Explaining Russian assertiveness

There is general agreement that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation has become much more assertive in the past decade. In the last few days, I have read several pieces which attempt to explain this.

First is a policy brief by Fredik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson for the European Council of Foreign Relations, entitled Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars. Wesslau and Wilson claim that ‘Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home’. Western sanctions and low oil prices have damaged the economic growth which was the prime source of Putin’s legitimacy. Consequently, ‘Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests.’ However, Russia doesn’t want this ‘adversarial relationship’ to get out of control, so it will opt for continuous ‘medium-level, low cost conflict’. Wesslau and Wilson say, ‘Medium-level threat makes people cling to Putin – hot war or actual disaster might provoke revolt.’

This is a popular thesis among Western critics of Russian foreign policy. However, Wesslau and Wilson merely assert it, while providing no evidence to support it. Furthermore, there is a serious contradiction in their logic. If an assertive foreign policy is a product of economic trouble, then Russia’s policy should have become less assertive in the period 2000-2008 when the Russian economy was doing very well. But the opposite was the case. Indeed, Wesslau and Wilson admit that ‘the Russian economy was booming in August 2008 when Russia fought a short war with Georgia’. This doesn’t fit their thesis at all. It is more likely that greater assertiveness is a product of greater power resulting from economic growth than it is a product of economic decline.

Second on my reading list was the March-April 2015 edition of the academic journal Problems of Post-Communism, which was devoted to the subject ‘Making Sense of Russian Foreign Policy.’ The four essays in the journal come to a very different conclusion from Wesslau and Wilson regarding the importance of domestic factors in Russian foreign policy. As guest editors Samuel Charap and Cory Welt note in their introduction, ‘the four articles lead to the conclusion that domestic factors do not have a decisive impact on Russian foreign policy. They are important on the margins … but none are the central driver of Russian foreign policy.’ Charap and Welt conclude that ‘Russia’s foreign policy is a product of the interaction of international, domestic, and individual factors.’

This is the approach taken also by Elias Götz in a recent article for another academic journal, International Policy Studies. Götz examines four explanations of Russia’s actions:

  1. Decision-maker explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of the particular characteristics of Vladimir Putin. Götz dismisses such explanations, saying that Putin’s policies are reflective of a ‘strong consensus’ in Russia, and it is most likely that if anybody else had been leading Russia for the past 16 years they ‘would have staked out a similar course.’ In many ways, writes Götz, ‘Putin’s approach to the post-Soviet space looks like a carbon copy’ of the policies followed under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
  2. Domestic political explanations: Russian assertiveness is designed to divert attention from domestic problems (as claimed by Wesslau and Wilson, for instance), or to suppress the growth of democracy in Russia’s near abroad lest it spread from there to Russia. Götz dismisses this explanation too, noting that Russia’s leadership is not under serious threat and so not in need of diversionary tactics. Also, Russia has shown itself quite willing to work with democratic neighbours as long as they are friendly to Russia – thus Russian-Georgian relations have improved in recent years even as Georgia has become more democratic under President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
  3. Ideational explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of national identity, nationalism, and the pursuit of national honour. The problem with these explanations, says Götz, is that they can’t explain why one narrative about national identity or honour has more influence on foreign policy than another.
  4. Geopolitical explanations: Russian assertiveness is a result of Russia’s increased power and of the growth of external threats, most notably NATO expansion. Götz admits that this provides a partial explanation of Russian behaviour, but it is not, he says, a complete one, as it cannot explain why Russia views some things as threats and not others, or why Russia has chosen to act differently in similar scenarios – e.g. annexing Crimea but not Donbass; or recognizing the independence of Abkhazia but not of Transnistria.

No single explanation is sufficient, Götz concludes. Instead, a way must be found of synthesizing them. This represents a much more sophisticated approach than that of Wesslau and Wilson. Geopolitical factors clearly matter, but political actors don’t interpret them in a neutral manner but through ideological lenses. Domestic politics also surely matter, at least to some extent: Russia’s leadership is constrained by a national consensus which often demands a more assertive policy, and it is influenced by domestic narratives which limit the options available to policy makers. Within those limits, the character of the leader then does play a role. Overall, I find Götz’s analysis the most convincing of the lot.

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9 thoughts on “Explaining Russian assertiveness”

  1. “First is a policy brief by Fredik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson for the European Council of Foreign Relations, entitled Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars. Wesslau and Wilson claim that ‘Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home’. Western sanctions and low oil prices have damaged the economic growth which was the prime source of Putin’s legitimacy. Consequently, ‘Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests.’ However, Russia doesn’t want this ‘adversarial relationship’ to get out of control, so it will opt for continuous ‘medium-level, low cost conflict’. Wesslau and Wilson say, ‘Medium-level threat makes people cling to Putin – hot war or actual disaster might provoke revolt.’”

    I have an impression that I already read it… or something like it. Because, it seems to me, that every single “Russia Watcher” on a payroll of this or that think tank or “respectable” Western Media outlet repeats again and again this mantra – “Putin seems to re-legetimise himself” and “So source of his legitimacy was the pact with the society – prosperity in exchange for non involvement in politics”. Or similar addle-brained crap.

    This theory presumes that, by itself, the “Regime of Putin” is illegitimate, and that it must constantly do something to “re-legitimise” itself. Uhm, I have a couple of question:

    1) What was the source of Boris Yeltsin’s legitimacy? You know, this jolly rarely sober old fellow, who shelled his own parliament in 1993, changed the Constitution to make Russia super-president republic, initiated the robbery of the century of his own citizens at the hands of small clique of Russian and international robber-barons, who screwed up royally in Chechnya, who won his second term ONLY due to the most unfair and corrupt electoral campaign rife with vote buying and stuff, who then stumbled down barely conscious till January 31 1999 constantly sick, drunken or trusting the running of things in Russia to the oligarch Semibankirsh’ina?

