Reading Russia on Ukraine (1)

I am frequently asked what is driving Russian policy toward Ukraine. Why is the Kremlin so intent on destabilizing its neighbor? Why was it so determined to keep Ukraine from signing the Association Agreement with the European Union last fall? Doesn’t Russia have an interest in a better governed, less corrupt, and more prosperous neighbor? Why so much fuss about NATO accession? Does Moscow really think that Ukraine could pose a security threat to a country that spends more on its military than any state other than the United States and that has a huge arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons?

Russian troops massingIt strikes me that Western analysts fall into two broad camps on this “reading Russian” question: a “Wag the Dog” camp and a “Great Power Realism” camp.

The Wag the Dog camp holds that Russian policy is driven primarily by fear of contagion. That is, Putin and his advisors are deeply worried that a pro-Western, democratic government in Ukraine – particularly one that comes to power in a “colored revolution” of one form or another – will undermine Putin’s increasingly autocratic regime. Putin himself looms large in this narrative. He may not be as bad as Hitler, but he is self-interested, corrupt, insecure, and instinctively autocratic. In more extreme versions, he is paranoid or otherwise delusional. Isolated from Russian society, Putin and his advisors are concerned only about protecting their own power and privileges.

The Great Power Realism camp, in contrast, argues that Russia’s Ukraine policy emerges from a particular understanding of international politics and Russian national interests. At root, that understanding is a “realist” one – “realist” not in the sense that it  is necessarily accurate or “realistic,” but in the sense that theorists of international relations mean when they call themselves “realists.” The basic claim is that all states are essentially alike in their international behavior – they maximize power and pursue their “national interest,” the latter being understood as an objective category. (This is the part of “realism” that I find implausible – I do not believe that all states are alike, and neither do I believe that “national interest” is an objective category; on the contrary, it is a subjective, or “constructed,” one, which is to say, it cannot be derived from objective variables like population size, territorial size, location, economic development, and so on.)

The Wag the Dog and Great Power readings of Russia are not mutually exclusive – most analysts would probably concede that both are at work to some degree. Nevertheless, it is unlikely they are both equally important, and most analysts come down on one side or the other.

I am decidedly in the Great Power camp. I believe that Great Power Realism in Russia long predates Putin’s arrival in office in 2000, becoming predominant by the time Yevgeny Primakov became foreign minister in 1996. Putin has reinforced the worldview, but he is not its demiurge, which means that it will persist as the predominant approach to Russian foreign policy, to one degree or another, if and when Putin leaves office. Nor are Putin, or Russian foreign policy decision-makers in general, irrational, unbalanced, or necessarily self-interested. Rather, they are “rational” in the sense that they try to match strategic ends with political means. The problem is not a disconnect between ends and means – it is the ends themselves, which is hegemony in former Soviet space.

One reason I am skeptical of the Wag the Dog argument is that evidence that Putin personally is corrupt strikes me as weak.  It is not clear that he has significant personal wealth, or that he has accumulated great wealth illegally — he does not need to be wealthy, after all, when he has the resources of the Russian state at his disposal. And while most of the people around him are extremely wealthy, it is not clear that their wealth was obtained illegally — it is not illegal, after all, to be appointed to Gazprom’s board of directors and receive compensation in the form of regular income or stock. But most importantly,  my guess (and I admit it is just a guess) is that Putin himself is not corrupt — rather, he wants to be remembered as a great leader of a great state, in the tradition of, say, Peter the Great.

Another reason for my skepticism is that the timing of Russia’s recent military initiatives does not fit the Wag the Dog narrative well. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the economy had been growing robustly for almost a decade; there were no signs of significant political opposition to Putin and his policies; and Putin’s popularity rating was at an all-time high – which is to say, there was no obvious need at the time to wag the dog. Likewise, the decision to occupy and annex Crimea, and the decision to ratchet up the destabilization of eastern Ukraine, came well after the peak of the opposition movement in Russia in late 2011 and 2012, and when Putin’s popularity was extremely high in the wake of the Sochi Olympics.

The substance of Great Power Realism in Russia today has two reinforcing elements: an analytical (positive) one and a normative one (despite the implication that “realism” is value neutral). The analytical element holds that the international system is transitioning from a unipolar world dominated by the United States, to a multi-polar world where power is being shared more and more by a variety of “great powers” – China, India, Russia, Brazil, and perhaps others (i.e., what Fareed Zakaria calls “the rise of the rest” in his book by that title). The West in general, and the United States in particular, has entered into a period of relative, possibly even absolute, decline, while Russia is inevitably going to emerge as a pole in this multipolar world, as Putin has repeatedly put it.

