Aug 28th 2020

Just what is Russia?

 

When 103 foreign-policy experts suggest “It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy,” then it’s surely time to listen. Their “six broad prescriptions for U.S. policy” aren’t terribly controversial, or original, or earthshattering—indeed, they are likely to strike most reasonable people as more or less reasonable and certainly worthy of consideration. That they should warrant an open letter is testimony, perhaps, to just how ossified U.S. thinking about Russia has become.

What merits attention isn’t the prescriptions, but the underlying image of Russia that the authors have. That matters even more than policy prescriptions, because the prescriptions flow from the image—and if the image is inaccurate, what hope is there for the prescriptions?

The experts give us some sense of that image in their final paragraph, which consists of the following key points. First, that Putin’s Russia “operates within a strategic framework deeply rooted in nationalist traditions that resonate with elites and the public alike.” Second, that “an eventual successor, even one more democratically inclined, will likely operate within this same framework.” Third, that “premising U.S. policy on the assumption that we can and must change that framework is misguided.” And fourth, that “we must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be.” 

Several questions immediately arise. 

Although the authors invoke a strategic framework and nationalist traditions, they never tell us just what they are, how they emerged, where they are located, how they are transmitted, and so on. But, if U.S. policy should respond to that framework, what it is? Moreover, if the framework and traditions are characteristic of Putin’s Russia, then why should they be adopted by his successor? Although it surely makes sense to base policy on what Russia’s strategic framework is, does it really make sense to think that framework will never change and to base policy on that assumption? Finally, just what is Russia? 

Since the authors don’t provide any answers, let me address these questions in turn.

Given the theoretical predilections of many of the signatories, it’s probably safe to say that the strategic framework they have in mind is one rooted in traditional understandings of geopolitics, wherein power matters most of all, states are the key actors, and inter-state tensions due to power imbalances are inevitable. This also happens to be the strategic vision that Russian President Vladimir Putin and many within his inner circle have in mind. But has this vision also characterized all past Russian leaders? Boris Yeltsin, Mikhail Gorbachev, and even Nikita Khrushchev clearly deviated from this belief. As did Vladimir Lenin, whose strategic framework, at least until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was based on class, and not geopolitics. Many tsars and tsarinas were geopoliticians, but defense of Orthodox Christianity, personal ambitions, and hatred of Islam also played not inconsequential roles in their calculations.

The authors of the open letter fare no better with their invocation of “nationalist traditions.” Nationalism is a term that means just about everything to everybody, so it would’ve been wise for the foreign-policy experts to have specified just what they mean by it. I assume that the term, as they understand it, has something to do with the notion that Russia’s destiny is to be a great power with a place in the sun. Once again, there is no doubt that Putin and his cohort believe this, but do elites and the public do too? Well, it depends on which elites and which publics at which times. Putin’s supporters within both categories are clearly on board, but, then again, his popularity has crashed, enthusiasm for the war with Ukraine has sunk, and, as the thousands of Russians emigrating annually from the country show, it’s not exactly obvious that Putin’s great-power messages “resonates” as deeply as the foreign-policy experts suggest. Moreover, read the Russian press and you’ll find many voices among the intelligentsia arguing for a more modest geopolitical role and the abandonment of great-power aspirations. 

Have all Russian elites and publics always had this great-power view of Russia? Back in the early days of Russia, when it was centered on Muscovy, a place in the sun took a distinct back seat to surviving the “Mongol yoke.” Thereafter, surviving Poland-Lithuania’s eastward encroachments preoccupied Russian elites. Peter the Great may have been the first consciously to assert Russia’s place in the sun, and Catherine the Great and many of her successors followed in his footsteps. But the Russian Bolsheviks—Lenin again!—abjured such notions, at least until the 1930s, when Joseph Stalin fully donned the mantle of Great Russian nationalism. But wait—his successor Khrushchev again broke the mold. Leonid Brezhnev revived the nationalist dimension, but in far less virulent form, and Gorbachev abandoned it. President Boris Yeltsin appears to have been ambivalent, both asserting Russia’s primacy and acknowledging its neighbors’ equality. 

Where were Russian publics throughout all these ups and downs? Until the mid-twentieth century, they were too preoccupied with serfdom, hunger, rebellion, repression, war, collectivization, and mass industrialization to care too much. More recently, the invocation of Russian greatness has found support within the proverbial masses, but, as public opinion polls show, even that varies over time. 

