The Sources of Russian Conduct
In February 1946, George Kennan sent back from Moscow the “Long Telegram,” an analysis of the sources of Soviet foreign policy, which came to serve as the intellectual foundation of the containment policy the United States pursued during the Cold War. The telegram landed in the midst of a reassessment of American Soviet policy as the hopes born of the grand alliance against Hitler’s Germany that the allies would continue to cooperate in peacetime crashed against the harsh reality of Soviet suspicion and hostility. As John Gaddis notes in his biography of Kennan, his telegram did not bring about a shift in U.S. policy but it crystallized the thinking of senior administration officials. “It was,” Gaddis writes, “the geopolitical equivalent of a medical X-ray, penetrating beneath alarming symptoms to yield at first clarity, then comprehension, and finally by implication a course of treatment.”
Today, we need a similar analysis, for we find ourselves at a similar juncture. Two years ago, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine irreversibly dashed all the assumptions that had guided America’s Russia policy since the demise of the Soviet Union a generation ago. No longer is it possible to maintain that Russia is being integrated, albeit slowly and fitfully, into the West and, for that reason, is a suitable partner for addressing global issues. Moreover, Russia itself is no longer interested in integration, if it ever was. Rather, it presents itself as a unique construct, intent on challenging the U.S.-led world order across a broad front, including hard geopolitical matters like Ukraine, as well as the values that animate Western society. This does not mean that from time to time the United States and Russia will not cooperate on discrete issues, only that the cooperation will not be grounded in a sense of shared values and a common vision of a just global order. In these circumstances, there can be no talk of a “strategic alliance with Russian reform” (President Clinton’s phrase), “strategic partnership” (President George W. Bush’s) or “reset” (President Obama’s). The times call for a new relationship, without illusions about what Russia is and where it is headed.
Kennan’s feat cannot, however, be replicated today. We live in a different world, in which Russia plays a lesser role than the Soviet Union once did. U.S.-Russian relations will never define the international system as U.S.-Soviet relations did during the Cold War. Nor will Russia, unlike its Soviet predecessor, lie at the center of American foreign policy, providing the prism through which we view all other critical foreign-policy issues. The stakes are decidedly smaller, even if Russia, with its nuclear arsenal, remains the only country that could destroy the United States as a functioning society in thirty minutes. Nor can we simply apply Kennan’s prescription of containment to Russia today. However successful it might have been in the Cold War, it is inappropriate in a globalized, increasingly multipolar world. No longer is the challenge isolating and defeating an existential foe. Rather, it is creating a sustainable balance of power that advances American interests by promoting peace and security, and fostering collaboration among geopolitical rivals in addressing global transnational threats.
Russia is nevertheless a significant actor, as it resists the United States and seeks to rally other states to its cause. This challenge comes at a time when the U.S.-led world order is under mounting pressure from powerful geopolitical, technological and ideological developments around the world. The new character of U.S.-Russian relations that eventually emerges will say much about the new world order and our ability to master the challenges we face.
At the outset, we need to stress that what we are seeking to understand is the nature of the challenge posed by Russia, not by its current paramount leader, President Putin. This is a departure from much of the commentary in the United States, which focuses on, and demonizes, Putin as the driving force behind a Russian threat, as if he operates outside an historical and political context. He has, however, made much of repairing the historical bonds that he saw burst asunder by Yeltsin, even if we would take exception to his specific reading of history and the implications for Russia today. Like his predecessors since Peter the Great, who brought Russia into Europe as a great power, he is adamant that Russia—as a political and spiritual community—cannot survive other than as a great power. His authority is reinforced by an elite that, save for a small minority, shares this view, which also resonates with the broader population. Putin’s departure will not likely change the essence of the Russian challenge, no matter how different his successor’s style and tactics might be.
The character of the Russian state has been central in shaping Russian strategic thinking. Despite superficial similarities, that state, of which the Soviet Union was an extreme version, differs in essence from its Western counterparts. It has never been conceived as an emanation of society, instituted to protect the rights of citizens, temper the consequences of conflicts among them and advance the public weal. Rather, it emerged as an alien force invited to establish order over an unruly people. “Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come reign as princes, rule over us,” as the Primary Chronicle, written in the thirteenth century, describes the creation of the Russian state.
