Russia and the U.S.: are national interests so different?

10 may 2015

Simon Saradzhyan is a research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

Resume: When trying to underscore the difficulty of predicting the Kremlin’s next steps, many Westerners like to cite Winston Churchill’s famous reference to Russia as “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Few however, recall the remainder of that 1939 adage: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

When trying to underscore the difficulty of predicting the Kremlin’s next steps, many Westerners like to cite Winston Churchill’s famous reference to Russia as “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Few however, recall the remainder of that 1939 adage: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

When explaining what drives their policies, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his advisors routinely make general references about the need to protect or advance Russia’s national interests. Occasionally they also reveal what interests they think Russia shares with other countries. In an April 2015 interview, Vladimir Putin said Russia shares key interests  with the United States and that the countries need to work on together. Putin mentioned countering proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; fighting international organized crime and terrorism; eradicating poverty in the world, making global economy “more democratic and balanced” as well as “making global order more democratic” among these common interests. But while weighing on common interests with specific countries neither Putin nor his advisors have offered a comprehensive of list what constitutes Russia’s national interests or what their order of importance is. A search for combination of “national” and “interests” on Kremlin’s web site nets hundreds of results, but no strategic document that spells out what these interests are. I could not find a comprehensive and clear-cut hierarchy of such interests in reports by Russia’s leading think-tanks either. One possible exception is a 2009 report by Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which surveyed the nation’ interest’s vis-à-vis U.S. , but this did not produce an overall hierarchy either.

Now, of course, no matter what government agency or think-tank produces a list of their nation’s interests, it should not be viewed as dogma, which this government will follow by all means. Still, I believe crafting a hierarchy of national interests is a very useful exercise, as it gives implementers of government policies an idea of what overarching priorities are guiding their government and how their own work fits in these priorities. Such a hierarchy also helps both domestic public and foreign audiences to better understand what drives a nation’s policies, dispelling simplistic claims that a leader’s personal qualities or interests are the sole decisive factor shaping these policies.  Perhaps, demonization of Putin as “evil enough” and “land-hungry” ruler “bent on reestablishing a Russian empire” in Western newspapers and journals would have gained less traction in the eyes of the Western public if there had been a Russian strategic document or a report, which spelled out that Russia’s vital interest is not to acquire more territories, but  to prevent emergence of hostile major powers or regional hegemonies on Russian borders and ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states.   Taking territory from a neighboring state is bound to be condemned by other countries (though the international backlash could be limited as the last year vote on Crimea at the UN General Assembly demonstrated) and cannot be done without tangible material and reputational costs. However, I would argue that it was done not because Russia needed more land, but, primarily to signal to Kiev that Moscow considers Ukraine’s political and military integration into the West to be in violation of a vital Russian interest and, therefore, unacceptable, now that Moscow no longer considers its own integration into West to be an option.

Hopefully, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy or some other authoritative Russian institution will produce a report on par or better than reports on U.S. national interests put out by the Commission on America's National Interests and subsequent projects. In the meantime, let me offer you my take on the hierarchy of Russia’s vital national interests, which I initially drafted several years ago, distilling points from Russian leaders’ statements and strategies. I have recently updated this hierarchy, run it by leading Russian policy experts for a reality check before, and then I squared it against the list of U.S. vital national interests -- as formulated in the aforementioned U.S. reports-- to identify areas of convergence and divergence.  Since these reports have been published earlier, I followed their style when squaring U.S. and Russian interests against each other to make it easier for readers to compare them.

Russia’s vital national interests (in order of importance): U.S. vital national interests: Converge (C)/ Diverge(D)/ No equivalent (NE):
Prevent, deter and reduce threats of session from Russia; insurgency within Russia or in areas adjacent to Russia; and armed conflicts wages against Russia, its allies or in vicinity of Russian frontiers; Not available; No equivalent;
Prevent emergence of hostile powers or regional hegemonies or failed states on Russian borders, ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states, among which Russia can play lead role and in cooperation with which it can thrive;  Maintain a balance of power in Europe and Asia that promotes peace and stability with a continuing U.S. leadership role;  Russian and U.S. interests more diverge than converge;
Establish and maintain productive relations, upon which Russia national interests hinge to a significant extent, with core European Union members, the United States and China;  Establish and maintain productive relations, consistent with American national interests, with nations that could become strategic adversaries, China and Russia;  Converge (partially);
Ensure the viability and stability of major markets for major flows of Russian exports and imports;  Ensure the viability and stability of major global systems (trade, financial markets, supplies of energy, and the environment); Converge;
Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into global markets; Not available; No equivalent;
Prevent neighboring nations from acquiring nuclear arms and long-range delivery systems for them on Russian borders; secure nuclear weapons and materials; Prevent the use and slowing the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, secure nuclear weapons and materials, and prevent proliferation of intermediate and long-range delivery systems for nuclear weapons;  Converge, but differ in methods of advancing this interest;
Prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia; Prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on the American Homeland; Converge;
Ensure Russian allies' survival and their active cooperation with Russia; Ensure US allies' survival and their active cooperation with the US in shaping an international system in which U.S. can thrive;   No equivalent;
Not available; Prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or failed states on US borders;   No equivalent.

As made clear in the list above, Russian vital interests partially diverge with those of U.S. only in two domains, while either converging in other areas or having no equivalent on the U.S. side. Theoretically, such a convergence of vital interests could pave for mending of fences between the two countries with the joint countering of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda being the most evident opportunity to initiate such a rapprochement. In reality, West’s concerns with Russia’s actions in Ukraine and their repercussions for collective security in Europe, Russia’s concerns with expansion of NATO and U.S. advanced weaponry programs, influence of America’s strategic allies and partners on its policies, and the priorities of domestic politics in both countries can all considerably delay such rapprochement or prevent it altogether. As can so-called individual black swans and more benign, but as distracting ‘bright shiny new objects” that are so common in the age of attention deficit disorder politics.

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