The Restart of History and the Russia Question

The Restart of History and the Russia Question

Sumantra Maitra
Sumantra Maitra
9 min read

Two Schools of Thought

We have a policy paralysis in the West with regards to Putin’s Russia. Recently, two essays “The Cold War is Over” by Peter Hitchens and the “Realism We Need” by Edward Lucas both agreed that Putin is a tyrannical despot, as any sane individual would. They both accept that Russia is a wondrous country with incredible contribution to global literature and culture, and Russians as people are exceptional, as do I. Anyone who disagrees with this, needs to get their head checked. They however differ on the causality of Russian revanchism, and prescribe completely opposing policy to counter this threat.

In his essay, Hitchens, unlikely a Realist himself in the academic sense of the term, agrees with a basic Realist explanation of the causation of Russian revanchism in Europe, and squarely blames it on NATO expansion, Eastern European colour revolutions as well as democracy promotion and liberal hegemony. He also suggests that the Cold War is over, and there’s no need to rush into another rivalry with Russia and renew a great power confrontation, given that Russia is in no position to actually threaten, (militarily or economically) any plausible Western interests unless we keep on redefining our interests in moralistic terms.

Lucas rightly states that there is indeed a new cold war, but wrongly dismisses the West’s culpability when it comes to Russian revanchism. He also suggests that we should “stand up to Putin”, a common theme of action, among foreign policy liberals. Lucas however, then bizarrely refers to Hitchens’ isolationist policy prescription as ‘Realism’, and then proceeds to valiantly slay the mythical strawman blaming Realism for everything. That might come as a surprise to actual Realist policy makers and researchers (including yours truly), because Realists haven’t been in Western policy positions, neither in US, nor in UK or EU to actually influence the countless myopic miscalculations since 1993. Both are, needless to mention, partially correct in the identification of current Russian revanchism, and in the policy prescription, but both are also clearly wrong, as I will point out below.

These two essays highlight the two dominant schools of current Western political thought process. One is a minor but influential conservative isolationism, and the other a more prevalent and mainstream liberal hegemony. Neither of them either represent and define Realism as a school of foreign policy, or prescribe a Realist policy position to deal with Russia, although Hitchens is a little closer to it than Lucas.

They are not the only ones though. In its latest lead story, The Economist tried to chart a course to deal with what it termed as the greatest threat for the West, from Russia. “What should the West do? Time is on its side”, the magazine rhetorically asks before gently assuring its readers. It admits that Putin’s Russia is a thoroughly declining power, before proclaiming that a declining power is also prone to lash out, and therefore it is prudent to continue to engage with Putin. The article warns that the American president must immediately declare any Russian tactic of slicing Estonia or any other far east NATO member as an act against the entire alliance. The Economist article then goes on to conclude that the West should not lose its head, even when Russian cyberattacks are affecting American domestic elections, as “The West” can withstand such “Active Measures” (Активные мероприятия/Aktivnye meropriyatiye), and it ends with the suggestion that the West shouldn’t forget its ability to shape the World and should “stand firm”.

What do we mean by “The West”

Again, powerfully written, but slightly confusing, as the article, just as the previous ones mentioned above, never attempts to define, what “The West” is exactly. When these articles talk about Western interests, is it the American interest? Or British? European Union? Is Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine or Turkey part of “The West”? What does Western power mean? Is it NATO, European or American military? If it means a cultural construct, does the entire EU fall as a single unit? Surely, Orban, Fico, or Erdogan doesn’t fall under “the West”, in this analysis, because even when they are within EU and NATO, they are extremely pro-Russian and those countries define their national interest very differently from UK and U.S. Which country does Western public opinion refer to? Disappointingly, none of these are answered in any contemporary analysis, which somehow renders the entire exercise futile. If one doesn’t even know the boundaries of what he or she is attempting to defend, there is no plausible way to go on and formulate a grand strategy.

To formulate a grand strategy towards an adversarial great power, there needs to be two key variables; who is the grand strategy for? And what is the grand strategy meant to achieve? The second question then leads to further process of enquiry: what are the limits of such strategy?

