What people say does not necessarily indicate what they really think. Nor does it necessarily give a clue to their future actions. That said, if somebody says the same thing consistently over a long period of time, one has reasonable grounds for concluding that his or her statements reflect a genuine belief and that they reflect more than just immediate advantage. For this reason, there is value in analyzing politicians’ discourse. In different ways, a couple of recent pieces of Russia-related scholarship prove this point.
Last week, in my capacity as co-supervisor, I attended the successful defence of a doctoral thesis in Montreal. The student analyzed how leading members of Russian political parties represented in the State Duma had discussed Russian relations with Georgia and Ukraine from 2000 to 2014. The findings were quite revealing. Consistently, Vladimir Putin and other leading Kremlin officials were much more moderate in their foreign policy discourse than the rest of Russia’s political elite. In an extreme case, back in 2001, when Putin elected to support George Bush in his Global War on Terror, even Yabloko denounced him for being too friendly to the Americans.
The dissertation laid out in great detail how members of the so-called ‘systemic opposition’ have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin for its ‘soft’, ‘pro-Western’ foreign policy. Eventually, in the face of the Georgian attack on South Ossetia and the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, the Kremlin changed its line and adopted the opposition’s positions. While one cannot say for sure that opposition pressure, rather than external events, were responsible for the change in the Kremlin’s discourse, the findings seriously undermine the commonly-held view of Russian politics as lacking opposition and an independent public opinion. It also undermines the view that so-called ‘Russian aggression’ is all the fault of the ‘maudit Poutine’, as one might say in Montreal. In fact, Putin comes across as decidedly moderate on foreign policy issues, but subject to considerable pressure from a much more radical elite public opinion, to which he has had to respond. All this indicates at least some form of ‘democratic’ process.
The second work of discourse analysis was published this month by the academic journal Intelligence and National Security. Written by Stephen Benedict Dyson and Matthew J. Parent, and entitled ‘The Operational Code Approach to Profiling Political Leaders: Understanding Vladimir Putin’, the article subjects Vladimir Putin’s speeches on foreign policy to a form of quantitative analysis to answer three questions: a) is Putin a rogue leader? b) what motivates him? C) is he a strategist or an opportunist?
I will confess that I am not a huge fan of quantitative analyses of this sort, which I think are far more subjective than they like to pretend (both in how the data is coded and how it is interpreted), lending a gloss of scientific objectivity to what are actually subjective opinions. I also think that question a) above is indicative of an inherent bias (why not phrase it in terms such as ‘do Putin’s views on foreign policy fit or diverge from the mainstream among international politicians?’, or something similar, rather than put in loaded terms like ‘rogue’?). I am also not at all sure that the methodology used can really answer question c), which needs a more detailed qualitative approach. That said, the results are not entirely without value.
In answer to question a), Dyson and Parent conclude that ‘Putin … speaks more like a mainstream than a rogue leader when his comments on all foreign policy topics are aggregated.’ Dyson and Parent fail to define ‘mainstream leaders’, but I assume that they mean by this Western politicians. In other words, Putin isn’t very different from Western leaders in his view of the world .
As to question b) (what motivates Putin), the authors note a strong desire for control, driven by a dislike of disorder. Dyson and Parent conclude, ‘Our profile … supports the interpretation that Putin’s military interventions in particular toward Chechnya, Ukraine, and Syria, are fundamentally about his perception that chaos and state weakness are existential threats’. This fits with my own analysis.
Finally, in answer to question c), the authors determine that Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist, based on changes in his attitude towards NATO/US pre- and post-Ukraine. I find this the weakest part of the analysis. The authors admit that ‘there is no direct measure of “strategist” vs. “opportunist” in the operational code construct’, so they are going beyond what their methodology really permits. Moreover, the change in Putin’s rhetoric towards NATO and the USA post-Maidan may not just be an opportunistic justification of his chosen policy but reflect genuine irritation with Western policy as well as other factors (such as those discussed in the doctoral dissertation above). That said, it does somewhat undermine the idea that Putin has been following an unchanging strategic plan from day 1 of his first presidency.
Dyson and Parent rather weaken their aricle, in my opinion, by bringing in some unnecessary discussion of Putin’s alleged ‘thuggishness’. Putin’s rhetoric about terrorism, they note, is extremely harsh, and he is willing to be quite violent in his response to the terrorist threat. This, they say, justifies the label of Putin as a ‘thug’. But Putin is hardly alone in his attitude to terrorism. Name me the Western president or prime minister who doesn’t condemn terrorism in harsh terms, Many of them are also quite willing to use violence. In fact, Western states have used force much more often than Russia over the past 15 years. So, why aren’t they ‘thuggish’? Bringing in value-laden words like this distorts what is meant to be a quantitative analysis and suggests a hidden bias. This has a strong effect on the policy suggestions at the end of the article, which lack validity as a result.
Having said all that, the two works described above do have something in common. Together, they paint a picture of the Russian president as holding views of the world and of foreign policy which are quite moderate and not very different from those of his Western counterparts. This is certainly not the Putin we normally see described in the press.