Imagine for a moment that I am tasked with authoring an executive summary for the upcoming Trump-Putin summit. There isn’t room for historical justification or the semi-literary style so popular with foreign policy journalism. And it has to be self contained, so I can’t tell POTUS to go read Kennan’s Long Telegram. Instead, here’s a quote from the first modern Russia analyst:
...From the very first ghastly dawn of her existence as a state, she had to breathe the atmosphere of despotism, she found nothing but the arbitrary will of an obscure Autocrat at the beginning and end of her organization. Hence arises her impenetrability to whatever is true in Western thought. Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her Autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself. Hence the contradictions, the riddles, of her national life which are looked upon with such curiosity by the rest of the world. The curse had entered her very soul; Autocracy and nothing else in the world has moulded her institutions, and with the poison of slavery drugged the national temperament into the apathy of a hopeless fatalism...
These are the words of the first modern Russia analyst,Joseph Conrad, from “Autocracy and War“, quoted from page 44 of The North American Review, Vol. 181, No. 584, July 1905. You might know Conrad better for Lord Jim, Nostromo, or Heart of Darkness. But with apologies to Vladimir Putin, these words from 1905, if not literally true today, are the foundation of modern Russia. And much of the foundation shows through cracks in the facade. Conrad was interested in Russia because the land of his birth, Poland, was the plaything of Prussia, Russia, and Austria. Mind these words, and don’t fall under the spell:
Western thought when it crosses her frontier falls under the spell of her Autocracy and becomes a noxious parody of itself.
- Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin, is a romantic nationalist, torn between a reverence for the past that Conrad condemns and a future that, with increasing urgency, he wants to bring to Russia – but on his own terms.
- Putin is not Russia. He is a product of Russia, half-modern and half traditional. He has not yet reconciled the two. His power is based on balancing constituencies; his freedom to act is overestimated in the West.
- Russia is not Putin. Russia is better described as the ghost of Conrad’s description. But as with all things about people and nations, there are many descriptions, useful in spite of errors.
In 1953, following the death of Stalin, collective leadership was restored to the Soviet Union. Until 1985, with the death of Konstantin Chernenko, the Soviet government was characterized by bureaucratic inertia, what foreign affairs wonks call “policy.” The Soviets were more inclined to continue a behavior than to suddenly change or innovate. Collective leadership deprived the Soviet Union of tactical flexibility. The elderly, collective leadership did not approve of Khrushchev’s playing poker with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was deposed as premier in 1964.
- Putin has tactical flexibility that the old system of collective leadership lacked.
- The stability of Russia is not based on tradition. It’s based on Putin.
- Because stability is provided by the role of one person, agreements could come undone very quickly.
- Russian foreign policy identifies the U.S. as the strongest state. So it is Russia’s goal to reduce the power of the U.S. Many aspects of Russia’s foreign policy are explained by traditional balance of power.
- There are various explanations for Russia’s hostility towards the West:
- Recreate the Iron Curtain as a tier of buffer states.
- Hold onto Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
- Eastward expansion of NATO. George F. Kennan was emphatic about it at the time it occurred. It may be Kissinger’s pov also.
- Putin’s traditional mindset, and the strong presence in government of former KGB. By this line of thought, it would have occurred anyway.
- The collective leadership of the Soviet Union was composed of professional politicians. In the new Russia, these are replaced by KGB, industrialists, and organized crime.
- In the Soviet Union, the KGB was subservient to the collective leadership and the party. In Russia, the KGB is the leadership.
- The rate of assassinations on foreign soil, and the broad use of poisons against external and internal opponents, is new. Although the Soviet Union used poisons, the leadership had a normal human fear of them.
- Putin can’t back up, or he becomes vulnerable to Russian nationalists.
- Putin can’t be placated, because he is not Russia.
- Russia is a natural resource state, subject to the “oil curse” of civil corruption.
- Russian business practices are not compatible with national security.
- By reducing the mobility of Russian assets, sanctions are a helpful counter to subversion cloaked as economic activity.
How can we avoid the “spell” described by Joseph Conrad,. which is thinking we understand the place? We could avoid the illusion entirely with a simple stratagem: Watch and wait for a change in behavior. Russia engages in many inimical activities, including subversion, assassination, and unsafe intercepts, with no measurable benefit to Russia. Cessation of these activities would convey meaning that words cannot.
But since it is Russian dogma to subvert a stronger power, what is the catalyst for change? The reasoning that the U.S. is the greatest threat is moronically outdated: The U.S. gives strength to Europe, the historical source of threats.
It’s not something that can be solved by a summit. I’ve suggested that the Skinner Box approach, rapid fire carrot-and-stick, might be a help. Kissinger pioneered “linkage” for the same purpose. This could change the way Putin, consummate tactician, plays the game, but not the game itself.
Only the rise of China can do that. At some point in the future, Russian strategists will identify China as the greater threat. This prediction, about two adjoining land powers that were at war in 1969, has more historical precedent than any other.
In the meantime, play the game.