Ongoing Western debate on Putin’s Russia

Consider this. The analysis of Putin’s foreign policy since 1999, focused on broadly two distinct lines of argument. The first one highlights cultural forces shaping Putin’s policy and Putin as an individual dictator and the second focuses on economic forces.

To sum up the different arguments, Putin is a Sovok, or someone formed by the Soviet system he grew up in. He is also a cultural conservative, who hijacked both Soviet and Tsarist symbolism, and used it for his individual power solidification. He shares Russian imperial pride and the narrative of Russian cultural exceptionalism. Consequently, civilisational humiliation and perceived victimhood at the hand of the Western European and American power are influential in determining his actions in Syria and Ukraine.

The second line of argument focuses on how economics and domestic politics shapes Putin’s foreign policy. This line of analysis claims that everything Putin does is targeted towards domestic consumption, and is in turn shaped by the primary concern of the survivability of Putin’s cronies and his regime. The reason why Putin’s nonstop aggression is neverending, is because the Russian economy is crashing, and the survival of Putin’s regime depends on this constant war hysteria. The key factors in this school of analysis are these: Putin’s regime is cronyist and feeds on a constant narrative of anti-Western rhetoric; It is also dependent on economic forces, and its actions are influenced by Russian economic crash.

While the cultural and economic narratives are logical and provide valuable contribution to the analysis of Russia, they suffer from a few drawbacks and fail to answer three key questions. None of these arguments explain the deviations of Putin’s foreign policy. They provide contradictory explanations and answers to actions arising from differing causality. They also do not guide towards a singular Western grand strategy.

If Putin’s foreign policy is influenced and shaped by solely cultural causes, like Imperial pride, or Eurasian ideas or narrative and nostalgia for Novorossiya, then it doesn’t explain why Russia dropped her entire Novorossiya project, and why Russia didn’t actually invade Ukraine further after in annexed Crimea, given that no one in the West was ever willing to go to war to defend Ukraine. It doesn’t explain why Russia is still cynically exploiting the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, raising the tempo at times, and calming it down at other times, to gain significant discounts in talks with the European Union. Nor does it explain the structural causes as to why Russia didn’t want to expand beyond Crimea; Russian forces are significantly inferior and are already sort of bogged down in Ukraine and Syria with none of the conflicts seeming to end anytime soon, and Russians cannot afford to leave now, without looking weak and without their critical military objective achieved.

The economic and domestic argument also doesn’t help in understanding deviations in Putin’s behaviour. Even before 1999, the Russian analysts and politicians were warning the West of an “arc of instability” in the Islamic world spreading from Afghanistan to Turkey. The first overtures immediately after 9/11 was one of détente by Putin and both Putin’s and Medvedev’s Russia at times, especially from 1999-2003, and then from 2009-2011, bordered on tactical alignment with the United States and EU. There were instances of high cooperation in Middle East and Central Asia, intelligence sharing, space cooperation as well as nuclear proliferation and talks with Iran and North Korea. There were also instances of extreme conflict, during the 2007 Munich conference and 2008 Russia-Georgia war and post 2011 Libyan intervention and death of Gaddafi. Assuming Russian domestic ruling elite remained relatively similar under Putin and Medvedev and now Putin again, what then, ceteris paribas, explains this deviation? Russian aggression was also extremely high both during the 2008 Georgian war, when the Russian economy was high, and now, when the Russian economy is toast. The economic argument being a key determinant of Russian behaviour, therefore also doesn’t quite cut it.

What should an intelligent Realist Western strategy towards Russia be?

A common misunderstanding is the classification of Realism as either a left wing or right wing political idea. It opposes intervention? Must be anti-imperialist leftist hippies. It wants those poor Syrians to die? Must be a racist right-winger. It is of course neither. Realism both as a philosophical tradition, as well as a political science theory urges cautious prudence, and encourages decisions on policy strictly based on interests, and not values or norms.

