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 third essay in a series that seeks to answer these questions. Click this link to read part two.
Pragmatism as an approach to Russia and to Russia’s relationship with the West is not monolithic; it contains various strains. A rather common “objective” approach is attempting to describe events without analyzing their causes, consequences, and hidden traps. The overwhelming majority of the pragmatic camp subscribes to this objective approach. Describing Putin as an invincible leader who dictates rules of the game to the outside world is an example of such an approach. For example, the Guardian wrote in November 2015 about “Putin’s transformation” from “pariah” to “powerbroker” in the span of a single year” and argued that “the smug American assessment that Putin is an able tactician and a poor strategist now looks hopelessly wide of the mark. His Syrian intervention, rather than weakening him, has returned Russia to its place at the top table. No longer on the menu, Putin is diplomacy’s new maitre d’.”
Indeed, it looks as if Putin has been amazingly successful at shocking the outside world and forcing it to accept his terms. “Already Russia’s foray into Syria archived its first objective,” wrote Nikolas Gvozdev, pointing to the fact that Bashar al-Assad regime has stabilized and “Russia’s geopolitical position has markedly improved.”
At that time it looked like improvement. But how durable could this improvement be if war and militarist legitimacy have become the Kremlin’s key means of survival? What looks like success is in reality a sign of an exhausting war that could become for Russia a repeat of the Afghan disaster. Does anyone see the threat of this scenario unfolding? And why are such desperate, last-ditch moves viewed as signs of perfectionism?
Having discussed the weaknesses of Western leaders, Eugene Rumer, director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, in an article aptly entitled “Putin Has Outplayed Them All,” concluded, “Putin is the only one that firmly holds the reins of power; his [approval] rating is over 80 percent.” This assessment seems accurate, and no one doubts that Putin is more successful than other leaders when it comes to maintaining power. But the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu enjoyed 90 percent approval ratings right up to the moment he was overthrown. The Soviet Communist Party was supported by 99 percent of the population before it lost power. Here is the question that any Russia hand should raise: If Putin has such a sky-high approval rating, why is the Kremlin cracking down on everything that moves or breathes on the political scene and within society? What could explain this paranoia? Why in December 2015 did the Kremlin suddenly adopt a law allowing the FSB to shoot at crowds, including children, women, and invalids? This is hardly a mark of self-confidence.
Let’s also think about what Putin’s approval ratings mean, given the Kremlin’s control over television. Matthew Dal Santo from University of Copenhagen argues that Puitin’s approval rating is not only “the result of Russians’ heavy reliance on government-controlled television.” In his view “government policies reflect the attitudes and opinions of the conservative majority of Russians.” Thus, this is about the Russian nature and, when “Russian democracy arrives, maybe it looks rather like Putin’s Russia.” Indeed, the conservative segment of the Russian society does exist and has been relying on the state. But are we talking about majority? Are Russians genetically anti-liberal and anti-Western? If so, why did they support freedoms and rule of law before Putin? Even today, 60 percent of Russians want “rapprochement with the West” and “expansion of the trade, economic, political and cultural relationship with the West” and 75 percent say that “authority should be put under control of the society?” Not a very anti-liberal posture, is it? One therefore has to take Russian poll numbers with a grain of salt. In a state of demoralization and disorientation, people in Russia have returned to the Soviet habit of adaptation by openly declaring support of the authorities while concealing what they really think. Fear and anxiety dictate their answers when they are asked about support of the authorities and their policy. But Russians still are frank when asked about their real problems. Thus, they say that Russia is moving toward crisis and that their life is becoming more difficult, and they want Russia to be a normal country just like the West. And 64 percent of respondents think “economic integration with the West is important for Russia.” How this perception of reality is compatible with the sky-high approval of the leader responsible for their hardships? Either Russians are masochists or they prefer to hide what they think—for the time being.
Let’s ask ourselves how durable these figures of Putin’s approval might be given the continuing decline in living standards. A descriptive approach that relies solely on some selected indicators creates a deceptive impression of Putin’s strength at just the time when numerous signs point to the regime’s confusion and decay.
If one rejects the normative dimension, one is often presented with a false picture of reality in which failure can easily be viewed as a success. Here is how Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, characterizes Vladimir Putin: “He stands for Russian resurgence. Ask yourself: When was Peter the Great humble? When was Catherine humble? That’s not part of the role that they play.” Comparing Putin to Peter the Great and Catherine needs a lot of imagination! If the head of the leading U.S. think tank views the President who plunged Russia into crisis as a leader who “stands for resurgence,” one must have serious concerns about the state of Western analytical thought.
Another strain of pragmatists could be called the “Putin Explainers.” These experts speak on behalf of Putin and the Kremlin, repeating their arguments but without explaining what they might mean. Here is a sample of such “Putinology”: “To Putin, the West’s approach to Russia barely respects Moscow’s interests and views.” This is probably true, but please explain why Putin thinks so, and where this thought process leads him. “Putin believes that he will successfully deal with the crisis,” Putinologists say. Please, tell us how you know what he believes.
