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.’

Russian victory

Today (9 March) is the hundredth anniversary of one of the biggest victories ever achieved by the Russian Army – the capture of the Austro-Hungarian fortress of Przemsyl.

The history of the Eastern Front in the First World War is little known, even in Russia. If people have some knowledge of it, they have probably heard only of the catastrophic defeat at Tannenberg in August 1914, in which General Samsonov’s Second Army was surrounded and destroyed. Yet the Russian victory at Przemysl was on the same scale as the German one at Tannenberg.

Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915
Nicholas II, far right, visits Przemysl, April 1915

The importance of Przemysl lay in its location astride the route westwards out of Galicia and into the Carpathian Mountains. The Russians first surrounded it in the summer of 1914 during their successful Galician offensive, only for the Austro-Hungarian Army to relieve it a short while later. After the Russians encircled it a second time in autumn 1914, the Austro-Hungarians made repeated efforts to relieve it again, but all such attempts foundered in the winter snows of the Carpathians. Deprived of supplies, the Przemysl garrison eventually had to surrender.

News of the victory reached the Russian Supreme Headquarters (Stavka) while Tsar Nicholas II was there. The Supreme Commander, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, rushed to give him the news, ‘out of breath and with tears in his eyes’, the Tsar told the Tsarina. The two men celebrated with champagne and a mass at the Stavka church. The Tsar then awarded the Grand Duke the Cross of St. George Second Class.

The Russians took 130,000 prisoners and captured 1,000 guns at Przemysl. It was possibly the most successful day any army ever had in the First World War.

The legitimate alternative

‘The primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy,’ says the American army’s pamphlet FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. ‘Legitimacy is the main objective,’ it explains.

The Atlantic Council of Canada has just published a report on the conference at which I spoke last week on the subject of the war in Ukraine. The report notes correctly that several speakers criticized some of the actions of the Ukrainian government, but the author, Olga Radchenko, then counters this criticism with the comment that ‘Panelists failed to sufficiently address what alternative methods the central government could have employed to deal with an armed insurgency.’ Radchenko’s comment deserves an answer.

Governments naturally want to have a monopoly on the use of force within their territory. No self-respecting state is likely to sit back and do nothing about armed insurgency. It may therefore appear to be unfair to criticize the Ukrainian government for resorting to force to quell the uprising which took place in Donbass last year. But although that argument in favour of violence is superficially appealing, both the ethics of war and the optimal method of dealing with insurgency dictate that other alternatives be explored first.

Most (although not all) just war theorists would accept that there is a ‘presumption against war’. War is considered to be unjust unless the opposite can be proven. The burden of proof is therefore not upon those who would oppose it to show that there are better alternatives; rather it is on those who would wage it to show that there are none. Moreover, even though restoring order can be considered a ‘just cause’ for war, just cause alone is insufficient. Other criteria must also be met, such as having the legitimate authority to wage war, having a reasonable chance of success, and using violence only as a last resort.

Let us, however, put aside the ethics of the issue, and focus instead on the practicalities. What practical alternatives did the Ukrainian authorities have in spring 2014? In line with the advice of FM 3-24, the best alternatives would have been ones which enhanced the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Donbass. That would have meant, among other things, broadening the make-up of the government to include people who could reasonably be said to represent the rebellious areas; clearly disassociating the government from the far right groups, such as Right Sector, which had helped bring it to power; and giving firm assurances about the status of the Russian language.

Once protestors in the East seized buildings and weapons, and especially after the referendums in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics on 11 May 2014, the situation changed. The measures above would still have been useful, but more would have been required, in particular an effort to talk with the rebel leadership to find a political solution. That leadership was far from united, with a range of ambitions running from union with Russia to merely some concessions from Kiev about the Russian language and decentralization of power. The mass of the population probably stood far closer to the latter than the former. By striking a deal with the latter, the government had a good chance of detaching the population from the more extreme elements, and leaving them isolated. At that point, the insurgency would have been doomed. The opportunity for such a deal still existed even in late June when talks began between former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and representatives of the DPR and LPR. Instead, the talks were abandoned when President Poroshenko annulled his first ceasefire in early July, apparently in the belief that his army was strong enough to win a military victory.

Rodchenko’s use of the phrase ‘armed insurgency’ implies that what the Ukrainian government faced (and still faces) was from the outset a military problem, which therefore required (and requires) a military solution. But if we follow the advice of FM 3-24, then it is better to view it as having been (and still being) a legitimacy problem. In a similar analysis, Robert Thompson, author of the classic text Defeating Communist Insurgency wrote that insurgency is a political problem and that the solution must be political too. Military action which undermines the political solution is to be avoided, even if it is militarily advantageous. That implies that the wisest option for the Ukrainian government would have been to avoid military action and take measures to convince the population of the government’s legitimacy.

This remains true even today. The Ukrainian authorities maintain that the primary cause of the war in Donbass is Russian interference. But if the people of Donbass were to decide that the legitimate government of their region was the one in Kiev, then the Russians, deprived of any popular support, would have to leave. As FM 3-24 remarks, ‘Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.’

Group polarization

This week’s ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ class will look at group dynamics, in other words how being in a group affects behaviour. The phenomenon of ‘groupthink’ is well known, and its effects on foreign policy have been extensively covered elsewhere, so instead in this post I will focus on a less well known phenomenon – group polarization.

Group polarization refers to the tendency of groups to move towards extremes. At the end of a discussion, group members will probably adopt a more extreme decision than that which they were inclined towards at the beginning. If at the start they were inclined to take a risk, they will be even more inclined to do so at the end; if instead, they were initially inclined to be cautious, they will end up even more cautious. In other words, groups tend to accentuate the existing dispositions of their members.

