Editor’s Note: How do Russia and the West see one another? What are the experts’ views on the confrontation between Russia and the West? How do the pundits explain the Russo-Ukrainian war and Russia’s Syrian gambit? What are the roots of the mythology about Russia in the West, and why has the West failed to predict and understand Russia’s trajectory? This is the second essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part one.
The Pragmatists’ Mantra
The pragmatists prevail among the expert communities both in Russia and in Western capitals.1 They continue to monopolize research in the field of international relations, and they still dominate political discourse.2
Pragmatists certainly gravitate toward rationalism: They want to have a clear understanding of reality and aim at furnishing politicians with practical recommendations. Such an approach requires a focus on clearly defined criteria, which are expressed in terms of interest, force, or both. Attempts to analyze a given situation in all its complexity and diversity, and especially to factor in moral guidelines, not only paint a seemingly conflicting picture of reality; they also complicate the formulation of recommendations for decision-makers. Thus the very factors that put the normativists on the sidelines of foreign policy analysis created a demand for the pragmatists’ set of ideas. Among these are a belief in the end of ideology and commitment to the idea that politicians should stick to traditional political mechanisms. Moreover, pragmatism is oriented toward maintaining stability and the status quo, which became a priority in the West.
However, there is one characteristic of this school of analysis that might make its adherents uncomfortable. Western pragmatists frequently find themselves echoing statements made by their Russian counterparts (or even by the Kremlin itself).
Let’s look at the pragmatists’ views and the extent to which they help us understand the processes occurring inside Russia. All of them dismiss or deemphasize the cause-and-effect relationship between the Kremlin’s foreign policy and the country’s internal political processes, as well as the character of the political regime. This is understandable, since acknowledging the link between Russian foreign policy and the logic of the Russian System raises a host of questions. For example, how can one expect the West to come to sustainable compromise with the Kremlin if the Kremlin continues to profess anti-Western principles? Delinking internal and external politics allows for the possibility that external politics follows its own separate logic, thus permitting the West to find common ground with the Kremlin.
Actually, pragmatists today probably understand that it is impossible to completely separate international relations from internal developments, so they talk about how geopolitics influences internal Russian dynamics. They claim that international developments, particularly NATO expansion and the West’s neglect of Russia and its interests, have led to the strengthening of Russian authoritarianism and the Kremlin’s aggressiveness on the global stage.
Indeed, the international factor has played a role in provoking the conflict between Russia and the West, and it has even had some effect on the evolution of the political situation in Russia itself. However, its nature differs from the one described by the pragmatists. The West’s weakness, the dysfunctionality of the current model of liberal democracy, the crisis of the European Union, the retrenchment of the United States, the Western elite’s readiness to embrace double standards all contribute to the perception of a vacuum that the Russian System has tried to fill. The Kremlin now openly proclaims that the era of the West is over and that Russia has returned to the scene.3
By rejecting the linkage between the Kremlin’s foreign policy and the Russian System’s domestic agenda, and by opposing Western efforts to exert a normative influence on Russia’s internal development, the pragmatists are supporting the “de-ideologization” of foreign policy. “Ideology stopped being the criterion behind the world order,” the pragmatists claim, echoing the thoughts of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who likes to talk about “the liberation from the ideological blinders of the past.” At the same time, they reject taking an ideological approach to analyzing internal processes,4 which allows them to maintain an optimistic outlook on Russian authoritarianism and even to find some constructive elements in it.
The pragmatists dismiss the normative dimension as a Cold War relic. Naturally, its supporters are branded “Cold Warriors.” This is how Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the Russian journal Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Russian council on Foreign and Domestic policy, expressed this position: “Modern discussions of values and interests reflect the fact that many still find themselves under the spell of the Cold War.” In short, the pragmatists say that discourse on values throws us back to the old confrontation. But it behooves us to remember that relations between Russia and the West actually started to go sour when the West eliminated the values-oriented approach from its Russia policy. Meanwhile, equating values discourse with a return to the Cold War implies recognition of the fact that the norms of the Russian System and those of liberal democracy are incompatible. And if they are incompatible, why do the pragmatists hope that these two systems can engage in constructive dialogue?
If the era of de-ideologization is indeed upon us, as the pragmatists believe, what forms the basis for their predictions and strategic vision? And what replaced norms for the pragmatists? “Common interests” was one of the substitutes. This approach prevailed in the 1990s, when not only the West but part of the Russian elite still believed that Russia could be integrated into the community of liberal democracies. When it became clear that Russia was moving in the opposite direction, the pragmatists insisted that this didn’t run counter to Western interests. Here is what Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates, wrote in 2009, admitting that Russia defines its interests in terms of maintaining its great power status and areas of influence: “Nothing in Russia’s understanding of its interests precludes close cooperation with the United States on a wide range of issues critical to American security and prosperity.”5
When the proponents of the “common interest” theory gradually realized that the parties actually understood their interests differently in spheres where there was supposed to be significant overlap (primarily nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism), they were forced to look elsewhere to justify their pragmatism. For instance, Graham, who in 2009 thought that U.S.-Russian cooperation “will have to be built on shared interests and shared threats,” subscribed to a different opinion in 2013. He wrote that “the strategist . . . treats talk of shared interests as the basis for cooperation with skepticism. A close examination of any alleged shared interest reveals significant differences in assessments of the problem and saliencies for national interests that create obstacles for effective cooperation.”6 Nevertheless, there are still quite a few pragmatists who continue to believe that Moscow and the West have shared interests, arguing that both sides just misinterpret them.