The new rulers were not kin of the local Slavic population, but Nordic Varangians, soldier-traders who moved through Slavic lands for commercial purposes. They came as proprietors, and were made princes as well. The public and the private spheres—carefully delineated in theory in the modern West—merged in Russia. The rulers ran their realms as private estates. There were no citizens with basic, inalienable rights, only subjects or servants more or less securely bound to the estate, or the state. Property rights were conditional, dependent on service to the sovereign, not protected by law. The Muscovite grand princes and their successors, the Russian czars, held theoretically absolute power and managed their realms solely for their own benefit. As an eminent historian of Russia, Richard Pipes, put it, “The state neither grew out of the society, nor was imposed on it from above. Rather it grew up side by side with society and bit by bit swallowed it.”
This all-encompassing state has been the central and decisive actor in Russian history. It gave structure to a vast, increasingly multiethnic, multiconfessional empire. Loyalty to the state in the person of the sovereign lay at the core of Russian identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that, at least in the minds of its rulers, without the state, there would be no Russia. Hence, the preservation and progress of the state has been their central mission throughout history. It is the restoration of the state after the profound crisis of the first post-Soviet decade that Russia’s current rulers count among their greatest achievements. That the rulers have identified themselves with the state, however convenient and however corrupt by our standards, does not change the essence of the matter.
This mission requires defending the state from enemies at home and abroad.
Internally, that entails firm control over the population, for when the people appear as an autonomous political force, it is always as an enemy of order, a destructive force, the “senseless and merciless” bunt (popular uprising) of Pushkin’s imagination. That was the lesson of the great peasant rebellions under Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachev, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries respectively.
Globalization has only complicated this task, since it enables foreign powers to act directly on the people in opposition to the state. Extrapolating from their own experience, Russian rulers consider private-sector entities of foreign origin—be they corporations, media outlets, religious associations or civil-society organizations—to be instruments of rival states, not autonomous actors in their own right. The same holds true for Russian organizations that receive funding from abroad. During the past several years, Russian experts have elaborated a detailed concept of how the United States has used such entities to effect regime change in the former Soviet space (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan) and elsewhere to extend America’s geopolitical sway. The men in the Kremlin themselves are convinced that the United States’ ultimate goal is regime change in Russia. Under these circumstances, they firmly believe they have the right and obligation to severely restrict and closely monitor the activities of foreign and foreign-funded entities operating in Russia, and, at the extreme, to expel them or shut them down. They remain determined not to succumb to America’s form of hybrid warfare.
Externally, defending the Russian state on the largely featureless great European plain requires strategic depth. From the middle of the sixteenth century onward, Russia has relentlessly pushed its frontiers outward, annexing disorganized territory or seizing land from states in decline. Russia moved across the Urals and transversed sparsely populated Siberia to reach the Pacific Ocean in the mid-seventeenth century. By the end of the nineteenth, it was on the verge of annexing Manchuria against the resistance of Japan and the United States. From 1700 onward, Russia pushed westward into Central Europe, defeating Sweden and Poland, and southward toward the Black Sea and into the Caucasus against the waning Ottoman and Persian Empires. In the mid-nineteenth century, it conquered the weak states of Central Asia. In the process, it created the largest contiguous state, covering roughly one-sixth of the globe’s landmass.
Russia’s expansion only stopped when it ran into countervailing geopolitical forces—the Germanic powers (Prussia and Austria, and eventually a united Germany) in the West, China and eventually Japan in the East, and the British Empire in the South. Over the centuries, this dialectic of expansion and resistance created Russia’s geopolitical space, roughly the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire. This is the sphere of influence Russian rulers consider essential to their security. This is why they have pushed back so vigorously against what they see as American encroachments on this sphere in the past fifteen years through, for example, the expansion of NATO and the establishment of military bases in Central Asia, tied to operations in Afghanistan. It is a primary reason for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014.
The internal and external imperatives have combined to feed a persistent sense of vulnerability that never lies far beneath the surface in the consciousness of Russia’s rulers. External expansion draws in ever more people of dubious loyalty, raising the costs of maintaining internal order. This situation grew acute in the nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism as a potent political force in Europe. Nationalist movements among Poles, Finns, Balts, Romanians, Ukrainians and various Caucasian nations along the periphery were constant threats to the empire’s domestic stability and external security. In these circumstances, Russian rulers have struggled to mobilize the resources to ensure domestic order and defend against external foes, constantly shifting forces and attention between domestic and external threats as the need arose in a never-ending quest for absolute security.
