Russia has always presented a puzzle to the Western analyst and policymaker. Too big to be ignored, yet too weak to be considered the principal menace by the West; too authoritarian and corrupt to be accepted, yet too geographically and culturally proximate to be fully rejected; too bad-tempered to be a partner, yet too frail to be an existential rival. Above all, Russia’s foreign policy motivations remain in the end undecipherable, even though her violent power projections draw clear and wider lines on the map.
The problem lies in the Western penchant for using material power as the principal source of knowledge and prediction. For the Western political observer, power is associated with action, and weakness with passivity. States expand when they are strong because the risks of meeting a steely opponent are mitigated by the foundation of military, economic and political might they possess. Weak states are expected to be still, lest they break apart causing geopolitical headaches. As the often cited and abused Thucydidean saying from the Melian Dialogue put it, the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.
But somehow Russia never fit this vision and continues to baffle us. Her fragility is evident according to most metrics: a population in decline and in poor health, an economy unable to produce exportable goods and reliant on natural resources, and a political system propped by kleptocratic autocracy and propaganda. And yet, Moscow is a more than a match for a West that continues to be surprised by the advancing Russian tanks and by its own inability to offer a united façade to counter the slow and unrelenting aggression. Why would Russia risk another prolonged, and perhaps even violent, conflict with a much stronger opponent? Truly, a riddle and a mystery and an enigma.
All this–Western bewilderment and Russian thrashing in her neighborhood–is not new. In an essay entitled “Autocracy and War” and published in 1905, Joseph Conrad, of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim fame, dissected the Russian puzzle in an eloquent and timeless way. Conrad argued that the West was unable to comprehend Russia, which remained “impenetrable” to Western thought. In part this was because Russia exercised a strange attraction to Westerners, mesmerized and fascinated by the country. As a result, “Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her Autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself.” But in part it was difficult to discern any reasonable design or order that could transcend those drawn exclusively by whoever happened to be Russia’s leader. It was a country run by “nothing but the arbitrary will of an obscure Autocrat at the beginning and end of her organization.” To understand Russia, one had to be inside the head–the will!–of her leader, a task that is impossible to humans. The will of a 19th century Tsar or a post-modern one, such as Putin, perceives no limits and easily becomes unmoored from reality. A policy based on a whim cannot be analyzed by reason. By definition, it is not reasonable but capricious.
The impenetrability of Russia meant that the West oscillated between being enthralled by the possibility of a grand Eurasian unity and being stunned by the reality of another Russian military foray–or between being charmed by the depth of Russian culture and being perplexed by the ferociousness of Russian imperialism. Most immediately, in Western eyes the aggressiveness of Russia did not match its persistent weakness. Writing at the time of the Russo-Japanese conflict, Conrad saw Russia as a scraggly but threatening polity. Despite the abysmal military performance against Japan, he wrote,
the decrepit, old, hundred-years-old, spectre of Russia’s might still faces Europe from above the teeming grave of Russian people. This dreaded and strange apparition, bristling with bayonets, armed with chains, hung over with holy images, that something not of this world, partaking of a ravenous Ghoul, of a blind Djinn grown up from a cloud, and of the Old Man of the Sea, still faces us with its old stupidity, with its strange mystical arrogance.
Undoubtedly a weak state, Russia could still inflict a lot of damage and in some cases it could win because it often selected even weaker, “practically disarmed,” targets as her victims. It struck them “as if with a withered right hand” but it struck them nonetheless, despite all the costs to her own people, her own political stability, and her own overall welfare.
The prevailing Western hope was and still is that Russia could evolve into a political entity similar to her European neighbors, more intelligible and one in which the metrics of power could say something about its behavior. But for Conrad, presciently, there could “be no evolution out of a grave.” No reform was feasible as “the only conceivable self-reform is suicide.” A country run from generation to generation by the “capricious will of its irresponsible masters” cannot develop gradually and peacefully into a law-abiding state that also acts according to some rational calculation based on its underlying strength.
But Conrad was even more pessimistic. The capricious autocrat would not be replaced by a wise one, as some even now hope it could happen. Putin will not be superseded by, at least superficially, a gentler and less unpredictable leader à la Medvedev. According to Conrad, it “is a tragic circumstance that the only thing one can wish for that people which has never seen face to face either law, order, justice, right, truth about itself or the rest of the world … is that it should find in the approaching hour of need, not an organizer or a lawgiver, with the wisdom of a Lycurgus or a Solon, for their service, but at least the force of energy and desperation in some as yet unknown Spartacus.” After Putin, not a Lycurgus or a Solon, but a Spartacus!
Joseph Conrad did not suggest a particular policy that the West should follow toward Russia. He was after all a superb novelist, not a strategist or a diplomat or a military planner. In this 1905 essay he only offers a clear and prescient warning that Russia, led by her autocrats, would continue to present problems way beyond its material capabilities and geopolitical constraints. Perhaps Russian foreign policy behavior was a suicidal pursuit that would bloody and further enslave the Russian people. But somehow, despite persistent rumors of Russia’s inevitable decline, she never vanished from the map and remained a font of imperialism and war. Conrad ends with a worrisome and prophetic counsel: the “end of wars … is by no means over yet.” “Civilization … has managed to remove the sight and sounds of battle-fields away from our doorsteps.” This, however, is only a tenuous illusion and we should expect war to return closer to us. In fact, “whatever war comes to us next, it will not be a distant war of revanche waged by Russia either beyond the Amur or beyond the Oxus.” We would be wise to add the Dnieper to the list of these distant rivers.