And then there are the analysts who, with a great sense of self-assuredness, proclaim, “Russians agree to be governed this way.” But what Russians, or what Russia, are we talking about? There are so many Russias today, given the fragmentation of society. Such descriptive techniques allow observers to distance themselves from their own statements. But their expert assessment is missing, leaving the reader with only the Kremlin’s arguments (or alleged arguments) to consider. This sort of analytical escapism is one of the reasons the experts fail to detect trends (and how can trends be detected when the experts rely on the Kremlin’s logic?) and are surprised by events and their consequences. Moreover, if we carefully read what the pragmatists who avoid drawing their own conclusions write, we eventually see that their descriptions actually justify the Kremlin’s actions.
The usual Western approach (ironically, used by both pragmatists and normativists) is to explain Russia by addressing tradition. “From Peter the Great to Vladimir Putin, circumstances have changed, but the rhythm has remained extraordinary consistent,” wrote Kissinger in World Order (2014). True, the legacy of tradition remains huge. But if its role is crucial and the experts know what these traditions are, why is it that the world (along with the experts) is constantly shocked by Russia’s unpredictability? It could mean that post-Communist Russia is influenced by some new features that provoke constant bafflement. If so, we should seek to understand what these features are, if we wish to understand contemporary Russia.
One more strain of pragmatism should be mentioned: those who believe that both Russia and the West are guilty and bear some responsibility for creating the present global disorder. “Yes, the Kremlin has broken china, but the West has sinned too!” say the members of this camp. They believe that both sides should examine their consciences, amend their ways, and begin anew. This is bizarre logic: each side has erred, of course, but their transgressions are not equivalent in either kind or seriousness. The West hasn’t invaded a European state or annexed its territory!
The pragmatists/consultants, who are trying to juggle their separate roles as both experts and business advisers, are in a league of their own. This group is apparently quite sizable and has different ways of working with the business community. These experts claim to be independent analysts even as they work as consultants for Western or Russian business, or both. The question is: how objective can an expert be if, while analyzing Russian politics, he or she also works to promote business interests in Russia that ultimately rely on the cooperation of the Russian authorities? Can his or her conclusions be trusted? Can he or she really be considered an independent analyst?
The pragmatists are joined by both left and far-right experts. The left is critical of the US administration (and often the West as a whole) or the capitalist system (represented in the US by Stephen Cohen and Noam Chomsky). The far-right (Patrick J. Buchanan is a US member of this camp) sympathizes with the Kremlin’s defense of “traditional values.” The increasingly influential European political right views the Kremlin as an ally in its struggle against the idea of European integration. Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party, Marine Le Pen and her National Front in France, and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom represent in Europe the political umbrellas of the far-right movement, which is surrounded by media and expert circles. “These Westerners aren’t backing Mr. Putin out of pure Russophilia,” writes Doug Saunders. “Rather, they admire his embrace of a Christian and mono-ethnic identity for greater Russia, and [Putin’s] aggressive action against what they see as their enemies: European diversity and open borders, and minority groups—especially homosexuals and Muslims.” Both those on the left of the political spectrum and those on its far right believe that the West (and, of course, Washington) is to blame for the confrontation with Russia. Both also defend the Kremlin. They believe Putin is doing an important job in containing the West.
This is not an historically unprecedented phenomenon. During the Stalin period, Western intellectuals demonstrated support for the Soviet system and its leaders—among them, the famous European writers George Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Lion Feuchtwanger, Herbert Wells, and Andre Gide. To be sure, they were great minds, and they were committed to finding an antithesis to the capitalism they detested. They also had an excuse: they did not know the Soviet reality. And when they were afforded at least a glimpse, they were horrified, like Gide, who, after visiting the USSR in 1936, wrote of “spirits being subjugated and terrorized.” Today, however, there are fewer obstacles to surveying the Russian landscape, so naivety and ignorance are less excusable.
The pragmatists and those joining them usually (but not always) tend to support a positive scenario. They do their best to convince themselves and the outside world that everything can be sorted out—that one must only be willing to start dialogue and come prepared to make concessions. There are reasons for optimism. One of its sources is the West’s predisposition for constructive agendas that involve dialogue, which tends to make one look for arguments in favor of the opponent’s willingness to negotiate. Until recently, the pragmatists’ optimism was also fueled by their faith in the Kremlin’s rhetoric and their inability to distinguish reality from imitation. In some cases, the pragmatists’ conscious or unconscious involvement in the Russian System’s lobbying mechanisms may play a role, as well as the fact that they couldn’t resist the Kremlin’s charm offensive. But I think the key reason lies in the pragmatists’ preference for working in the post-Cold War conciliatory mode, which implies a default option of looking for venues of possible cooperation at any price. This mode by its very nature excludes effective instruments for normative influence, let alone containment of a hostile civilization.