In this predicament, Russian rulers have been challenged to acquire the economic and technological capacity to generate the hard power for both those tasks. All the major reforms since 1700—Peter the Great’s Europeanization, Alexander II’s great reforms, Stalin’s industrialization, and Gorbachev’s perestroika—originated as state projects for this purpose and were pushed ruthlessly against the wishes of a profoundly conservative society. Because the great powers were until the current period all Western (or, in Japan’s case, Westernized) states, which Russia usually lagged behind in technology, and because economic activity was tightly intertwined with political structure in Russia, the question that has exercised Russian rulers is what aspects of Western political systems Russia had to adopt to catch up technologically. The aspiration was always to borrow as little as possible, so as to preserve as much as possible the fundamental character of the Russian state. The Soviet period offered a brief interlude, as the Bolsheviks thought they had discovered a non-Western path to modernization, but the illusion died as the country entered a prolonged period of stagnation in the 1970s. Until Gorbachev, their efforts paid off handsomely. For no matter how backward and poor Russia might have appeared by European and then Western standards, the Russian state was among the most successful if judged by the terms Russian rulers have valued—that is, territorial control, geopolitical sway and international standing. At least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia not only relentlessly expanded its territory in Europe and Asia, but it also saved Europe twice from domination by a single power, by driving its forces to the heart of the continent to defeat Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany. No other European or Asian power can claim a comparable record of success.
Russia’s current rulers hope to replicate the success of their predecessors, and avoid the catastrophic failure of Gorbachev, by restoring and sustaining Russia’s position as a great power. The task is daunting. The Russian state, if not the Russian people, faces one of its most severe challenges in the last three or four centuries, a challenge born of a geopolitical predicament and a domestic dilemma.
Geopolitically, Russia is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia, radiating influence and creating strategic depth. Rather, the flow of power has been reversed. Russia is being pressed on three fronts—in Asia, Europe and the Middle East—as a new, fourth front opens in the Arctic at time of economic uncertainty. China has overtaken Russia as the leading commercial partner of each of the Central Asian states; it is drawing Russia’s eastern provinces away from Moscow economically and perhaps, over the longer term, strategically as well. The European Union, even at a time of great trials, continues to act as a magnet on the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Extremist Islamic movements in the Middle East are penetrating Central Asia and, more worrisome, the Muslim-dominated provinces of Russia itself in the North Caucasus and Volga region.
Making matters worse, Russia’s resources pale in comparison to its rivals. The economies of China, the European Union and the United States are each five to six times the size of Russia’s. The gap is only growing with China and perhaps the United States. Technologically, the United States and Europe are far superior to Russia, and China is rapidly overtaking it. Europe may suffer from a demographic fatigue similar to Russia’s, but the American population remains robust, and China’s is nearly ten times as large.
These realities shape the geopolitical contours of Russia’s grand strategy. The elements have been spelled out in official documents and leaders’ comments, and made manifest in specific actions, during the past twenty-five years. The strategy is coherent, even if the Kremlin’s capacity to execute it might be in doubt.
At the center is an effort to reassert Russia’s preeminence in the former Soviet space, to recreate a sphere of influence, which all great powers by definition must have. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have tried various institutional arrangements to achieve that goal—the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and most recently the Eurasian Union. None, however, is complete with the full participation of Ukraine, the former Soviet state with the greatest economic potential after Russia, which occupies moreover a strategic location on the north shore of the Black Sea. If Moscow cannot lure or force Ukraine into a Russian-dominated structure, then at a minimum it has to keep it out of an association—such as NATO or the European Union—beyond Moscow’s control. That is the crux of the current Ukraine crisis.
Related to this goal is the policy of building up Russia’s presence in the Arctic. Because of climate change, Moscow has been compelled for the first time in history to actively defend its position there to ensure access to the region’s abundant resources and control of potentially lucrative northern sea routes. The effort to extend sovereign rights as far north as possible reflects in addition the traditional drive for strategic depth.