It follows from the above that, since the strategic framework and the nationalist traditions have varied in the past and continue to vary in the present, there is no reason to assume that they will survive unchanged after Putin leaves. Now, it’s true that they may, but the distinguished authors give us no reasons to believe that this will be the case. One could just as easily argue that, in light of Putin’s growing weakness and the mass mobilization of discontent (the Khabarovsk demonstrations and the uprising in Belarus are a case in point), Putin’s successor will seek a “new course” and try to place as much space between himself and his predecessor—just as Khrushchev did after Stalin and Gorbachev did after Brezhnev.

It also follows that, while U.S. policy shouldn’t be premised on “changing that framework,” U.S. policy must be nimble enough to change if and when that framework and the nationalist traditions supposedly underpinning it change. And we know from Russian and Soviet history that foreign-policy frameworks change all the time. Peter the Great regarded Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa as his right-hand man until it became expedient to sacrifice him to the exigencies of the war with Sweden. The tsars continually waged war on and forged alliances with Ottoman Turkey. Lenin waged war on capitalism and imperialism, but was happy to accept financial and logistical support from the German military. Stalin opposed Hitler until he signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1938. Khrushchev abandoned Stalin’s foreign-policy priorities and hoped for peaceful coexistence. Brezhnev embarked on détente. Even Putin initially made nice to America before eventually adopting the supposedly unchangeable strategic framework. 

We come now to the final prescription—that “we must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Fair enough, but just what exactly is Russia? Now, if the question simply asks which features does Russia have at some point in time, then it’s both correct and anodyne. If, on the other hand, it asks, as I suspect it does, which features characterize Russia at all times, then it’s as unanswerable as asking “what is America?” or “what is Germany?” Or, more correctly, it’s answerable only if one makes essentialist assumptions about the primordially permanent features of some nation or state. Speaking of America’s “essence” or Germany’s “essence” might make for good politics, but it makes for dreadful policy. 

Russia has changed, and has been changing, since its beginnings in ancient Muscovy to its current condition as Putin’s realm. Some general features appear in much of Russian history. Most of its rulers have been authoritarian—but so, too, were most of England’s, France’s, and Germany’s. Many of its political and intellectual elites have considered Russia a special civilization deserving a place in the sun—but just as many have not, wanting to transform Russia into a Western state with Western values. Many Russians have been enamored of their country, but even more have probably damned it for destroying them and their children. What, then, is Russia? It is, and has always been, many, oftentimes contradictory, things—sometimes coexisting, sometimes getting the upper hand, always shifting, always eluding simplistic analysis. But, and this needs to be emphasized, the same holds true for every other country in the world.

The bottom line for U.S. policy toward Russia is clear. American policymakers must be aware of both continuities and discontinuities in Russia history, politics, and culture, appreciate that the appearance of stability can be as misleading as sudden breakdowns can appear retrospectively inevitable, and craft a nimble policy that promotes the interests of the United States and its allies. None of this is easy, of course, but, by being attuned to Russia’s historically proven potential for change, such a policy at least has a chance of succeeding.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 27th 2022
EXTRACTS: "Monetary policymakers are talking tough nowadays about fighting inflation to head off the risk of it spinning out of control. But that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually wimp out and allow the inflation rate to rise above target. Since hitting the target most likely requires a hard landing, they could end up raising rates and then getting cold feet once that scenario becomes more likely. Moreover, because there is so much private and public debt in the system (348% of GDP globally), interest-rate hikes could trigger a further sharp downturn in bond, stock, and credit markets, giving central banks yet another reason to backpedal." ----- "The historical evidence shows that a soft landing is highly improbable. That leaves either a hard landing and a return to lower inflation, or a stagflationary scenario. Either way, a recession in the next two years is likely."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "No, I am not arguing that Powell needs to replicate Volcker’s tightening campaign. But if the Fed wishes to avoid a replay of the stagflation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it needs to recognize the extraordinary gulf between Volcker’s 4.4% real interest rate and Powell’s -2.25%. It is delusional to believe that such a wildly accommodative policy trajectory can solve America’s worst inflation problem in a generation."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "It will be critical in this context how China will act and whether it will prioritise its economic interests (continuing trade with Europe and the US) or current ideological preferences (an alliance with Russia that makes the world safe for autocracies)."
May 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "The document is full of embarrassing and damming stories of illegal gatherings and bad behaviour. There was “excessive alcohol consumption”, a regular fixture referred to as “wine time Fridays” and altercations between staff. Aides are shown to have left Downing Street after 4am (and not because they had worked into these early hours). Cleaning staff and junior aides were abused, and a Number 10 adviser is on record before the infamous “bring your own booze” party...."
May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."