The Russia Hands

If you have time, I suggest that you all take a few moments to read an article in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine by Keith Gessen entitled ‘The Quiet Americans Behind the U.S.-Russia Imbroglio’. Keith is the brother of Masha Gessen, who has acquired some fame as a result of various books she has written denouncing Vladimir Putin and the ‘totalitarian’ Putin ‘regime’. Keith is a very different kettle of fish. Seeking to explain why Russian-American relations seem to stay bad no matter who is in power in Washington, he is willing to consider the possibility that the answer might lie not just in Russian misbehaviour but also in the nature of the American state and the people who advise it about Russia. To this end, in his article he describes his conversations with the so-called ‘Russia hands’ (the Russian ‘experts’ within the American public service), and he seeks to determine how they view Russia, what policies they recommend, and how this affects politicians’ decisions.

The result is an excellent article which I thoroughly recommend to you all. Two points in particular struck me as I read it: the first relates to the structural incapacity of the American state to take Russian interests seriously; the second relates to the relative ideological unity among the ‘Russia hands.’ Let’s look at these in turn.

Structure

There are various models of how governments make policy. One is the top-down, rational actor model, which assumes that there is a single will in government which considers the relevant information and then makes a decision based on that. Another is the bureaucratic politics model, which sees policies as the result of negotiation and compromise between different parts of the state bureaucracy. And yet another is the organizational process model which sees policy as simply the product of how a given organization is structured. None of these models (and there are others still) provides a complete picture, but each contains a part of the truth. Gessen’s article provides some evidence for the organizational model. Here’s what one of the Russia hands interviewed by Gessen has to say:

The way the N.S.C. [National Security Council] is structured … the way the State Department is structured, is through a series of regional and functional bureaus. The question is always, ‘Who takes the lead?’ In Soviet times, when the entire foreign policy of the United States was oriented around countering the Soviet threat, the Russia hands frequently took the lead. In the post-Soviet era, with an increasingly irrelevant Russia, the reverse was true. Russia was unique in that it’s a country that was a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did, but it wasn’t in any place the most important factor. So you’re working on missile defense: Russia is clearly an important player in missile defense. But that process is not led by the person who’s responsible for Russia policy; it’s led by the person who’s responsible for nonproliferation policy. If you come to energy, Russia is obviously an important player in global energy markets, but Russia is not the most important player in global energy markets. That’s the Saudis and OPEC. So when you come to an energy issue, the people who are in charge of energy run that.

There’s a commonly held view among Russians that America is out to get Russia and pursuing a deliberate policy to weaken it. The comment above suggests something different: America pursues policies which Russia doesn’t like not because it’s hostile to Russia but because it simply doesn’t care enough about it to pay any attention to its concerns. And this lack of concern is hard-wired into the bureaucratic structure. As Gessen’s interviewee says of Ukraine, ‘Ukraine is not a Russia issue … It’s a Ukrainian issue. There’s a bureau for European affairs that overseas Ukrainian issues.’ So prior to 2014, US policy towards Ukraine was made by bureaucrats charged with European affairs. Russia experts had nothing to do with it. And the same applies to numerous other policy areas which affect American-Russian relations. It’s not that policy makers are deliberately undermining Russian interests. They just aren’t considering them at all.

This, I think, gets to the root of many of the current problems. Contrary to common claims that Russia is seeking to destroy the West, undermine democracy, completely reshape the international order, and so on, what Russian politicians actually say that they want is respect. They want their interests to be taken into consideration. What annoys them is that they aren’t. And if Gessen’s article is to be believed, this may be a deep structural problem.

Ideology

The other point which struck me in Gessen’s article is the relative ideological unity among the experts who advise the American government about Russia. Gessen’s interviewees propose various ways of dividing the Russia hands up into different groups, but it’s clear that the divisions between the groups aren’t very great. As Michael Kofman of the Center for Military Analyses tells Gessen, there are really only two types of Russia experts:

There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.

An example which proves the point is former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul. He began his tenure as ambassador promoting a ‘reset’ in Russian-American relations. But although this might seem to have put McFaul in the more moderate camp of Russia experts, as Gessen points out, ‘he was also an avid internationalist and democracy promoter, who had speculated in a widely circulated 2005 essay on the seven “factors for success” required for color revolution – the implication being that more such revolutions were necessary and desirable.’ Michael Kimmage, who abandoned academia to serve in the Obama administration, tells Gessen that there are just two strains in American foreign policy thinking: ‘The radical strain, associated with the neocons, called for a universal democratization, by force if need be … [and] the other [moderate] strain, which aimed to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia.’ As you can see, the distinction between the two isn’t exactly clear. Essentially, the division in the US foreign policy community boils down to radical liberal interventionists on the one hand and ‘moderate’ liberal interventionists on the other. But at the end of the day, they’re all liberal interventionists.