Beyond the former Soviet space, Russia seeks to balance between the two major strategic-economic zones of Europe and East Asia. It wants to enjoy the economic benefits of interaction with both while preventing either one from eroding its position in the former Soviet space. Diversifying commercial relations eastward reduces what is now an excessive dependence on Europe, which accounts for half of Russia’s overall foreign trade and provides three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia. But Russia must maintain robust relations with Europe as a source of leverage in relations with China—as Russia’s current isolation from Europe as a consequence of the Ukraine sanctions shows, China will exploit Russian weakness for commercial and strategic advantage.
Another aspect of this balancing act are steps to complicate the process of European unification, preventing the consolidation of an entity that would dwarf Russia in population, wealth and power potential much as the United States does today. The goal is to reduce the disadvantages of excessive commercial reliance on the European Union—Russia can play states against one another, as it has in energy matters for at least the past fifteen years—and it diminishes the security risks. In this effort, Moscow does not have to create fissures so much as exploit the ones that have emerged within the European Union over migration, fiscal management, the democratic deficit and other matters. The challenge is doing this in a way that does not preclude continued commercial and security cooperation with key European states.
Dealing with the Middle East presents a different problem, not one of integration, but rather of containing the contagion of extremism. Moscow’s approach, consistent with its view on the centrality of states in world affairs, is to support current regimes against popular forces, whether they be liberal, democratic, extremist or something else. That is the logic behind support for the Assad regime in Syria today and the resistance to what the Kremlin sees as destabilizing American meddling in the internal affairs of regional states aimed at regime change.
The final geopolitical element of the grand strategy is to rein in the United States, to compel it to take into account the interests of other great powers, including first of all Russia, as it pursues its own. That is the goal of Russia’s effort to rally support against the U.S.-led global order for a new multipolar world based on state sovereignty and mutual respect (at least among great powers). The Kremlin hopes to use China as a strategic counterweight to the United States and such organizations as the BRICS (an association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it coleads with China, as alternatives to U.S.- or Western-dominated international economic and security arrangements.
It this within this geopolitical framework that Russia situates transnational threats, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism, transnational crime and even climate change. These threats do not exist in the abstract but only in specific territories, and countering them therefore always carries geopolitical consequences. Moreover, the Kremlin believes nonstate actors are largely instruments of state power wielded for advantage in the global competition for power and prestige. It sees the Iranian nuclear program and ISIS, for example, not simply as cases of proliferation and terrorism, but more importantly as factors manipulated by other powers in an effort to alter the balance in the Middle East. The Kremlin is convinced that the United States sees the situation in the same way, and uses counterterrorism, nonproliferation and democracy promotion as smokescreens for geopolitical advance.
Whether Russia can successfully implement such an ambitious, complex strategy is an open question. At the moment, it is struggling to protect its position in the former Soviet space from Chinese and Western encroachments and radical Islamic threats. But one thing is certain: to succeed, Russia must restore its historical dynamism; it must modernize and diversify its economy to generate the means to back its great-power ambitions. That is the essence of strategy—wedding means to ends. And if the means are not preexisting, they must be created, or the strategy necessarily fails.
In this quest for the means, Russia finds itself once again challenged to catch up with the West. As before, the Kremlin will try to get as many of the benefits of economic modernization as it can while adopting as little of the Western political system as it must, so as to protect the fundamental character of the Russian state. That might seem an easier task now, because the rapid rise of China suggests there is a non-Western path to power in the modern age. But that is almost certainly an illusion that ignores essential differences between Russian and Chinese cultures. Hence Russia’s domestic dilemma today.
As Gorbachev understood, in the modern information age, the quality of human capital is more important than the quantity, and innovation requires incentives, not compulsion. That, in turn, entails a break with the traditional Russian state—a reconceptualization of the state—in which the state serves and empowers the people, economically and politically, so that they can generate the resources to defend the state. Gorbachev’s ultimate vision was the transformation of Soviet communism (an extreme version of the traditional Russian political system) into European social democracy, which would represent a new beginning. But Gorbachev failed to turn his insight into effective policy, and instead of enhancing Russian power, he destroyed the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev’s fate haunts the Kremlin leaders, as they seek to compete with the United States, China, and other existing and emerging powers. Instead of reconceptualizing the Russian state, they are advocating patriotism, loyalty to the state in its traditional guise, as the foundation of the regime’s legitimacy, as they crack down on political opposition and narrow the space for productive debate and new ideas. And, in the face of Western sanctions, they have turned to import substitution as the path to a competitive economy. But this has not, and will not, foster the innovation and creativity that are critical to modernization in the twenty-first century.