The second, normative element of this worldview is, I believe, the more important – more important because I doubt the analytical claims would change much in the face of contrary evidence, such as deep structural headwinds for the Russian economy (which is to say, “realist” worldviews can be entirely “unrealistic”). In essence, the normative claim boils down to a deeply held conviction that it is rightful that Russia be a Great Power, one that is every bit the equal of the United States. But, the argument goes, Russia has been deliberately humbled, humiliated, and weakened by the West, which is intent upon denying Russia its rightful place on the world stage with a sphere of influence of its own in post-Soviet space.

There is a kind of Mackinder-like historicism at work here – Russian greatness is rightful by virtue of its size and control of the heartland of Eurasia. But there is a heavy dose of romantic nationalism at work as well. Russia is great because Russians are great – great in spirit, great in talent, great in cultural achievements, great in history. Indeed, Russia is a distinct “Eurasian” civilization, one with its own values, laws of historical evolution, and institutions.

One way in which these beliefs play out in practice is reflected in the extent to which Russian policy makers channel American behavior. The stance is: Whatever the United States does (according to its own understanding of that behavior, and regardless of whether that behavior is viewed in Moscow as counterproductive), Russia can, and will, do the same. For example:

  • If the United States invades other countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya), Russia will invade other countries (Georgia, Ukraine).
  • If the United States violates international law (Kosovo, Iraq), Russia will violate international law (Crimea).
  • If the United States violates human rights (torture, targeted drone killings), Russia will violate human rights (where to begin).
  • If Washington renegs on commitments to Moscow (NATO expansion, Security Council authorization of a limited military campaign in Libya), Moscow will renege on its commitments (the Helsinki Final Act, the Budapest Memorandum, INF compliance, the OCSE treaty).
  • If the United States lies (WMD in Iraq), Russia will lie (no Russian troops in Crimea, no Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine).
  • If the United States engages in a media campaign vilifying Russia (The New York Times, CNN, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Voice of America), Russia will engage in a media campaign vilifying the United States (Russia Today).
  • If the United States has a propaganda outlet in Moscow (The Moscow Carnegie Center), Russia will have a propaganda organ in the United States (The Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York).
  • If international observers are dispatched to monitor Russian elections, international observers should be dispatched to monitor American elections.
  • If the United States is hypocritical (the primacy of international law, the promotion of democracy, defense of human rights), Russia will be hypocritical (self-determination for national minorities, decentralization and federalization in Ukraine, the inadmissibility of using force against separatists, insistence that Kyiv respect the human rights of Russian speakers).
  • If the United States destabilizes the Ukrainian government and engages in a covert effort to place a pro-Western government in power in Kyiv (the Orange Revolution, EuroMaidan, neo-fascists in Kyiv), Russia will destabilize Ukraine and engage in a covert effort to place a pro-Russian government in power in Kyiv (Crimea, the uprisings in eastern Ukraine).
  • If the United States has its Monroe Doctrine, Russia will have a Putin Doctrine (no additional Soviet successor states can be incorporated into the Western institutional orbit).
  • If the United States has its own alliance system that institutionalizes its hegemony over Western Europe (NATO), Russia will have an alliance system that institutionalizes its hegemony in post-Soviet space (the Eurasian Union).

In short, my take on the “reading Russia on Ukraine” question is that the Kremlin’s policy is driven primarily by its embrace of Great Power Realism in foreign policy, an embrace that is supported by the great bulk of the Russian political class, and indeed by the bulk of the Russian public. Russia, the thinking goes, will be, and should be, one pole among many in an increasingly multipolar war; Russia will be, and should be, the hegemon in its immediate neighborhood; and Russia will be, and should be, the dominant power in a new Eurasian Union that serves as a counterweight to the European Union and NATO. This means keeping Ukraine, and indeed all the Soviet successor states other than the Baltic republics, out of the European Union, and above all out of NATO.

Whether Russian policy is driven primarily by Wag the Dog or by Great Power considerations has important implications for how the Ukrainian crisis is likely to play out going forward, as well as for how the West should respond to the crisis, subjects I will take up in my next blog post.