    Are you going to tell me that he is somehow… more legitimate than Putin?

    2) What was Medvedev’s source of legitimacy in 2008-12 period? It was he (officially) in charge when the world crisis of ’08 hit. Russia felt its consequences till 2010. Strangely enough, lil’ Dima didn’t start a shooting war with any of his neighbours afterwards – while it was him, not Putin, who called Saakashvili “unhandshakable person” (rus. “нерукопожатная персона”), which since then became a meme in Russia, and also tried to talk really, really tough. Instead, Dmitriy “The Jolly Gnome” Medvedev fell for the Clintonian “Overload” and stepped back during the initial rounds of the so-called Arab spring.

    3) Should we assume then, that the source of “legitimacy” of any given government on Earth lays not in the laws and opinion of its people, but is some mystical substance, which could be granted by the holy adepts of the Free World, residing in the hallowed halls of Brussels/DC? Like, in the ages past, the Pope was the source of worldly legitimacy for the Catholic monarchs of the so-called “Christendom”?

    Something tells me, that the most astute and respectable members of Western Academia and Punditocracy (if pressed) would answer “Yes, dammit!”. That’s why, for example, Assad for them is illegitimate leader. That’s why Yanukovitch became immediately illegitimate leader when, ha-ha, “pro-Western” forces came to power in Kiev. And that’s why the house of Saud is a legitimate government of their country – and a nice trading partners, to boot. And the less is said for this excuse for a president that Yemen allegedly has its “legitimate” leader – the better.

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  2. The problem is that most of the drivel those “analysts” produce amounts to declaring Russian government illegitimate. That’s the purpose; the outlandish explications are there only to fit the narrative.

    In reality, every decision (e.g.: Crimea, Donbas) has its own reasons: a combination of domestic, geopolitical, economic, identity, and what-not… Same as what happens in any other place of the world, any state.

    The fact that these “analyses”, all that drivel is even published by the western mainstream media, and in such tremendous volume, says a lot of the state of affairs in the west. That’s what needs to be addressed…

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  3. ‘There is general agreement that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation has become much more assertive in the past decade.’

    But – what does it mean to say this?

    In regard to Ukraine, the Russian authorities gave the clearest possible indications that, if an attempt was made to incorporate the whole of Ukraine, including Sebastopol, in NATO, then Crimea wouldn’t be in it.

    I have no claims to be a Russianist – do not know the language, never lived there – but it was reasonably clear to anyone who cared to look that the Russian authorities were doing the equivalent of putting up the kind of ‘idiot cards’ which used to be used in television studies when senile actors could not be trusted to remember their lines.

    Back in July 2008, I tried to explain this to Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor at the Naval War College. The man simply would not listen.

    (See http://washingtonrealist.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/musings-for-merkel-and-searching-for.html .)

    Again, it should have been apparent to anyone with a reasonably functioning intelligence that Russia has very strong interests in not allowing jihadists to take power in Syria, as well as other perfectly natural interests in preserving their influence in that country.

    The actual truth of the matter – evident in relation to Ukraine and Syria – is that Western élites got used in the ‘Nineties to taking for granted that Russia was so weak that its national interests could be disregarded.

    And this was part of a more general process, whereby these élites succumbed to a completely delusional view of the world, in which they were not only omnipotent, but self-evidently righteous.

    Seen from within this delusional view, of course, the reversal of Russia to perfectly natural and normal patterns of behaviour is a problematic phenomenon which needs explanation. But explanations framed from within this delusional view will, of course, be largely valueless intellectually, and very bad guides to policy.

    What really needs explanation is why the retreat and collapse of Soviet power produced something close to a total disintegration of the political intelligence of Western élites.

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    1. Bravo (clapping)!!! Well said. Western analysis of Russia increasingly operates on a closed-loop cycle whereby politicians leak to the press and analysts give interviews to the press, then they believe – or say they believe – what they read in the papers. Rather than try to find out what is actually going on in Russia, effort is focused instead on trying to develop memes, such as that Medvedev’s latest ‘gaffe’, in which he told a pensioner there is no more money but to ‘hang in there’, is going to make the Russian government an object of ridicule, or trying to breathe life into the latest bon mot from ‘opposition leader’ Alexei Navalny. There’s no percentage in writing that the sanctions have failed to cripple Russia, or that its leaders are baffled by the increasingly childlike behaviour of western leaders. The readers want red meat and the skirling pipes of victory, and the analysts spoon-feed it to them.

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  4. Let me tell you what an assertive Russian policy would have looked like. On Georgia Russia would not have stopped after liberating South Ossetia and would have marched into Tbilisi and installed a friendly regime actually as the US had done numerous times in what it called its backyard.
    On Ukraine, Russia could have refused to recognize a Maidan government as illegitimate government of a coup d,etat and sent in the troops to support legitimate government of Yanukovich. It could have driven the Maidan Bandera scum out of Kiev, allowed them to secede in Western Ukraine, their hud and declared to the West that West Ukraine its protectorate a no fly zone for |NATO.
    This is just for starters. You want to continue OK Here is some more assertive policy.
    In response to missiles in Roumania Russia occupies Odessa and Transnistria region and installs medium range missiles there targeting American missiles.
    You want some more assertive? Ok How about staging a coup d,etat in Riga and installing a Russia friendly government there, declare its alliance leave NATO enter Eurasia union etc.
    That my deare friends would have been an assertive foreign policy. Moreover if you listen to debates on channel one of Russia TV you will learn that that kind of policy would have had a large audience of support.

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