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

Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."