MOSCOW – It's a key 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.
In a documentary broadcast this month by Channel One state television, 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."
Anti-U.S. rhetoric works well for Putin's core electorate of blue-collar workers, farmers and public servants, many of whom harbor deep suspicions of U.S. intentions after years of anti-American propaganda on state-controlled television stations.
"People have been poisoned by television, and many sincerely believe in U.S. aggressive intentions," said Alexander Konovalov, a political analyst.
He said Putin has taken the risk of damaging ties with the U.S. because his desire to return to the presidency outweighs other concerns.
"The focus now is on showing the domestic audience that he doesn't fear standing up to the United States," Konovalov said.
With the election approaching and the pro-democracy protest movement gaining momentum, the 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 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 and 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 aimed at tarnishing 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.
Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader who took part in the meeting, said that Putin is "posturing as a defender against American expansion and the guarantor of stability."
"Television is ramming through thoughts about American spies and the paid protesters," Nemtsov wrote in his blog.
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."
Putin has accused the U.S. State Department of instigating the protests that drew tens of thousands of people after a Dec. 4 parliamentary election that was manipulated in favor of Putin's party. Russia's top investigative agency then claimed that videos chronicling vote rigging were faked and originated from a server in California.
Russia's only independent election-monitoring group, Golos, dismissed the claim, saying the only specific video the Investigative Committee had pointed at as fake was in fact genuine and came from a server in Moscow, not California. Golos' statement was ignored by state television stations.
State broadcasters also have given prominent coverage to incidents involving Russian children adopted by American families. The Foreign Ministry sprang into action over the weekend, accusing U.S. authorities of failing to adequately punish parents charged with killing or mistreating their adopted children and urging a suspension of further adoptions.
Despite the rise of anti-American rhetoric, few expect the current frictions to escalate into a bigger conflict.
Putin doesn't want a showdown with the United States, said Sergei Rogov, the head of the USA and Canada Institute, which advises the Kremlin. He said Moscow and Washington may still agree on a missile defense document that would assuage Russia's concerns before the Chicago summit.
"The newly elected Russian president would not like to begin his term in office with a confrontation with the United States," Rogov said.
Oznobishchev said that Moscow's economic interests, such as Russia's investments in the U.S. Treasuries and the Russian elite's assets in the U.S., would prevent it from going too far in challenging Washington. Moscow also badly needs Western investments and technology, he added.
"The need for modernization objectively pushes Russia toward establishing closer ties with the United States, Japan and Western Europe," he said. "It will not risk any serious rift with the U.S."