So what became of the pragmatists’ main premise when they realized that the “common interests” dialogue wasn’t working? Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote that President Obama chose to embrace the principle of accommodation “rather than attempting to contain the ambitions” of Russia and China.7 The “accommodation” of illiberal powers became the pragmatists’ refrain both in the United States and Europe. In fact, this approach had long been the foundation of German Ostpolitik, first in regards to the USSR, and later for Russia.8 The Russian elite began to demand that the West, as the community of liberal democracies, accommodate Russia as well.
But how do the pragmatists understand accommodation, if Russia and the West share no mutually recognized common interests? And how has the crisis of 2014 affected the pragmatists’ view of the world? Some pragmatists choose not to elaborate on what they mean, leaving us to guess for ourselves what this “accommodation” might entail. Others specify issues on which the West might accommodate Russia, without specifying any accommodations that Russia might make.
Since the pragmatists are not interested in domestic politics and keep repeating the mantra that democracy is an internal Russian affair, one may conclude that they continue to believe accommodation includes the Kremlin’s right to do whatever it pleases with the Russian people.
What else does accommodation mean? It is certainly a recognition of Russia’s right to spheres of influence. The pragmatists openly call for the creation of a mechanism that would formalize the new partition of territories around Russia. This idea was, for instance, proposed by the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia (2009), chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel. It recommended to President Obama that the United States should “establish a government-to-government dialogue on Russia’s neighborhood, with a view to developing confidence-building measures.” So Russia and the United States should decide the fate of Russia’s neighbors, hearkening back to the times of Potsdam and Yalta.9
Another example of the recognition of spheres of influence, albeit in a softer form, is a call to preserve the post-Soviet space around Russia as a sphere of influence for both Russia and the West—that is, as a condominium of sorts. “Ukraine, Moldova, Transnistria, Georgia and others in Russia’s ‘near abroad,’ with which it shares deep historic ties, will flourish over the long term only if they have strong relationships with both Russia and the EU, just as countries in Southeast Asia have strong relationships with both China and the US,” argued some observers. However, this setup had existed for the past twenty years and has proven impossible in a situation in which one state is seeking to restrict the sovereignty of its neighbors.
American pragmatists have been offering the following logic: “If the U.S. wants to cooperate with Russia on its priorities, it must be willing to cooperate on Russia’s.” Here is how the mechanism of this deal is supposed to work: “If the U.S. wants Russia’s cooperation in Iran and Afghanistan, it can work to accommodate Russia’s interests in the former Soviet space and Europe.”10
Indeed, had we been living in the 19th or even the first half of the 20th century, this deal would have looked reasonable for its recognition of a certain balance of forces in the region. Even from the standpoint of 21st-century realities, Russia should be interested in securing its southern borders. Incidentally, this idea used to have, and perhaps still has, quite a few followers in Moscow and in Western capitals.
Of course, the pragmatists are forced to ponder the sustainability of any deals made with the Kremlin. What if the Russians come for more? Here is how the former UK Ambassador to Russia Toni Brenton answers this question: “The rules-based world . . . was always an illusion. . . . Great power politics is back.”11 What does this mean? Apparently, Ambassador Brenton believes that all states, including the West, are breaking the rules of the game. “What about Iraq, Kosovo, and bombing Yugoslavia?” asks Brenton, repeating questions that Russians frequently ask of Western leaders. In short, according to Brenton’s logic, since liberal democracies are not ideal, and no one is perfect, then Moscow may continue to act as it has been. If this is what the proponents of great-power politics are suggesting, they should understand that they are legitimating a Hobbesian world, and the Russian System is much more adept at operating in this kind of world.
The irony is that the pragmatists, who no doubt sincerely seek compromise to avoid a return to the Cold War, are in fact bringing us back to an era of confrontation by dividing the international space into spheres of influence. In the end this would mean recognizing the existence of opposing camps and thus the need to police the borders between them. Moreover, some states would reject the sphere into which they had been cast, and so would have to be pacified. That is what the Soviet Union did in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and what Russia did in Georgia and is trying to do in Ukraine.