There should be no misunderstanding that Russia is an adversarial great power, even though it is declining in almost all standard indices of power including a declining demographics, a slow and gradual brain drain and a collapsing mono-industrial economy. Hitchens, while correctly identifying the limits of Russian power, fails to convince in this regard. The enemy gets a vote, and if Moscow decides it wants to get back to a geopolitical confrontation, then her peer rivals will have no choice but to accept her as an adversarial power and act accordingly. Realists never believed in beneficial qualities of borderless values and global trade and international law, and cynics as they are, they tend to ascribe to the idea that this planet is doomed to an endless great power confrontational cycle. There should be no dewy-eyed optimism that Russian behaviour would change and Russia would suddenly turn into a democratic heaven. Realists, unlike both Hitchens and Lucas, also believe that the historical forces of culture, tradition, structure are unique to different countries which are in different stages of societal evolution, and are also generally skeptical in the power of democracy promotion and liberal norms as the magic solution for all global ills.

However, Russia, like any great power, has her own set of interests and her own historical sphere of influence, and Russia is not going to collapse anytime soon despite her multiple weaknesses. Even though Russian military is problem riddled and its Navy’s pride aircraft carrier belches out so much smoke that it gives “gas attack in Syria” a whole different meaning, it has a whole bunch of nuclear weapons and a solid deterrence which the West should acknowledge. And, no matter what Lucas and his liberal internationalist brethren constantly propose, it is naïve to think any Western policy maker or leader, would be foolish enough to ignore the current anti-confrontational public mood, economic stagnation and declining democratic norms within the West, and will take on the liberal crusade to promote democracy and start brinkmanship with another nuclear superpower in a geopolitically cancerous region where in fifty to hundred years’ time the West would have no discernible geostrategic and economic interest. Structural forces, as well as simple logic, prohibits such puerile internationalist zeal.

Unfortunately, what needs to be defined first is who here comprises the West and what are Western interests. Historically “the West” was made up of the allies in the second world war, including the Western European and northern European powers and United States and Canada, group of nations which were united in their varyingly liberal democratic political governance and free-market economies. That construct is now diluted, and now includes countries which are thoroughly pro-Russian in foreign policy, quite dependent on Russia when it comes to economy and energy and culturally extremely conservative and insulated and have more in common with culturally orthodox Russia than liberal Netherlands for example. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in that, except that this boneheaded and myopic expansionism of NATO and EU led to the dilution of both the groups and led to confusing and often contradictory set of interests of the members of the group. In fact the same day this Economist piece came out urging the West to be united in staring down Russian aggression, there were reports that further sanctions on Russia proposed by London, Berlin and Paris, were shot down by…Matteo Renzi of Italy.

Unless we first therefore decide on what “The West” is, what is the core area and set of interests for the West, and what are the red lines that the West won’t let Russia cross, and which are the areas of interests that converge between Russia and the West where there can be compromise, there is no point in expecting this policy paralysis regarding Russia to be over, regardless of how many pleonastic popular analyses are churned out on a daily basis. A prudent realist policy would be amoral, unlike both Hitchens and Lucas’. After defining what/who the West actually is, it will then seek to identify zones which are of existential geostrategic interest, such as the North Atlantic and Europe, and the Asia Pacific, and seek to draw a line in the sand and contain Russian aggression in those regions, should it occur, and will be open to compromise on other regions, which are not vital enough.

Amorality, is a concept hard for even philosophers to define, and extremely difficult to translate into international relations, but nation states, just like individual humans, cannot neglect the animus dominandi and anarchic nature of global politics, and therefore must act according and strictly per a defined set of interests and not values or norms. Containing Russia can after that, if that is indeed the policy, continue on defined doctrines of Realism, like buckpassing or bloodletting for example, concepts which are pointless for me to explain here as they do not fall within the scope or length of this essay. But, the basic point remains, unless we know what we seek to defend, and try to perfect within the West the tolerant liberal democratic norms we seek to preach and promote, there’s no point in lofty rhetoric and moral grandstanding.

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