In his 1969 book The Hitler State, German historian Martin Broszat described how the supposedly highly centralized Nazi state was in fact decidedly anarchic. The Fuhrer, wishing to concentrate all power in his own hands, operated a system of divide and rule designed to prevent his subordinates from combining in ways which might thwart his own will. Rather than coming together to make collective decisions, each ministry operated separately with each minister reporting directly to the supreme leader. The effect was to give ministers an enormous amount of independence to pursue policies at odds with what other ministers might want, resulting in continuous power struggles which were determined by access to Hitler. The extreme centralization of power in fact diffused it and made it next to impossible to coordinate activities across government.
This problem of government operating in unconnected silos is hardly unique to Nazi Germany. A few years ago when counter-insurgency theory was all the rage in some Western states, there was a lot of talk about the ‘whole of government approach’, and the need to get all parts of government to push in the same direction. The fact that this idea became so popular was an indication that it wasn’t actually happening. Even highly advanced Western states with relatively efficient bureaucratic systems struggle with this problem. But there is some reason to suspect that it is worse in more autocratic states, precisely because autocratic rulers seek to retain their power to have the final word by dividing government up into silos. As historian David Macdonald has pointed out, this was very much the case in Imperial Russia, where Tsars resisted all attempts to produce ‘united government’.
Despite this, there is a tendency to regard Russia as possessing some super-efficient government system in which all the levers of state power can be coordinated as part of a common strategy in a thoroughly integrated fashion. I mentioned this tendency in my last post, which discussed the writing of the Institute of Statecraft’s Chris Donnelly. Today a copy of the magazine Diplomat & International Canada landed on my desk, and in it I find yet another example of this logic, in the form of an article by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.
Blank nails home all the same points as Donnelly: Russia is at war with the West; it’s innately aggressive and expansionist; and it’s extraordinarily effective at combining all the elements of statecraft into an integrated strategy. He cites George Kennan as saying that ‘political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its objectives.’ Russia is doing this, we are told. According to Blank, ‘Russia employs all the instruments of state power in an unrelenting, multidimensional, relatively synchronized and global environment to force the West to accept it as equal in status to the Soviet Union.’ He then proceeds to list all the various means which Russia is employing to this end – military, political, economic, informational, cyber, and so on.
I find this approach curious. I’ve never regarded the Russian state as particularly efficient. It strikes me as odd, therefore, that its most vocal opponents seem to consider it to be such a beacon of competent governance, especially since they also like to emphasize the state’s autocratic nature. As I mentioned above, the ‘whole of government’ approach doesn’t fit easily with autocracy. Commentators such as Donnelly and Blank want to describe Russia as both autocratic and remarkably adept at integrated governmental strategy. In my mind, that combination just doesn’t work.
Blank and co. also seem to suffer from a certain schizophrenia regarding the cause of ‘Russian aggression’. On the one hand, they blame the system of government. Thus, Blank says that, ‘the state of siege in Moscow’s relations with the West flows directly from the nature of the regime itself.’ An aggressive foreign policy is seen as necessary to divert public attention from the internal failings of the authoritarian regime, while efforts to discredit Western democracy are required to undermine the idea that Russia should develop in a more democratic direction. On the other hand, the same commentators as say this also often push the story that Russian aggression is an inherent part of the country’s character. Blank therefore writes:
As Catherine the Great stated, ‘I have no way to defend my frontiers other than to expand them.’ As Russian writers deeply believe, if Russia is not this kind of great power – and it can be no other in their view – it will cease to exist.
But here we run into a contradiction – if the problem is in Russia’s DNA, to use James Clapper’s phrase, then the nature of the regime has nothing to do with it at all, and even a liberal democratic Russian government would be just as ‘aggressive’ as that of Vladimir Putin. One gets the impression that the approach is just to throw down every possible idea which could be made to paint Russia as threatening, regardless of its coherence.
For what it’s worth, my own take on the issue is as follows. First, the idea that Russia is innately aggressive and expansionist is false. While Russia has certainly acted aggressively on occasions, its historical record in that regard isn’t obviously any worse than that of other major European states. Second, there’s no clear connection between regime type and aggression, either in Russia’s case or more generally; current East-West tensions owe much to clashing interests and the structure of the European security system, factors which won’t change no matter who rules in the Kremlin. And third, Russia shows no signs of being particularly brilliant in terms of strategic planning and integrated government; rather, it’s thrashing around in an often incoherent fashion, not in accordance to some master plan but in reaction to others and in an often improvised way. The idea of Russia as both malevolent and super-efficient may be useful as a way of scaring people, but it has very little to do with reality.