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.