Russia, proposed Syria cooperation with United States; Is Russia a Rational Actor?

(Reuters) Russia confirms proposed Syria cooperation with United States.

For both amateurs and intelligence pros, this poses a fascinating question. Since

  • Assad is despised in the West.
  • U.S. ire at Russian hacking of our elections is going ballistic.
  • Russia has actually increased hacking activity.
  • Russian aggression in Ukraine, and subversion in Eastern Europe have frightened a moribund NATO into new dynamism.
  • Assassinations on Western soil. Yes, dear Russians, Salisbury and other “special tasks” do count.

why would they make the proposition?

There are two possibilities, which may exist in combination.

  • The Russians don’t understand the Western mind. They don’t know how we think, or how we respond to Russian behavior, which is divided between show, presumably for the purpose of influence, and substance, which is for the benefit of Russian aims.
  • The concept of the Kremlin, and Russian military, as having tight unity of purpose, is false.

The first must play a part, or it would manifest in Russia’s internal conversation. Western ideas about the power structure of Russia, which may also be misinformed, have these varieties:

  • Putin is Russia; the “most powerful man in the world”.
  • Putin and the Kremlin “inner circle” are Russia.
  • Putin, the “inner circle”, and the “clans”, which are major divisions of interest, comprise a Russia of sometimes common, sometimes competing interests.

The Russian proposal on Syria cooperation is the end product of one of the above, but it is not a rational product.

Foreign policy of many nations has an above-board  representation in diplomacy, and in clandestine organs as well. The two are frequently at odds. In the Soviet era, many Russian ambassadors, to the extent they were even aware its presence in their embassies, found the KGB an annoyance, and they were definitely out of the loop.

In modern Russia, the above-board and clandestine organs are both present. Unity of purpose should be achieved at the top. Yet it is clear to us, if not to the Russians, that their clandestine efforts are undermining their diplomacy. If Russia is a rational actor, this is exactly the opposite of what is supposed to happen. Subversion of the U.S. political system is supposed to make us more persuadable, not less. Hence this derivation:

  • If Russia as a whole is a rational actor, election hacking would have stopped. Therefore Russia is irrational.
  • Russia’s government is composed of individually rational actors.
  • The combination of these individually rational actors is irrational.
  • The likely reason: Conflict between rational actors.

All this occurs against the background of the man of mythic power, Vladimir Putin. But the myth is contradicted by history. Such power has not existed on the world stage in modern times. Russian irrationality is compatible with a Putin who lacks complete control.  Yet the public and press are captivated by the illusion of it.  So let’s enumerate the possibilities:

  • Absolute, or complete control. Total command authority for an unlimited number instances. In today’s world, only Kim Jong-un approaches this, but it is beyond even his grasp.
  • Detailed control. Total command authority for a limited number of instances. Every time it is used, some group  is annoyed. Excessive use results in erosion of authority.
  • Provisional control. Command authority varies, depending upon clans or groups which gain or lose.
  • Control by mediation, the internal equivalent of balance-of-power. Russia has clans.

Since the level of control is partly determined by how tough the ruler is perceived to be, there is a penalty in backing up, backing out of previous policy decisions. This may contribute to the perception of irrationality.  If Russia stopped election hacking, a number of clandestine groups would feel a sudden loss of purpose. This is dangerous to provisional authority.

The sum of Russian irrationality is something like a national psychosis that has at times affected the U.S. and other nations. (Pakistan may be the premier example.) How do we deal with a crazy Russia?

If one goal of U.S. foreign policy  is to influence Russian behavior for the better, it’s been a miserable failure. There is a tendency to politicize the failure, which makes intelligent approach to the problem impossible. The Russians are a sophisticated group of people, individually sane. We want to influence the behavior of this group.

Sanctions have had nil effect. We lack explanation. One possibility is that, if Russia is as a whole irrational, it lacks the capability for internal dialog about sanctions, the effects, the reasons, and remedy. Blocked by irrational factors, such as the national pride that afflicts so many countries, the response to sanctions is somewhat like the offender who can’t be knocked down by a Taser. We may shortly discover this about Iran as well.

Modern behavioral psychology offers replacements for overtly coercive measures. Psychology is about  individuals, not nations. But B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning could result in the dialog within the Russian clans that we have been unable to induce by the brute-force of sanctions.

With that in mind, I commend to you Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 5; Nikki Haley, Russia, and Advice, Part 6.









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