Gessen meets several Russia hands who are exceptions to this rule, Michael Kofman being the most notable example. But they are clearly in a small minority. What characterizes these people, Gessen notes, is ‘is less their analysis of Russia than their analysis of America.’ Dissident voices understand that America is in relative decline and needs to adopt a less confrontational foreign policy. This, though, is a deeply unpopular view within Washington. Instead,

Politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them. Many foreign-policy hands are eager to return to the Obama-era status quo, as if American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had, until the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, been doing just fine.

The result is an ‘absence of nuance on the Russia question – the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain’.

Judging by Gessen’s analysis, there is little reason to hope that America will adopt a more reasonable approach towards Russia in the near future. The roots of the present confrontational policies appear to run deep. This is a deeply pessimistic conclusion, but I fear that it is an accurate one.

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20 thoughts on “The Russia Hands”

  1. I went to graduate school with Fiona Hill, who is mentioned in the article. Not too long ago it seemed she was more on the non-establishment side of American views of Russia, but after her stint at the NSC and her position at Brookings, she has become rather disappointingly more a part of the Washington Consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather liked her ‘Mr Putin’ book. It gave a fairly balanced picture of the Russian president. The balance seems since to have been lost, or at least we no longer hear it. Despite it being her job, I wonder if Ms Hill is really making much of a contribution to Russia policy.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I agree with your last sentence. I subscribe to Johnson’s Russia List to keep abreast of Western coverage of Russia. (Disclosure: I have not worked in academia for many years despite having a doctorate in Russian history, so this is one way to keep informed.) Fiona used to write stuff that would get picked up there, but I haven’t seen anything from her in several years. Last I heard before her appointment to Trump’s team was her hosting of fellow former Richard Pipes students at Brookings a year or so ago.

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  2. I’m shocked, shocked and dismayed, dear professor, that you did not entice your faithful commentariat with the fact, that the article begins with the overview of Nastya Rybka’s “sex scandal”! Shocked, at such wasted opportunity for bringing more nuance and context! Sad. 😉

    “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

    I’ve been saying the same thing since… 2010? Gessens is bloody Captain Obvious.

    P.S. The article by Gessen-the-male-one fails to mention why, indeed, there is some core cadre of the Russia hands that transcends generations and what these core people have in common, when it comes to Russia and perceptions of Russia.

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  3. Oh, and one more thing:

    “But the Russians took it as a sign that we were still against them. It was really hard to walk back from. From there on out, we were doing things that we kept saying, ‘We’re not doing this to hurt you,’ and that the Russians felt hurt them. We didn’t do it because we wanted to hurt them. We did it because we didn’t care if it hurt them.”

    While you wrote:

    “Judging by Gessen’s analysis, there is little reason to hope that America will adopt a more reasonable approach towards Russia in the near future. The roots of the present confrontational policies appear to run deep. This is a deeply pessimistic conclusion, but I fear that it is an accurate one.”

    It’s a cold comfort when you, professor, argue that the West is not “out to get Russia”, but “just” doesn’t care that it can possibly have some legitimate interests. You are basically saying, that the West sees us as a fly to be swatted with a rolled newspaper, i.e. that the “Civilization” does not see us as humans at all.

    This is understandable. The West/America views itself as an Empire – the One and Only. The Empire is above all states, people and tribes. It cannot possible treat them equally or deal fairly with them diplomatically – that would degrade its status. The history shows us though, that the only way to force the Empire to behave like a normal, prober state is to beat it up. Hard. Repeatedly.

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  4. Now, honestly – the last one!

    “But relations with Russia soon soured. The more liberal Medvedev years created an expectation on the part of some Russians that the country would open up; when Medvedev announced in 2011 that he was stepping aside, that Putin would be returning to the presidency and that this is what they had planned all along, there was a feeling of grievous disappointment. Three months later, spurred by a number of blatant falsifications in the national Duma elections, this disappointment erupted into the largest protests of the post-Soviet period.”

    Gessen is a dishonest piece of bovine fecal matter. One – how about some explanation of some events that happened in 2011 elsewhere on the globe (e.g. Libya, “anti-Iran missile shield”), which aptly demonstrated that Medvedev aligned “civiliki” and “system liberals” should not be trusted building relations? You know – give some context, instead of going “hurr-durr, evul Putin smashed our pretty faced liberal freedoom and forced my flaming dyke of a sis to bugger off from his land of the bloody tyranny!”. Two – the meme that Bolotnaya protests were “the largest protests of the post-Soviet period” must die a violent, humiliating and public death – because it’s a lie, which gets promoted by the people like Gessen for the people like Gessen – and “thinking” chattering masses of the West, who scoffed at Trump’s chances and his “bydlo-like” electorate. Hint – Bolotnaya protests were not the largest. “Blessed 90s” had more numerous, longer and often more violent protests. De-monetization of the benefits in mid 2000s brought more people ALL AROUND THE COUNTRY to protests. Their chief sin of being ignored by the Western people with good faces was that theses protesters were… not adorable or photogenic enough.

