Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime friend of President Vladimir Putin, is still indignant that he was slapped with U.S. sanctions in March. But asked whether they have changed the minds of Kremlin insiders like himself regarding Russian policy in Ukraine, his answer is a resounding no.
“That’s wishful thinking,” he scoffed in a recent interview.
Mr. Yakunin, president of state-owned Russian Railways, the country’s largest employer, says the Ukraine crisis has vindicated his long-held stance that the U.S. and Russia are ineluctable rivals, and that U.S. efforts to sabotage Russia have continued since the end of the Cold War, using weapons as varied as Hollywood movies and monetarist economics.
Critics who dismissed a study he co-wrote a year ago as “a work of conspiracy theory” now recognize “it’s a very realistic assessment of the situation,” he says.
The hardening attitudes suggest repairing the worst breach in East-West relations since the Cold War could be difficult, if not impossible, as long as Russia’s current leadership remains in power.
“Within the elite, this ideological matrix has really taken over,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who has studied the Russian ruling class since the 1990s. “They believe there is no way to mobilize the nation around the leader without an enemy.”
The Kremlin portrays Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko as an American stooge, installed after a U.S.-fomented revolution overthrew his pro-Russia predecessor and bent on bringing his country into the U.S. orbit–presenting an existential threat to Russia’s security.
Such views, conveyed nightly by anti-Western reports on state television, have spread broadly in Russian society. Fully 74% of Russians in a poll this summer said they viewed the U.S. unfavorably, up from 44% in January and the highest since the poll was first conducted in 1990.