Right and Wrong on Russia

The predictive ability of political analysts is notoriously poor. Economists, meteorologists and epidemiologists do immeasurably better – armed as they are with parsimonious mathematical models and gigabytes of well-structured data – and even they often get things wrong. Pity, then, the poor political scientist, who is asked to forecast the behavior of inscrutable actors engaged in opaque processes.

And yet political analysts often do get it right, not because we have unlocked the secret laws of power, but because, as Charles King writes in Foreign Affairs, we have delved deeply into the things we study and gained enough insight into causes and effects to know when we can predict with confidence, and when we should keep our mouths shut.

All of which is a long lead-in for me to say, “I told you so.” Or, rather, I should have told you so.

In collecting my thoughts for an intensive week of writing (note to long-suffering collaborators and editors: it’s coming!), I came across an essay I presented at a workshop in March of 2013 but never published, titled “Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy in Russia: Why Moscow’s Shift to Confrontation with Washington is Structural“. The essay started with the intuition that Russian foreign policy (like most country’s foreign policies) was primarily a product of domestic politics and went on to argue that the emerging confrontation with Washington was not simply another tactical readjustment of the kind Russia had undertaken since time immemorial, but was, in fact, a shift towards a fundamental break with the U.S., and perhaps the West more broadly.

This was less than a year after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin, and more than a year before the annexation of Crimea. The immediate impetus for the essay were events that seemed momentous at the time, but about which even many ardent Russian watchers have by now forgotten: the eviction of the U.S. Agency for International Development, withdrawal from the Nunn-Legar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the disavowal of the recently signed bilateral treaty on adoptions and the cancellation of an cooperative agreement on narcotics and human trafficking. The essay cited more subtle shifts, as well:

“When North Korea tested a nuclear device in February 2013, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to accept a call from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for a period of almost 72 hours, citing a trip to Africa.”

The shift, I wrote at the time, was brought on by the Kremlin’s recognition that, for the first time in post-Soviet history, it was faced with an opposition it could not coopt. Given this new challenge – which was threatening, if not existential – Putin and his team chose a three-pronged approach: populist largesse, anti-opposition coercion, and marginalization of what opposition remained. And because there were few resources for real populism and (relatively) little appetite for outright coercion, marginalization would have to carry the lion’s share of the burden for the Kremlin. On this, the essay read as follows:

The core of this campaign of marginalization has been an attempt, broadly successful, to associate the opposition movement with things that can generally be characterized as foreign, cosmopolitan and untraditional, while consolidating a core conservative electorate around notions of a comfortable, traditional and familiar Russianness. In this respect, the American aspect of the discourse goes beyond the political. America is portrayed as the purveyor of a pejoratively modern project that undermines traditional values of faith, family and national identify. In the fight over adoption, Russian officials have gone as far as to suggest that Americans are interested in Russian children in order to improve their own flagging gene pool, or as a source of transplantable organs.[1] While public sentiment towards the U.S. has remained relatively stoic – again, failing to fall to Georgia-war levels[2] – observers have noted that anti-Americanism has become the foundational aspect of official conceptions of patriotism.[3] This, then, is not a push against American policy in the post-Soviet space or on missile defense, or even a robust rhetorical response to liberal interventionism; indeed, except for the conflict in Syria, there was nothing in American foreign policy at the time of this writing that Moscow as formally protesting.[4] This, rather, has been a push against America qua America, an attempt to forge a politically potent Russian identity by identifying the United States as the notional ‘other’.

That was the part I got right. The part I got wrong – or, perhaps, not entirely right – was this:

Russia’s preemptive explosion of key structural underpinnings of the American relationship may thus have been seen as the less costly option, knowing that mutual engagement in and around Afghanistan would end shortly anyway, and that basic nuclear arms control was too important to subject to politics.[5] It is worth noting that this is an option Russia would be unlikely to try with Europe, where levels of integration (including among the elite) are much higher, where trade is more important, and extrication thus more costly. And, indeed, while Europe more closely reflects the cosmopolitan and socially liberal values against which Moscow is currently mobilizing than does the United States, it is America that has borne the brunt of the rhetorical blow. Aware that Washington is unlikely to subject already limited trade and investment flows to politics, having already received most of what it wants from the U.S. – accession to the WTO, predominantly – and not trusting Washington to hold itself to lasting agreements on missile defense, NATO enlargement or just about anything else of strategic importance, Moscow has evidently calculated that, until such time as the opposition disappears and the need to counter-mobilize goes with it, the most profitable relationship with the United States is virtually no relationship at all.

Clearly, I failed to foresee the break with Europe, and the depths to which even the American relationship would descend. Obviously, I failed to foresee events in Ukraine. But the reason I never published the essay was because my Washington-based colleagues assured me that the treaty withdrawals and diplomatic breakdowns with which I had begun the essay were meaningless, mere bumps in the road that would not upset the fundamental progress of the ‘reset’. The story that made sense in my field didn’t make sense in theirs, and so I dropped it. Mea culpa.

Many of those same people are now arguing that the U.S. blundered into this conflict by pushing an aggressive and insensitive agenda in Ukraine and elsewhere. But they were wrong then, and they’re wrong now: this conflict was born in Moscow, and it well end there. That understanding underpins the best analysis on the West’s policy options (see Kathryn Stoner and Michael McFaul here, Kadri Liik here, Kimberly Marten here, and even, dare I say it, Gary Schmitt and Jeffrey Gedmin here). For my money, much of this analysis grossly overemphasizes the importance of Putin and his ‘mindset’, but at least it recognizes the fact that, if we are ever to end this war, we must first understand what caused it.


[1] RIA Novosti, “Degtiarev: amerikantsy usynovliaiut sirot iz RF iz-za vysokikh preferentsii,” RIA Novosti (20 December 2012), www.ria.ru/society/20121220/915573807.html.

[2] Levada Center 2012.

[3] Sergei Strokan’, “Osnovoi ofitsial’nogo patriotizma stanovitsia antiamerikanizm,” Kommersant (19 February 2013), www.kommersant.ru/doc-y/2127333.

[4] Fedor A. Luk’ianov, “Ne o chem govorit’,” Rossiia v global’noi politike (February 2013).

[5] Aleksei G. Arbatov, “Ugrozy real’nye i mnimye. Voennaia sila v mirovoi politike nachala XXI veka,” Rossiia v global’noi politike (March 2013).

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2 responses to “Right and Wrong on Russia

  1. Pingback: 8/14 Weekly Roundup | The Elicitor

  2. Pingback: Russia News Roundup August 14th | The Vostokian

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