Russia’s rulers thus face a dilemma: they can preserve the traditional Russian state or restore Russia as a great power, but they cannot do both (even if a new kind of state does not guarantee great-power status, but only holds that possibility open). They have, however, decided to try to square the circle. That leaves Russia, as it is aware, in a vulnerable position, which it tries to mask through provocative rhetoric and actions to remind the world of Russian power and to convince its own people that Russia is on the rise again. It does not solve the problem.
Russia—in decline and facing the fateful task of redefining itself—is not the burgeoning menace depicted in much American commentary. Any threat to the United States is limited and, if approached with confidence and calm, manageable. Even the challenge to the U.S.-led world order is an effort not so much to displace the United States as the global leader as to gain our respect. But dealing with threats should not be the only, or even the largest, part of our Russia policy. Despite the challenges it faces, Russia will remain a significant global power for years to come, and it will act alone or together with other states in ways that help advance or harm American interests. On some issue, such as strategic stability and nonproliferation, U.S.-Russian cooperation is essential. On others, such as security in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, Russian cooperation could ease our task.
For these reasons, in today’s turbulent, globalized world, containment cannot describe a productive Russia policy. But nor should a policy based on a search for grounds for cooperation be our goal. Rather, we need a policy that advances American national interests. That necessarily means that our policy will be a shifting mix of competition and cooperation, of resistance and accommodation, based on our interests and Russian actions. That mix will shift along with our interests and Russian actions. Getting the mix right will be critical. And that will entail modifying our traditional approach to the world, which tends to see other countries as partners or foes, describes issues in black-and-white terms, favors the resolution of issues over their management, urges dealing with issues in isolation from one another “on their own merits” rather than weighing the linkages across them, and refuses to set clear priorities in favor of operating against challenges throughout the world. We will need to make these adjustments in our approach to Russia, as well as to other major powers.
In addition, we need to see Russia in a global context. Today, we largely see it through a European prism, which inevitably magnifies the discord between us as we fall back on memories of the Cold War; nevertheless, that is appropriate, many would argue, for a country that is no longer a global power and poses the greatest challenges to us in Europe. But, if Russia is not a true global power, it is a Euro-Pacific power, and the roles it plays at the two ends of the continent carry different challenges and opportunities for the United States. In Northeast and Central Asia, for example, Russia could be a significant actor in forming flexible coalitions that we could use to channel the rise of China in ways that do not harm core American interests. In any event, it makes little sense to pursue policies in Europe that weaken Russia and drive it towards China, without thinking through ways we could mitigate the inevitable downsides in Asia of our policies in Europe. Similarly, we need to avoid allowing tensions in Europe to erode what has been up to this point fruitful cooperation in the Arctic and spark geopolitical competition in a harsh and fragile region that beckons us towards cooperation. In Europe, we cannot of course ignore Russia’s challenge. Much attention has been focused on reassuring our vulnerable NATO allies through raising the alliance’s military profile along Russia’s borders. That is necessary, but we need to avoid over militarizing our response, as we did during the Cold War. The best barrier to Russian expansion, as history shows, is strong, capable, successful states along its borders. In this light, we and our allies need to devote more effort to fixing the multiple political and socioeconomic ills that now plague Europe.
This approach lacks the clarity, moral and otherwise, that has been so prized by the American foreign policy community since the Second World War. But ambiguity is today’s reality, and the challenge before American statecraft is managing that ambiguity confidently to advance American interests. We will need time to grow accustomed to this new era and to develop the skills to master its challenges. Our task is complicated by the fact that we cannot look back to recent American diplomatic practice for guidance. The mentors we need are the great European statesmen of the nineteenth century, who understood the need for balance and limits combined with a sense of purpose and of the possible—as long as we reject their all-too-easy resort to force, which would be devastating given the destructive power of modern weaponry. But their ability to maneuver without losing their way while promoting their country’s interests is surely appropriate for today’s world. That approach should inform our policy to all major countries, and, given its recent behavior and the challenge its poses, there is no better place to start mastering this approach than in our relations with Russia.
Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and managing director at Kissinger Associates, was senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff 2004-2007.