There are a couple of explanations for this. The first is that people want to fit into the group, and so adopt what they perceive to be the prevailing attitude. As more and more group members do so, the group as a whole becomes more extreme. The second explanation is that as people hear more and more arguments in favour of a certain position, they become more and more convinced of its correctness, as a result of which attitudes harden.

Let us apply this to relations between Russia and the West. Russia is an individual nation. Group polarization does not apply to it. But the West is a group, normally represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). We should expect group polarization to apply to both NATO and the EU in their relations to Russia. It seems reasonable to suppose that at the start of the current crisis in Ukraine, the majority of members of both organizations viewed Russia’s involvement in Ukraine negatively. Given this initial inclination, group polarization would probably have pushed both NATO and the EU to take an even harder line against Russia than the individual member states would have taken if left to their own devices. The existence of NATO and the EU has thus probably exacerbated East-West relations.

Does that mean that Russia should try and avoid dealing with NATO and the EU and instead try to deal with Western nations bilaterally? In the current situation, the answer is yes. Russia will do better by speaking to France and Germany individually than it will by speaking to NATO or the EU. The format of the Minsk negotiations, which included Russia, France, Germany, and Ukraine, are therefore advantageous to Russia compared to some format which might see NATO or the EU involved. This is true, however, only as long as the initial inclinations of Western states towards Russia are negative. Should those inclinations shift in a positive direction, group polarization could push NATO and the EU even more positively inclined towards Russia than individual members were. At that point, it would make sense for Russia to deal with the organizations rather than with their member states. There is little immediate prospect of that, however.


Upcoming events

This Wednesday (4 March) I will be giving a talk at 3 pm in the Junior Common Room of Trinity College at the University of Toronto on ‘The Problem with Military Intervention: Why we shouldn’t go to war with ISIS’. Details here.

On Friday 20 March, I will be talking on ‘The Ukraine Crisis, Russia, and NATO: Military and foreign policy perspectives’ at a conference at the University of Windsor on ‘From Maidan to Donbass: The Ukraine crisis in the context of Western-Russian relations.’ The conference is in room 203 of the Toldo Health Education Centre, from 2 pm onwards.

On Friday 27 March, I shall be at Kansas State University for the conference ‘Perspectives on Modern Honor’ to present a paper entitled ‘The Honour of the Crown: The State and its Soldiers’.

I expect to be in Moscow on 21 May for a conference on ‘The Philosophy of Ivan Ilyin: Russia and the West’, speaking on ‘Representations of Ivan Ilyin in Western countries, and the problems of mutual misunderstanding of Russia and the West’.

Finally, I have accepted an invitation to speak at IdeaCity 2015 in Toronto, 17-19 June, on the subject of how the world is not becoming more dangerous.


The dangers of overcompensating

Last week I posted on the subject of media bias, and also discussed the topic with my students. After a long debate, one of my students asked what we could do about it. Not a lot, was my reply, except be aware of it and bear it in mind when forming opinions on any given topic. Then I added a caveat: don’t overcompensate and start assuming that because the media distort many issues, they distort everything and that you cannot trust anything that you watch or read. And just because you no longer believe all the propaganda produced by your own country, don’t start believing that produced by others, or turn into a conspiracy theorist. It is a short step from scepticism about Western media and governments to becoming a 9/11 truther.

What brings this to mind are the reactions this week to the murder of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov. The immediate response of many of those who dislike the prevailing negative Western narrative about Russia was to claim that the murder was a ‘false flag operation’ carried out to discredit Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and to destabilize Russia. The perpetrators, according to this version of events, might have been members of Russia’s liberal opposition or perhaps the Ukrainian secret services.

Claims of this sort are not uncommon. As I have said elsewhere, the rebels in Ukraine were most likely responsible for shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17. Similarly, I think that it is probable that it was rebel artillery which hit a civilian bus in Volnovakha on 12 January, killing about a dozen people. Neither incident, I believe, was intentional. These were probably unfortunate mistakes of war. But many of those who reject the mainstream Western narrative about the war in Ukraine disagree – these attacks, they believe, were also ‘false flags’, designed to prejudice international opinion against the rebels.

Why do people believe these things, despite the evidence to the contrary? The answer I think is that having become disgruntled with the Russophobia of the Western media, people turn to alternative news sources, such as RT (if all they speak is English), the internet, or Twitter, and instead of treating these sources with the same distrust as the Western mainstream media, instead believe every word they produce. In short, they overcompensate. Having decided, for instance, that the Western version of events in Ukraine is inaccurate, and that Russia is not entirely to blame for the conflict there, they come to believe the opposite – that Russia isn’t to blame at all, and the whole business is the product of a devilish plan hatched by the USA to weaken Russia. Believing that Western claims about Russian involvement in Ukraine are exaggerated, they preposterously insist that Russia is not involved at all – that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine and never have been.

Mark Galeotti notes that one of the problems of the current state of Russia-West relations is ‘the death of neutrality. It is increasingly difficult not to be one side or the other.’ Either you believe that Putin is an evil despot, or you believe that he represents the genuine will of the Russian people. Either Russia is an imperialist aggressor, or is itself the victim of Western aggression. Either the Russian media is a source of non-stop propaganda, or the Western media is. The possibilities that Putin is not an evil despot, but that he isn’t a liberal democrat either; that Western media are flawed, but Russia media are too; that the government in Kiev is largely to blame for the war in Ukraine, but that Russia also shares the blame; that Ukrainian artillery kills civilians, but rebel artillery does too; all these and more are ignored, as balance is abandoned in favour of simplistic partisanship. It is worth remembering that nobody has a monopoly of the truth, and nobody has a monopoly of untruth either.