Russia: Psychoanalysis or Policy Analysis?

In the opinion piece, “Strong or weak, bully or buffoon? Will the real Russia please stand up?”, Michael Kofman asks a helluva lot of questions, answers none of them, and decries, “Amateur psychoanalysis  has largely replaced professional policy analysis.”

Amateur psychoanalysis is frequently practiced in this blog. In response to the question of the title of Kofman’s piece, permit me to answer on behalf of Vladimir Putin: “No, and you can’t make me.”

Mr. Kofman goes on to say, “But why the West lost objective reality in its approach to Russia remains the real mystery.”  The answer lies in the phrase, “professional policy analysis.” Mr. Kofman, with his extensive academic background, imposes a framework of thinking on the problem, a “thought-container”, which he calls “”professional policy analysis.”

The definition of “policy” may be found via a Google search. The results are all similar; apparently there is not a lot of disagreement about what a policy is. The purpose of a policy is not a part of the definition, but it’s probably something like this:

  • To inform a bureaucracy as to appropriate courses of action.
  • To inform, or misinform others outside the power structure as to likely courses of action.
  • To codify the consensus of a pluralistic power structure.

Sometimes, policy is a natural outcome of ideology. Marx had a lot of input into Lenin’s policies, because, even though Marx was dead, he  defined the goals.  Mao’s Little Red Book gave methods of policy, described by pithy slogans like, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”  Muammar Gaddafi had his Green Book. Hitler’s Mein Kampf laid out his destiny, from which policy would flow.

Putin has no book.  His philosophy, or pragmatic inclinations, which have lately taken a disagreeable turn, are a work in progress. The puzzlers of Mr. Kofman’s article are frustrated because you can’t pigeonhole something that isn’t finished yet.

My college room mate was an international relations major. Every other morning, he would angrily wave the NY Times in my face, irritably proclaiming the latest violation by the U.S. of international law. My foolish reply was that there was no such thing as international law. Yes there is, no there isn’t…

Yes, there is, to the extent that anything can be willed to exist, if enough people believe it.  But international law does not have the binding force of domestic law. The label “international law” is the name of a container that may be empty, or partially full.

So it is with “policy.” The United States, with a highly pluralistic power structure, is a country with particularly strong examples of policy. It can take 50 years to drop one, as just happened with Cuba. It happened without warning, because a policy is not a law, but that does not negate the prior existence of the policy.

On behalf of the West, Mr. Kofman asks, “Meanwhile, the West is still wondering if Putin is in complete control in Russia after tightening the screws on the last vestiges of opposition voices. Or is he a fledgling autocrat dependent on public support that cannot last?”

This is another misshapen thought-container. To find the answer, the container  has to be appropriately shaped to contain all the possibilities. Here is one which it does not contain: Putin is the central point through which all power flows. He connects all the wires. The Russian “elite” have long feared what they themselves call “a split in the elite.” If the wires should pull away from Putin and find another central point to connect through, Putin will fall. In active defense, Putin shears away potential challenges. Particularly visible to us are those oligarchs who attempt to oppose Putin on the political plane. Grousing about economics seems to be OK.

Can you put the above in a tidy thought-container, such as “autocrat”, or “Mussolini”?  Yes? Good. No? Good. How much predictive power does the label have? In some fields, the intellectual framework intends to capture ideals. In others, such as IR, important practical purposes are  to predict and counter. This is not served by shoehorning Putin and Russia into abstract thought-containers.

Policy makers are supported by legions of analysts who have been through an educational process that is supposed to give them an edge in understanding Russia. But this process also gives them a mental framework, chock full of “isms” and ideologies that confound understanding someone who rolls his own (as in cigarettes) as he goes along.

But for those who must have an ism, I offer a pacifier. Putin is an existential man. Quoting from Jean-Paul Sartre’s lecture of 1946,

“We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. “

This has been paraphrased to say, a man’s life is his act of creation, and he is not fully created until he dies.

Putin is still alive.