    “Then, eager for adventure and contact with real-live Russians, she did her tour on the Soviet fishing vessel (for seven months, not one). That experience taught her something about the planned economy: After 25 days of drinking and card-playing, the crew did five days of hard work to meet their monthly targets.”

    That has nothing to do with the planned economy and everything with how things are/were/will be done in Russia since time immemorial. Long winters+short summers tend to create a certain attitude to the working (agrarian) cycle.

    “There is also the military analyst Michael Kofman, at the Center for Naval Analyses”

    Who in 2015 ran a series of the articles for the War on The Rocks, where he at first claimed that Russia will never send troops in Syria, and then claimed that Russia will soon lose in Syrian. Big shit eater that never got called out for his shamanistic predictions.

    ““Some people say, ‘It’s not business as usual with the Russians.’ But it’s never business as usual with the Russians! They’re the one nation on the planet that, on a bad day — they’ll go away, too — but they can take us off that planet.”

    And on this optimistic note I remind everyone:

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  5. Reading this attempted explanation of why the Americans behave the way they do in relation towards Russia is interesting.

    It need to ask also why Russia cares.

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  6. The most telling line for me was where Fried & Nuland we’re talking about how stupid the Russian gvt was to seize Crimeanow that the two most hardline Russophobes were running US policy towards Russia.

    No, you blind mental dwarfs, it was precisely because the Russian gvt knew that with You two Russophobes in charge of it, their views & interests would get no consideration from the US gvt going forward, and therefore would lose the Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol by 2017 once the US-supported Banderastani gvt decided to destroy the lease extension they bitterly opposed when President Yanukovych negotiated it.

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  7. The lack of respectful language used in many of these posts tells us quite a lot about why foreign policy is increasingly an ugly power game instead of a dialogue of mutual respect. Abusive language and abusive behavior are more closely related than “thinkers” like to admit.

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    1. “The lack of respectful language used in many of these posts tells us quite a lot about why foreign policy is increasingly an ugly power game instead of a dialogue of mutual respect. “

      Could you be so kind as to remind us when there was a time when the foreign policy was not an ugly power game and when the sides had, ha-ha, “mutual respect”?

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    1. “Mutual respect was a thing from the concert of Vienna to roughly WW1.”

      […]

      Oh… you are serious? Then let me laugh even louder!

      Chief diplomatic movers and shakers of the early Viennese system were a bunch of backbiting, haughty, arrogant assholes – Metternich, Talleyrand, Palmerstone, you name them. Mutual respect? Nope. Empathy with other states’ interests? Nada. Only such monumental event as the Great French Revolution, which resulted in something that the contemporaries perceived as similar to the ISIS of our own modern era forced them, the great powers, to unite in the reactionary interventionists concerto on the platform of “Never Again”.

      And then Revolutions of 1848-49 came and fizzled, delivering a colossal blow to the legitimacy of, well, legitimism which laid at the foundation of the concerto. As self-described blatant Russophobe Julia Ioffe wrote (and sound – in public, on the record) “the terrorists don’t have nukes – Russia does”. Turns out this universal mode of thinking happened to a lot of other in 1850s as well.

      After the Crimean War there was no need to even pretend to be respectful. Bismark – my-my! What a mensch, when it came to dissing his contemporaries. Most of all he despised Russia’s Gorchakov, whom he described as “vainglorious Francophile ”(guess the “franco” part was the most offensive to the Iron Chancelor), but he also had a couple (more, actually) “nice” words to say about others – even about his Austro-Hungarian “allies”. Interestingly enough, Bismark gave some slack to Ben Israeli, conceding, that he has beitzes.

      Respect? In the turbo charged atmosphere of late 19 c. imperialism? Nah. Only appearances. Americans fit in just fine with their even then over the top braggadocio.

      In the Cold War? Respect? Fun thing – Soviet propaganda aimed to force the negative emotions on the Western “exploiters”, sparing the exploited and rooting for the underdogs and “progressive forces”. Western propaganda painted as subhuman beasts “the Russians” all the way before the Cold War, after its official beginning and even today. It’s a self contained circle when both Powers That Be of the West and their governed populace share the concept of them being Exceptional – and all else being Expendable. Now, what respect ever could ever be there?

