Russian strategic culture

This week’s topic in my ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy’ class is strategic culture. We will look at the extent to which foreign policy decisions may be a product of culture rather than pure reason. The idea is that countries have certain preferences which are culturally determined. Give a Canadian and a Russian the same problem, and they will come up with different solutions, simply because they are accustomed to approaching problems in different ways and to favouring different types of solutions.

On the face of it, the idea of strategic culture seems fairly obvious. But when you try to pin down what people mean by culture, and what effects it actually has, you discover that it is rather amorphous, and you run the risk of ending up with a circular argument which says that x does y simply because x does y. This is not very useful.

Strategic culture is best thought of as a disposition towards certain policies. It frames policy debates by helping to decide what policy issues are considered important and what the acceptable options are for dealing with those issues. Alternatively, it can be described as a sort of lens through which policies are viewed. It reflects habits of behaviour, and depends upon a variety of factors, such as: history, geography, economy, ideology, and social and political structures.

So, is there such a thing as Russian strategic culture?

For such a thing to exist, we must assume some degree of stability over time, with a degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and the contemporary Russian Federation, and perhaps also some degree of continuity between the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia. Given the vast differences between those polities, this is quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it is not an impossible one. Ideology may have changed, but the history of modern Russia is linked to that of the Soviet Union and Imperial Russia, Russia’s geographical position remains unchanged, and there has been a degree of institutional continuity, which means that habits of decision making have been carried forward. The possibility of a strategic culture exists. But what might it consist of?

Scholarship on Russian strategic culture is rather scanty, but in so far as it exists, it makes the following claims:

  • Russia’s lack of natural borders has made it seek security through expansion. By its own nature, ‘Russia is a revisionist country,’ writes Marcos Degaut.
  • The same lack of natural borders has made Russia vulnerable to invasion. According to Norbert Eitelhuber, this has created a somewhat paranoid worldview ‘characterized on one hand by an almost obsessive perception of a general threat towards Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and on the other hand by great power aspirations as a response.’
  • Following from the previous point, Fritz W. Ermarth claims that, ‘Russian foreign policy culture has often expressed a puzzling combination of contradictory attitudes: defensiveness bordering on paranoia, on one hand, combined with assertiveness bordering on pugnacity, on the other. In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.’
  • Russia’s history of resisting invasion has combined with its history of autocratic government to create a belief in the utility of military power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, economic growth has become more important in Russian thinking compared with military power but, says Degaut, ‘military strength … is still the chief institutional foundation of Russian statehood.’
  • Russian strategic culture is Realist rather than ideological in nature.

Some of this is highly debatable, most notably the idea that ‘Russia is a revisionist country’. Even the Soviet Union, after the Second World War, never used force for ‘revisionist’ or expansionary purposes, but only to prevent the overthrow of allied communist regimes  – e.g. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan – in other words, not to revise things but to keep them as they were.  As seen by its hostility to NATO expansion, its objections to Western doctrines of humanitarian intervention and preventive war, and its support for President Assad of Syria, Russia is far more interested in preserving the status-quo than in undermining it. Having experienced the traumas of revolution, it values stability.

Still, the idea that Russia desires to be respected as a great power is accurate, and there is some truth to the depiction of Russian strategic culture as Realist in nature, albeit Realism interpreted through the lens of ‘defensiveness bordering on paranoia … [and] assertiveness bordering on pugnacity.’ This makes Russia a player which needs to be handled with a degree of care – rather more care than has been the case in recent years, indeed. Confronting Russia, isolating it, and making it feel threatened, are likely to accentuate the defensiveness and increase the consequent pugnacious assertiveness. If Western states pursue such an approach they will find it counter-productive. Instead, as Eitelhuber concludes, the West should try to highlight ‘commonalities of interests, by reducing the points of friction, by alleviating Russian fears, and by channeling the interaction into a structured setting.’


3 thoughts on “Russian strategic culture”

  1. It’s interesting claim that “In the Russian mentality, both an inferiority complex and a superiority complex can be simultaneously on display.”

    It both feels somewhat real and I met it before. Someone put it as “I’m worm, I’m god, I’m czar, I’m slave”


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