Why Putin, and Ordinary Russians, Should Thank the United States

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One of the most important things that Yevgeny Prigozhin, owner of the private military company Wagner, did during his mini-insurrection against members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle was to admit openly that Russia’s war in Ukraine has nothing to do with any “threat” of a NATO expansion or Moscow’s need to “de-Nazify” its neighbor. Instead, it has everything to do with promoting the financial and political interests of Russia’s elite ruling class, at the expense of the average Russian citizen. In so saying, Prigozhin was repeating a view that many Russians likely hold but are too afraid to express. 

People, including a man wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for Russian military action in Ukraine, attend the Victory Day celebrations at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre (VDNKh), a trade show and amusement park, in Moscow on May 9, 2023.
Russians, including a man wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z, a symbol of support for Russian military action in Ukraine, attend Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2023, commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP via Getty Images

For years, the Kremlin propaganda machine has presented Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with its European neighbors as part of a sinister U.S. plan to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders, and then use Ukraine as a launching pad for a future invasion of Russia itself. This false narrative has gone hand in hand with the claim that the United States has been working to destroy and humiliate Russia and that the Americans, not corrupt Russians, are responsible for Russia’s problems.  

Since coming to power in 1999, first as prime minister and then as Russia’s president, Putin has convinced the Russian population to accept his dictatorial rule by playing to Russians’ traditional paranoia about “threats from abroad.” To listen to Putin, the U.S. deceived Russia in the 1990s into accepting international treaties that were designed to weaken Russia, and used its influence — inside and outside of Russia — to destabilize Russia. Per the Kremlin’s propaganda, only Putin’s strong and courageous leadership, and his willingness to challenge the United States, has saved Russia from destruction. 

Unfortunately, Prigozhin did not call Putin out for this lie and, even worse, the U.S. government has done a weak job of countering Putin’s falsehood for far too long.

For example, Republican and Democratic administrations since 2000 have failed to do a good job reminding Russian citizens that between 1921 and 1923, when the U.S. had not even established diplomatic ties with the newly created Soviet government, President Herbert Hoover’s administration approved the provision of $20 million in aid to Russia to help alleviate the suffering caused by famine that impacted millions of Russians living in the Volga region. 

This effort, administered by the American Relief Administration’s 300 American and 120,000 Soviet workers, distributed agricultural assistance directly to 10.5 million Soviet citizens. While some Russian historians are aware of this assistance, most Russians today probably are not. However, they might find it interesting to know that during a crisis in their country, Americans worked to help Russia. Washington ended this assistance only after learning that Vladimir Lenin’s government was exporting grain abroad while his population was starving.

Many older Russians today may remember the $11.3 billion in assistance provided to the Soviet Union via Lend Lease, between 1941 and 1945. This assistance took the form of trucks, Jeeps, tanks, fuel, clothing, food, ammunition and other supplies to help the Soviet Union defend itself against Nazi Germany. These old-timers may even know that, during this period, the U.S. shipped 17.5 million tons of supplies to the Soviets. 

We should also remind Russian citizens that, during World War II, the U.S. and Moscow’s other allies in the West fought a terrible war in the Pacific to roll back the threat posed by Imperial Japan, taking pressure off Moscow in the Soviet Far East and allowing Joseph Stalin to concentrate his country’s limited resources on fighting the Nazis on the Western Front.

On the topic of defeating Nazi Germany, it also might be helpful to educate Russians on how the U.S.-led strategic air campaign against Germany’s industrial base undermined the Third Reich, and the cost that American and Allied aircrews paid to wage this part of the war. Russians might question whether or not their armed forces would have been able to defeat the Nazis without support from the West.

Then, during the 1990s, the U.S. provided the new Russian Federation with billions of dollars in assistance. In 2001, a year after Putin became president, Washington provided Moscow with $580 million in aid. As late as 2007, the U.S. provided Russia with $1.6 billion in assistance. The U.S. assistance from 1990 through the 2000s included training thousands of Russian officials, entrepreneurs, teachers and farmers — and even sending assistance to Russian Armed Forces. 

Maybe if Russians were reminded of these facts, they might be more inclined to recognize that Putin and his cronies have been lying to them about Washington’s intentions toward their country.  

Ironically, some of Putin’s closest allies — and most anti-American thinkers today — benefited from U.S. aid programs in the 1990s. Putin himself is well aware of the assistance that the U.S. provided to Russia, having served in the mayor’s office in St. Petersburg. 

Of course, Russians and Americans both have the right to question how effective U.S. assistance to Russia really was, and criticize the execution of U.S. aid and assistance programs.  Washington has made mistakes in the way it has handled the distribution of aid, and too much of that assistance likely ended up in the personal accounts of corrupt Russian officials. But, although the execution may have been faulty, the intent was not to harm or destabilize Russia. It was to keep Russian society from collapsing, and to help Russians build a stable, healthy country. The U.S. needs to do a better job of getting this important point across to the average Russian. 

When Putin accuses the Ukrainians of being ingrates for not thanking Moscow for the assistance Russia provided Ukraine in the past, he should pause to reflect that, without U.S. assistance to his predecessor in the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin would not have been able to make Putin prime minister. And without that history of U.S. aid, Putin might be a retired mid-level government bureaucrat, living on a small pension. 

While it may be painful for many of us to think about, without U.S. aid to Russia, it is doubtful that Putin ever would have become Russia’s president. So, maybe it is time for Putin to stop his anti-American rhetoric. He should be thanking the U.S. for what we have shared with the Russian people.

Source: The Messenger