Realism is all the rage in discussions of American policy vis a vis Russia these days. The self-styled realists claim that Russia and the US have common interests regarding Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and terrorism, to mention just a few matters. What’s more, they argue that the US has no interest in what Russia believes to be its vital privileged sphere, and that as a result American policy in Georgia and Ukraine, and missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic, is a counterproductive, unnecessary irritant. Give Russia free reign in these areas, the realists argue, and there will be a mutually beneficial rapprochement that will lead to marked progress on heretofore intractible issues, such as Iran.
The realists are, alas, quite unrealistic. They take a two-dimensional, Flatland view of interest that ignores important historical, cultural, ideological, and political influences on policy. Realism is essentially a reductionist view. Although the geographic and economic factors that realists emphasize are indeed important, they are not the only, or even the most important, drivers of state policy. Grounded in the Westphalian worldview, which asserts that the internal affairs of states are none of the business of other states, they have the tendency to ignore these internal dynamics even though they affect the ways that a state interacts with other states. Realists tend to treat international relations as a big game of Risk, but the real world isn’t so flat–or so simple.
The problems with this approach are very pronounced indeed where Russia is involved, as they were with the USSR in years past. The Russian political and economic system; its historical inheritance; and its Muscovite-Tsarist-Orthodox-autocratic-statist mindset lead Russia to behave in ways that are quite difficult indeed to square with realist predictions. A fragile, closed-order system, where the political leadership is also inextricably linked with major economic interests (with some of the links quite explicit, but others almost certainly far murkier, corrupt–and lucrative), and which is not subject to civil audit and accountability, is likely to have a far different view of its interests than states with very different politico-economic systems. Neo-feudal states and societies (as Vladimir Shlapentokh characterizes Russia) behave differently than modern ones. Add in the historical and cultural legacy of Orthodoxy, Muscovite patrimonialism, and Tsarist imperialism, and the differences with Western states become even more pronounced.
Yet, by and large, realists ignore these differences, and dismiss them as irrelevant. This is a manifest error, as this article by Paul Klimmage make very clear. You should really read the whole thing, but this captures the essence of the argument:
The same kleptocratic impulses that drive the Kremlin’s management of its own economy inform the way it interacts with other states. In its foreign policy, Russia’s guiding principle is not some abstract notion of national interest, but rather the narrower interests of the elite — energy exports and cozy ties with likeminded regimes. The style has been thuggish, fed by the elite’s three great formative influences: the gangland 1990s, the KGB inheritance, and a territorial, zero-sum understanding of relations between states taken directly from the Cold War playbook.
But make no mistake – the Cold War is over, and the Kremlin’s playbook today looks more like a checkbook. The bottom line is that for Russia’s mercenary-minded elite, it’s all about the bottom line.
So how should the U.S. administration approach this corrupt, dysfunctional, undemocratic, and illiberal Russia? Unfortunately, there are few good options.
President Obama has opted for a realist reset, hoping to use mutual interests to rebuild trust for subsequent engagement on thornier topics. But realpolitik lives and dies on the accuracy of its assumptions. The key assumptions here are that mutual interests exist, and that Obama can parlay them into fruitful cooperation on the sticking points.
The harsh truth is that on crucial issues, real interests diverge. On Iran, Moscow has every reason to maintain the uneasy status quo, not aid the normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations, and certainly not foment a breakthrough that could end Russia’s lucrative status as the sole export conduit for Central Asian gas. On Afghanistan, the Kremlin’s interest is not stabilization, but rather tying the United States to supply routes contingent on Russian beneficence. U.S. policymakers who seek to make common cause on Iran and Afghanistan should take heed that Russian talking heads and state-controlled media spend lots of time ranting about the dangerous Americans and very little about the mullahs or the Taliban.
The point about Iran is particularly apt. Viewed from the realist perspective, Russian policy toward Iran is incomprehensible. It is far more understandable when Russian idiosyncrasies–notably the economic interests of the elite, as distinct from the genuine national interests of Russia–are taken into account.
There are many other SWP themes in Klimmage’s piece, notably the description of Putin as a cartel manager distributing rents among competing factions to keep the peace:
The leader — a function performed in Russia by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — is a fine example of a post with limited formal powers vastly enhanced by the informal powers of the man who holds it. He acts as arbiter and conspirator, resolving disputes and playing interests groups off each other to prevent threats to his power. When Putin performs this task successfully, he keeps conflict under the radar and enhances his influence. When he stumbles, visible spats tarnish the veneer, as they did during a public polemic in 2007 between elite clans over KGB officers turned business moguls.
But my favorite part is his policy recommendation. A recommendation that would almost certainly never dawn on a realist, but comes naturally to someone more sensitive to the internal dynamics and tensions of Russia. It is, in essence, what I suggested in the aftermath of the Georgian War, and called the “Let Slip the Dogs of Accounting” option:
Plan B will involve measures aimed at dispelling the Kremlin’s impression of Western weakness. If Russia sends the message that the road to Kabul runs through Moscow — as it did when it enticed Kyrgyzstan to shutter a U.S. military base while kindly offering to facilitate a new U.S. supply line through Russia — send a stronger message by exploring a new base in Georgia. Or Azerbaijan. Or even Turkmenistan. If Russian energy skullduggery leaves European customers out in the cold, go after the ill-gotten assets of the Russian elite, targeting the sleazy offshore networks of individuals in leadership positions. [Emphasis added.]
That would get their attention in a way that pressing the realist reset button n ever will.
Ronald Reagan drove realists crazy by his insistence that the character of the Soviet regime mattered. Whereas realist policies emboldened the Soviets, Reagan’s set them on their heels, and set in motion a train of events that led to the collapse of the USSR. Reagan’s actions were not a sufficient condition for such an outcome, but they were necessary.
As Klimmage argues, policies that are predicated on an understanding of the nature of the current Russian system are more likely to result in successful policy outcomes than realist nostrums that ignore salient drivers of Russian behavior.
So, just why are they called realists?