However, by the end of 2014 one could observe a shift among some pragmatists toward an uncharacteristically apocalyptic mood. “The crescendo has not been reached yet. The world is moving toward more serious confrontation of nuclear powers”, warned these suddenly chastened pragmatists. The worst will come, they said, unless the West concedes to the demands of the country that feels hurt. Perhaps these “horsemen” of the new apocalypse were influenced by the historical parallels evoked by the anniversary of the First World War. Maybe they were really frightened by the growing tensions between Russia and the West and feared an open clash over Ukraine. Whatever their cause, these fears were useful for the Kremlin’s policy of escalating the situation in order to force the West to accept the Kremlin’s agenda.
“Do you want the return of the Cold war?” This is usually the most persuasive argument of pragmatists when they counsel the West to stop criticizing the Kremlin. “Are there those in the U.S. national political elite who desire a new cold war?” asks Paul Starobin, former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, complaining that “warnings” on NATO expansion “went unheeded” and this provoked Moscow’s assertiveness. I would ask Starobin why the Kremlin started to complain so loudly about NATO when NATO lost its mission? Any idea what this cause-effect relationship means? Meanwhile, the stark choice between “accommodation or Cold War” justifies the acquiescence approach to Russia.
When pragmatists exhaust their rationalizations of Russia’s personalized system, they usually turn toward expressions of their love for Russian culture, appeals to the historic ties between Russia and Europe, and calls “to understand Russia.” These “Russlandversteher,” as they are called in Germany, refuse to differentiate between Russian society and the Russian System. Thus they treat every criticism of Russian rule and the Kremlin as evidence of “Russophobia.”
Sometimes, the pro-Russian stance serves as a cover for other positions. As the German expert Hannes Adomeit reminds us, describing moods in German society, “the pro-Russian attitudes have less to do with Russia but are simply an extension of anti-American reflexes.” Pro-Russian views can be also the reflection of anti-EU positions.
The pragmatist approach to Russia has a lot to do with the sorry state of Russian studies since the Soviet collapse. “After Sept. 11 there was a focus, rightly, on trying to increase focus on the Middle East and it’s had consequences,” said Michael McFaul, former Ambassador to Russia and a former senior adviser to President Obama on Russian and Eurasian affairs. Compared to 15 years ago, he noted, the government’s bench of experts and the quality of Eurasia analysis is “shallower. Trying to figure out decision-making in Russia on foreign policy requires a great deal of qualitative depth…and that requires new investment and knowledge. We’re going to disagree with the Kremlin and with the Russians on certain issues over time, but what we can’t have is disagreements based on misperception and bad information,” admitted McFaul.
Thomas Graham said, “The fundamental problem is that there is a lack of expertise in the US about Russia, and you see that within the broader public as well…and that lack of expertise is reflective in some of the trouble we have in understanding what Russia is doing, why it approaches Ukraine in the way it does, why it has certain attitudes toward the US, and so forth.”
The breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia’s marginalization have led to a loss of expert interest in Russian developments and diminished analytical support for Western politics. The Russia-area expert community has lost its vitality and its young blood.1 At least partially this was the result of cutting down or eliminating of the governments’ funding of the Russian studies. Thus, in October 2013, the U.S. administration eliminated its funding program for advanced language and cultural training on Russia and the former Soviet Union. Early 2015 the program was resuscitated, but at less than half of its previous funding level. Charles King, describing situation with funding, admitted that “ given the mounting challenges that Washington faces in Russia and eastern Europe, now seems to be an especially odd time to reduce federal support for educating the next cohort of experts.”
Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies (Georgetown University), wrote, “Instead of embracing a deep understanding of the culture and history of Russia and its neighbors, political science has been taken over by number-crunching and abstract models that bear little relationship to real-world politics and foreign policy. Only a very brave or dedicated doctoral student would today become a Russia expert if she or he wants to find academic employment.”
Ruth Wedgwood, an international law scholar at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, has also been concerned: “American universities that purport to teach international relations have often abandoned area studies about real countries and regions, in favor of the simpler game of ‘international relations theory.’… One wag has chided that the rather mechanical manipulations preached by each of these analytic “schools” is perfect for American students, because one doesn’t need to have traveled anywhere or learned any languages or know any history in order to move the pieces around.”
Few pundits are willing to study a system in decay and to plumb the depths of a nation’s neuroses. One can understand the shift of analytical attention to a rising (or seemingly rising) China, or even to the turbulence of the Middle East, which at least presents more vibrant scenery. The decline of Russian studies has contributed, at least partially, to the West’s unpreparedness for Russia’s arrival as the main spoiler on the international scene.
But the key reason behind the Western inability to understand Russia has been rejection of normative criteria in the analytical process. This is the same mistake as the Sovietologists made: Russia experts looked for policy that stabilized institutions and society, while neglecting to look at those features that made them dysfunctional—an examination, of course, which could only be done on the basis of principles.
To be continued…