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Explaining Russian Behavior

Russian foreign policy cannot be explained in simplistic terms but through a sophisticated analysis of various contributing factors

There is general agreement that the foreign policy of the Russian Federation has become much more assertive in the past decade. In the last few days, I have read several pieces which attempt to explain this.

First is a policy brief by Fredik Wesslau and Andrew Wilson for the European Council of Foreign Relations, entitled Russia 2030: A Story of Great Power Dreams and Small Victorious Wars. Wesslau and Wilson claim that ‘Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home’. Western sanctions and low oil prices have damaged the economic growth which was the prime source of Putin’s legitimacy. Consequently, ‘Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests.’ However, Russia doesn’t want this ‘adversarial relationship’ to get out of control, so it will opt for continuous ‘medium-level, low cost conflict’. Wesslau and Wilson say, ‘Medium-level threat makes people cling to Putin – hot war or actual disaster might provoke revolt.’

This is a popular thesis among Western critics of Russian foreign policy. However, Wesslau and Wilson merely assert it, while providing no evidence to support it. Furthermore, there is a serious contradiction in their logic. If an assertive foreign policy is a product of economic trouble, then Russia’s policy should have become less assertive in the period 2000-2008 when the Russian economy was doing very well. But the opposite was the case. Indeed, Wesslau and Wilson admit that ‘the Russian economy was booming in August 2008 when Russia fought a short war with Georgia’. This doesn’t fit their thesis at all. It is more likely that greater assertiveness is a product of greater power resulting from economic growth than it is a product of economic decline.

Second on my reading list was the March-April 2015 edition of the academic journal Problems of Post-Communism, which was devoted to the subject ‘Making Sense of Russian Foreign Policy.’ The four essays in the journal come to a very different conclusion from Wesslau and Wilson regarding the importance of domestic factors in Russian foreign policy. As guest editors Samuel Charap and Cory Welt note in their introduction, ‘the four articles lead to the conclusion that domestic factors do not have a decisive impact on Russian foreign policy. They are important on the margins … but none are the central driver of Russian foreign policy.’ Charap and Welt conclude that ‘Russia’s foreign policy is a product of theinteraction of international, domestic, and individual factors.’

This is the approach taken also by Elias Götz in a recent article for another academic journal, International Policy Studies. Götz examines four explanations of Russia’s actions:

  1. Decision-maker explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of the particular characteristics of Vladimir Putin. Götz dismisses such explanations, saying that Putin’s policies are reflective of a ‘strong consensus’ in Russia, and it is most likely that if anybody else had been leading Russia for the past 16 years they ‘would have staked out a similar course.’ In many ways, writes Götz, ‘Putin’s approach to the post-Soviet space looks like a carbon copy’ of the policies followed under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.
  2. Domestic political explanations: Russian assertiveness is designed to divert attention from domestic problems (as claimed by Wesslau and Wilson, for instance), or to suppress the growth of democracy in Russia’s near abroad lest it spread from there to Russia. Götz dismisses this explanation too, noting that Russia’s leadership is not under serious threat and so not in need of diversionary tactics. Also, Russia has shown itself quite willing to work with democratic neighbours as long as they are friendly to Russia – thus Russian-Georgian relations have improved in recent years even as Georgia has become more democratic under President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
  3. Ideational explanations: Russian foreign policy is a product of national identity, nationalism, and the pursuit of national honour. The problem with these explanations, says Götz, is that they can’t explain why one narrative about national identity or honour has more influence on foreign policy than another.
  4. Geopolitical explanations: Russian assertiveness is a result of Russia’s increased power and of the growth of external threats, most notably NATO expansion. Götz admits that this provides a partial explanation of Russian behaviour, but it is not, he says, a complete one, as it cannot explain why Russia views some things as threats and not others, or why Russia has chosen to act differently in similar scenarios – e.g. annexing Crimea but not Donbass; or recognizing the independence of Abkhazia but not of Transnistria.

No single explanation is sufficient, Götz concludes. Instead, a way must be found of synthesizing them. This represents a much more sophisticated approach than that of Wesslau and Wilson. Geopolitical factors clearly matter, but political actors don’t interpret them in a neutral manner but through ideological lenses. Domestic politics also surely matter, at least to some extent: Russia’s leadership is constrained by a national consensus which often demands a more assertive policy, and it is influenced by domestic narratives which limit the options available to policy makers. Within those limits, the character of the leader then does play a role. Overall, I find Götz’s analysis the most convincing of the lot.

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