Russia in Syria Part III

On Russian culture, which is bound up in this whole ball of wax…

One of the many definitions of culture is that it comprises the traits and beliefs passed on from one generation to another. A most elastic term, it encompasses not just arts, sciences, law, general knowledge, and religion, but also, attitudes, which are not consciously thought, but secret to the unconscious, in uneasy meld with the primitive mind. We didn’t have to think about this too hard until the post colonial period, when cultures less advanced than western got guns and bombs.

Only very recently, perhaps only since World War II, have western cultures  institutionalized altruism in a big way. The development was preceded by representative democracy, and universal suffrage, which made politically insupportable the concept of aristocratic entitlement. Execution of a government in an even-handed way, which is similar but not identical to “without corruption”, required that the civil servant internalize altruistic principles. This was originally facilitated by allegiance to monarch, then flag, and then a sequence of documents, most notably, the U.S. Constitution (with lots and lots of administrative law), and the European Convention on Human Rights. But no form of government can function only according to the letter of the law. These documents offer guidance to the civil servant on institutional altruism: to act with concern for the individual above the institution. The degree to which an individual experiences institutional altruism may be questionable to the unfortunate who is caught in a regulatory grinder. But against the background of history, it’s remarkable nevertheless.

It is a continual puzzle  why so many world leaders, wearing elegant western business suits with correctly knotted ties, contrive governments that appear to imitate all the organs of a western democracy, but in which the processes are mere mimicry. In Russia, until the accession of Vladimir Putin, there was an attempt to create a western style democracy, but it failed. Putin’s inheritance was a very large country with an ideological vacuum. History’s dustbin contained only the Tsar and Communism. The actors of Putin’s ascension were organized crime, oligarchs, combinations of the two, and the Orthodox Church.

In order to govern the place, Putin reached for a pre-cultural concept: friends, glued together by money and self interest One cultural concept  survived, patriotism,  love for the Russian state as the embodiment of “Russian culture.” Throughout the 19th Century, as the Russian Empire incorporated nomadic societies in Central Asia, the acquisitions were described as enlightening primitives the glories of Russian culture. A culture does not have to declare itself great or superior, but that it does so is characteristic of the Russian.

Friends help friends, who in Russia must be adherents to Russian culture. This does not admit more altruistic behavior than occasional earthquake relief. With such a system, a single diplomatic principle is compatible: raison d’État , “a purely political reason for action on the part of a ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice, or honesty is involved.” Cardinal Richelieu’s name has a strong association with the phrase. In the Thirty Year’s War, France, a Catholic state, backed Protestant rulers to keep France whole.

Russia’s choice today has a surprising analogy. The population of Russia is 14% Muslim. Of that 14%, only 5% are Shiite. Backing Iran separates the Sunnis of the Russian Caucasus from larger Sunni populations in the Middle East. So we have a theory, with relations with Iran as an example, that Russian foreign policy is based purely on self interest.

By contrast, U.S. foreign policy is based on both self interest and idealistic altruism, in proportions sufficient to make the electorate chronically unhappy. It has also been criticized by proxies suddenly dumped at the expiration of usefulness. Apparently, altruism does not make the U.S. a reliable buddy.

Is there other validation to this theory of Russian policy? Although Russian promotion of the Ukraine separatism has the geopolitical aspect of countering NATO expansion, the actual event appears to have been a cascade. It was started by small groups of Russian right-wing nationalists, subsequently embraced by Putin’s inner circle, and then by a popular wave, that Russians in the Ukraine must be saved from dirty Ukrainian culture, by making the land under their feet part of Russia. So Russian intervention in Ukraine bears the marks of both raison d’État and “friends.”

In this discussion, the term “friends” encompasses all forms of power and bonding in Russia. In Russia, the civil servant works for whoever pays him. In the absence of the codified altruism of a western state, personal loyalties are all there is beyond the trivial. Rather than devise a different thought system for international affairs, Russia simply extends what it has at home.

We are now prepared to analyze Russian policy in Syria, based on

  • raison d’État diplomacy
  • “friends”, bonds of loyalty,extending to international affairs
  • the costs and risks to Russia, which are considerable

The assertion that Russian foreign policy is based on self interest admits a possible exception. Among foreign entitites, can there be real friends, as opposed to friends of convenience? Apparently, yes.

To be continued shortly.

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