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  8. Talleyrand etc. mutually respected each other as conniving scoundrels of the highest caliber.

    A similiar thing was true in the cold war.

    In these periods, the “Great powers” saw each other as “players”.

    Today, the US does not do that. Only the US plays, and everyone else is just an occassionally misbehaving pawn which has to be disciplined.

    Russia and China are both players, and while they clash on occassion, and do say some rather rude things about each other behind each others backs, they very much maintain great game norms of civility in their formal conduct with each other.

    Bismark btw. said a lot about Gorchakov, quite a bit of it quite complimentary. That Gorchakov was vain was indeed a true thing (it is not as if Bismark was particularly modest either), and a weakness Bismarck (whose chief weakness was I think wroth rather then vanity, I think Bismark had an advantadge over his peers because of his somewhat “unusual personality strucutre” for a diplomat. He was very effective in exploiting vain people, because most diplomats at that time where pretty vain and he had plenty of practice. Rather few diplomats where as perpetually angry as Bismark, and such fewer people had experience in exploiting him.) exploited on several occassions.

    In my view, during the great game and the cold war proper diplomatic etiquette was observed, and the various players respected each other at least as adversaries.

    The US/the west no longer gives and credence to diplomatic etiquette, and does not think that other players exist.

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    1. “Talleyrand etc. mutually respected each other as conniving scoundrels of the highest caliber.”

      Well, then, we must first determine the meaning of the term “respect”.

      What you are saying, was not as much respect for other nations, as the admission of the fact, that they were all fellow Great Powers (“Pentarchy”). Such sentiments, naturally, were not absolute. During the Hungarian rebellion the USA were giddy-gaudy to recognize new independent Hungary and tried to establish diplomatic relations. Actually, President Zachary Taylor faced accusations from his congressional opponents and from some “free and independent” ™ newspapers that he had not moved swiftly enough to recognize the fledgling Hungarian republic. When Vienna lodged the official protests, the US State Dept responded that the US of A is big, and Austria – is small, cuz it’s territory compared to America “is like a small patch on the face of Earth” (c). US of A – to the Great Power.

      As for the chief diplomats – yes, they saw each others as the players, but they often played radically different games with varying level of success. Raising of the media and the public opinion put an end to the purely “cabinet” diplomacy. Riling up your own (and your opponents) people in order to get a desirable result – it’s done now, but began 200+ years ago. Only the most wicked and shamelessly who adopted quickly to that practice managed to prosper.

      “A similiar thing was true in the cold war.”

      Sorry, but I will believe in it when I see/read about it. Nothing that I’ve learned so far points to some kind of “repsect”.

      “Bismarck (whose chief weakness was I think wroth rather then vanity, I think Bismark had an advantadge over his peers because of his somewhat “unusual personality strucutre” for a diplomat.”

      Bismarck’s chief flaw was not vanity, but pride – pride of a man, who came to believe that he can singlehandedly create a new mechanism of the international relations, which he won’t only be able to maintain in the “manual regime”, but that will outlive him as well. Also, he clearly did not understand that the proper, high-octane Imperialism had been kicking in since late 1870s and what this portents.

      Also he was a dick, a hypocrite and a gregarious bully of the “no hard feelings, bro!” variety. Which were not, per se, bad for a politician.

      “In my view, during the great game and the cold war proper diplomatic etiquette was observed, and the various players respected each other at least as adversaries.”

      Maybe this. Yes, outward appearances were maintained, while in private everyone hated each other’s guts.

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  9. The Americans do not even bother with outward appearances now.

    I mean, can we agree that it is less respectful now then it used to be?

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    1. “I mean, can we agree that it is less respectful now then it used to be?”

      The USA (grewing up to their hegemony without mitigating factors that would make them behave properly) are the masters of the former European Great powers now. Former Great Powers are not really complaning. Why? They call it Pax Americana and conflate it with the “world peace”. For them, deep down, lack of the outward respect is SAD but totally acceptable.

      My point from the get go was not that the world became less respectful vis-a-vis different countries and the people, and that the world did not became just now “post truth”. My point is that no one bothers to pretend anymore, thus even the most dense of the chattering masses are taking the notice.

      I wasn’t arguing with you, but with the one time commenter, who claimed that we have now an “increasingly ugly power game instead of a dialogue of mutual respect”. “Increasingly” assumes it was less ugly in some point of the past, or that the quantity of “respect” was somehow greater in, say, 1878 compared to the here and now. No need to idealize the past or deplore the present.

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      1. On a plus side, this conversation about Bismark finally made me watch “Royal Flash“, which I chanced upon as a kid sometimes in the 90s while clicking the channels. The movie is very, very trippy 70s.

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