to be cautiously open to the prospect of better relations with the United States—47 percent of Russians said they believe President Barack Obama will improve the United States’ relations with the rest of the world. The Russian leadership often ignores public opinion, but it can affect policy on the margins. Antagonism toward the United States in Russian society could therefore make it more difficult to forge a lasting, substantive relationship with Moscow, while a more balanced view of American policies and society could prove an important ballast for improved bilateral relations.

The administration should engage Russian society directly to counter anti-Americanism and misperceptions about U.S. intentions, particularly the notion that we seek to encircle and weaken Russia. President Obama should begin this process while in Russia for the July summit by holding a town hall meeting similar to the one he conducted in Strasbourg, France, during the NATO summit in April. A town hall meeting would allow President Obama to speak directly with the Russian people, providing him an opportunity to debunk some of the myths about the United States and its policies. As with his speech in Cairo in June, he can also use the example of his own life story to demonstrate the vibrancy of American democracy.

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