In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Russia on the World Stage: Great Power, ‘Trickster,’ Would-Be Arms-Control Partner

September 28, 2018
Natasha Yefimova-Trilling

Where does Russia fit in today’s international order and what are its strategies for navigating it? In a nutshell, according to a recent discussion among scholars and policy analysts in Washington: Russia’s diminished status relative to the Cold War period has it seeking ways to offset its weaknesses on the world stage, including  a “trickster’s” arsenal of dissembling and deception, which has deep cultural roots; meanwhile, Russian leaders believe at times that other countries, particularly in the West, are using the same tricks to gain an unfair advantage. The overall lack of trust between Russia and the West, and particularly the lack of clarity that Moscow and Washington each see in the other's intentions, undermine the chances for badly needed progress on arms control—a key element of global security.

On one hand, as pointed out by Harvard’s Mark Kramer at this month’s PONARS Eurasia conference, Russia is still a great power—in the sense that it can affect international politics in ways that other countries cannot; on the other, its stature on the global stage is greatly diminished by comparison to Cold War days when the world was “fundamentally bipolar,” much of it divided into two feuding camps led, respectively, by Moscow and Washington. Accordingly, Kramer argues, Russia, though still important for U.S. foreign policy, is less important than the Soviet Union was. Unlike the head-to-head standoff of the 1950s-1980s, today’s relations between Washington and Moscow are “a competitive great-power relationship,” Kramer said: Russia still has enough nuclear weapons to cause “catastrophic damage”; it has engaged in large-scale military modernization; and it has not shied away from using its military forces abroad—to some extent to compete with the U.S. Economically, Russia’s immense gas reserves give it some leverage over Europe, but it is nowhere near as dynamic as China. And though President Vladimir Putin’s administration seeks to project Russia as a rival of the U.S., Russia cannot come close to matching the overall strength of the United States, according to Kramer.

PONARS conference
Mikhail Troitsky addresses the PONARS conference.

As U.S.-Russia relations drift deeper into crisis, it’s especially worth noting that arms control talks—which have done so much to boost global security—have been successful in the past even when bilateral relations were arguably more adversarial than now. To understand why, Mikhail Troitsky of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, tried to explore the conditions that made those earlier successful negotiations possible. He argues that the one necessary and “likely also sufficient” condition is “clarity of mutual intentions”: Those intentions can be adversarial, but they need to be stable and clear. Parties to talks cannot doubt each other’s intentions and credibility. If we recall arms-control agreements like those produced by SALT I, signed in 1972, or the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, signed in 1990, and others, the U.S.-Soviet relationship at the time could hardly be called cooperative. But back then neither side displayed expansionist intentions or planned for surprise maneuvers, Troitsky noted; in periods when one side started suspecting the other of wanting to turn the tables—for instance, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—effective arms control stopped. Treaties like START II and SORT, as well as New START, were signed by the two powers under a “credible commitment to communication,” Troitsky said. START II ultimately fell apart after the U.S. started discussing missile defense in the late 1990s and Moscow perceived this as confirmation of a change in intentions toward Russia, according to Troitsky. Similarly, with regional rivalries between the two sides heating up, as in 2004-2009 and 2012 to the present, both sides make statements of benign intentions, but neither side believes the other’s declarations, suspecting exploitation or subversion, Troitsky said; and arms control has never worked in the context of such ambiguity. Observers aren’t yet losing hope, at least for an extension of New START. What can be done to stem this dangerous dynamic? Even if credible signaling of intentions is difficult, perhaps rhetoric can help, Troitsky believes: Acknowledge the cost of conflict and talk about the peace dividend, instead of singing the praises of new technologies; also, he says, reducing reliance on deniability in conflicts could remove a major factor of uncertainty. From there, the two countries could make some minor advances in arms control, signaling credibility, and then build on those. Arms control still has a chance as a solid anchor in the bilateral relationship—one that’s worth saving.

Meanwhile, whatever he may say, Putin sees Russia as an underdog in relations with the West. And sometimes tries to subvert the international order, which he believes gives the West an unfair advantage, according to Viatcheslav Morozov of Tartu University. Generally speaking, this approach, even when it involves deception, seems popular with domestic audiences and Morozov, together with his colleagues, try to explain the cultural context that “might make strategic deception acceptable” in the eyes of someone who grew up in the Soviet Union or in the culture inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia has often been accused of violating international norms and such normative disagreements have been at the center of recent frictions with the West, where many are appalled because they view rules as the “sacred foundations of any civilized society.” To some extent, Moscow definitely sees its actions as mirroring those of the West—say, in violating the sovereignty of other countries; nevertheless, in many cases Russia’s explanations of its conduct have been based on deliberate misinterpretation of international norms and outright deception, according to Morozov. (A prime illustration is the “little green men” in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula: Moscow initially denied they were Russian soldiers, and then, a few months later, admitted it.) To contextualize this behavior, and explain in part why it does not outrage ordinary Russians, Morozov and his fellow researchers draw heavily on the work of literary scholar Mark Lipovetsky and his explorations of the immense popularity of the “trickster” character in Soviet culture—a figure who “skillfully violates rules” and “transgresses all sorts of boundaries,” sometimes for no apparent reason, which they consider a perfect fit for Russia’s behavior on the international stage today. This old resource, as Morozov noted, is not drawn on explicitly, but serves as crucial cultural background. These rule-breakers were popular in Soviet times, in part, because they reflected and helped justify the deceptive, cynical behaviors often necessary to survive within what Lipovetsky called the “ideologically approved simulacra of the state-run economy and ‘classless’ society”; another important explanation, according to Morozov, is that they jived with the official position of elevating commoners to the central stage of mass culture. “Russia’s claim to once again represent the dispossessed and the oppressed of the world is, of course, totally fake,” Morozov said (as its leaders are rich), but that does not diminish the appeal of this claim, even “beyond Russia’s borders,” as it resonates with the broader post-colonial agenda focusing on real inequality and oppression. 

Main photo by, shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Inset photo courtesy of Matthew Kewley, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

​​​​​​​The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.