Perhaps the pragmatists expect that the Kremlin will finally settle down after gaining control over neighboring territories. What are the grounds for such expectations—especially in the context of the events of 2014-2015? After all, the West has made far-reaching concessions to Moscow, acquiescing to Russia’s being the center of its own galaxy; nor did it hinder Russia in its commercial and other dealings in the West, or meddle in its internal affairs. The Obama Administration has been trying to prevent the Kremlin’s irritation and bellicosity. German expert at the Carnegie Europe Center Ulrich Speck, acknowledged that Europe accepted “Moscow’s definition of the region as a Russia sphere of influence.”12 Didn’t this double accommodation on the part of the United States and the EU satisfy the Kremlin’s appetites? It did not, and it never could! After all, continuing expansion and continued testing of the ability of the West to respond is merely a means of prolonging the Russian System’s life; one concession always leads to another. This is the habit, the dogma, the logic that has become the genetic code of the Russian political class.
I cannot comprehend why Western experts who have spent so much time studying Russia fail to detect this genetic trait of Russian political mentality: the more the West calls for compromise, the more it provokes the assertiveness of the Russian System. After the blood-soaked 20th century, liberal democracies, at least in Europe, managed to create a tradition of consensus politics based on compromise and compliance with agreements. The Russian System and the Russian political class operate under a different model of existence: to them, concessions and compromise indicate weakness. Hence the different behavior: if the West is offering us compromise, then it must be weak, and we should press it harder!
Some time ago Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign relations—analyzing the reasoning of the American experts Nikolas Gvozdev, Robert Blackwill, and Dimitri Simes that Washington “should back off on policies that provoke Moscow unnecessarily” to secure help on issues that really matter—noted that “this ‘let’s make a deal’ approach to diplomacy has a tempting simplicity to it.” Meanwhile, the “grand bargains” favored by amateur diplomats are almost never consummated.”13 Indeed, this approach presupposes that Moscow will in fact agree to do deals, but so far the Kremlin has only agreed to deals (as Putin did with Washington in 2001–02) when such deals have contributed to the strengthening of the Kremlin’s position. It has far more frequently opted for another tactic: demanding that the West remove “irritants” and reduce “humiliations,” whereupon it will set about looking for yet more humiliations to fuel its resentments sentiments.
“There is in this policy approach a remarkable idealism about the way the world works,” Robert Kagan wrote about the Western proponents of accommodation.14 But the pragmatists, never despairing, insist that more of the same is what will eventually extract us from this cycle, somehow.
To be continued…
1Using the traditional term “realists” to refer to the individuals I call “pragmatists,” Alexander Motyl writes, “Realists can be found on the right (Henry Kissinger and Nikolas K. Gvosdev), on the left (Stephen F. Cohen and Michel Chossudovsky), and in the center (John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt). At first glance, it may be most surprising that leftists should have embraced a Realpolitik view of the world. But only at first glance. Recall that Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and a host of other Marxist leaders were no less realist in their conduct of foreign policy than Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon.” Motyl, “The Surrealism of Realism: Misreading the War in Ukraine,” World Affairs Journal (January/February 2015).
2Pragmatists have outlets for self-expression. David Johnson’s Russia List is the leading example. Pragmatists also hold sway in a number of American and European think tanks.
4“Ideology is not a good guide in a valueless yet vibrant Russian environment.” Dmitri Trenin, “A Less Ideological America,” Washington Quarterly, March 1. 2007.
5Graham, Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes: A Century Foundation Report, May 11, 2009.
6Graham, “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia,” The American Interest, March 12, 2013.
7Robert Kagan. Obama’s Post-American World, IWM post, N103 (January-March 2010).
8German Ostpolitik was formulated by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr on the basis of Bahr’s doctrine of “Change through Rapprochement” in the late 1960s-early 1970. Its main goal was normalization of the relations with GDR. The same strategy soon was applied by West Germany to the Soviet Union, and it was based on hope that the Soviet Union will transform under the influence of positive international dialogue.
9The report also called for respect of “Russian sovereignty, history and traditions and [recognition] that Russian society will evolve at its own pace.” In effect, the U.S. senators called for the respect of autocratic rule, since it is Russia’s principal tradition. See the response of the Russian experts to the report: Lev Gudkov, Igor Klyamkin, Georgii Satarov, and Lilia Shevtsova, “False Choices for Russia,” Washington Post, June 9, 2009
10Thomas Graham, “The Future of US-Russian Relations,” U.S. Global Engagement Conference, Pocantico Center, June 3, 2011.
11Toni Brenton, “The unfolding Ukraine crisis signals a new world order,” Guardian, May 16, 2014.
12Ulrich Speck, “The EU Must Prepare for a Cold Peace with Russia,” Carnegie Europe, December 9, 2014.
13Sestanovich, “What Has Moscow Done? Rebuilding U.S.-Russian Relations,” Foreign Affairs (November/December 2008).
14Kagan, Obama’s Post-American World.