Igor Pellicciari is Full Professor at the University of Salento, Italy; and a visiting lecturer at the Research University–Higher School of Economics (Moscow) and Moscow State University.
Resume: The Russian political system is hard to understand, but not impossible to understand. The simplistic interpretation of a “Tsar ruling alone” shows its limits every time it is recalled to explain the Kremlin’s latest decision in foreign or domestic policy.
The recent publication of numerous articles that try to analyze Vladimir Putin’s psychological profile—in the belief that this approach is enough to explain Russian policies—provides us with a useful occasion to present the following reflections on the main misunderstandings that are hovering today over the ground of Western countries, whenever they look at the Russian universe in order to understand its thoughts (not very successfully) and anticipate its moves (even less successfully).
This exercise is even more useful if we consider the simultaneous publication of other works that make the opposite claims—again with sharp tones, but this time biased in favor of Moscow—that Russo-phobia is rapidly spreading through the Western mainstream media and policy discourse.
The main objective of this exercise is to avoid simplistic interpretations—such as the very concept of Putin as the alfa-omega beginning and end of the Russian universe. While these interpretations may be useful to quickly communicate with the wide, absent-minded public opinion, they end up confirming pseudo-theories about Russia being unavoidably different and irrationally aggressive on the international level. These interpretations also prevent us from developing an understanding of what Moscow really wants to achieve so that we can ultimately reach an agreement that is beneficial to both sides.
From Red threat to Russia threat
The main misunderstanding—“main” because it, in turn, generates many more misunderstandings, concerns the evaluation of how much of contemporary Russia can be ascribed to Soviet times and how much derives from Russia’s political evolution over the last 25 years.
Due to a series of convenient circumstances, both political and cultural, the choice has been to interpret events in terms of a complete continuity with the past, positing a total and automatic overlap between the logic of the Kremlin’s actions in Soviet times and now.
Among the (banal) cultural reasons of this homologation there is also the difficulty of the West to find new expertise on Russian affairs that has developed independently of the study of the USSR. This is also due to insufficient investment in research and studies on Russia promoted in the 1990s, when the geopolitical importance of the country suddenly collapsed.
An entire generation of scholars and analysts was lost, so much that today the Kremlin’s news of the day is commented on by experts of the Soviet period or dealt with using daily-news narratives.
The resulting reports are not necessarily wrong, but give little contribution to understanding what is new in Moscow.
The prejudices that accompany these beliefs lead us to think, ex ante, that any crisis may also involve Moscow and make it the first suspect for triggering it; ex post, that the involvement of Russia may only make the situation worse rather that improve it.
On the other hand, the political reasons for this lack of will to accept contemporary Russia as something different from the USSR are less casual, more sophisticated, and correspond to a strategic upstream choice, i.e. the need for Western political systems to find an external enemy in order to unite the fissures that are open within Western society.
From this perspective, Moscow looks like the perfect enemy because it is: a) well established, due to its long history of opposition to the West; b) institutionalized, because it is used and prone to fighting and negotiating according to consolidated schemes; c) autarchic, because it is ready to take on an oppositional role for long periods; but, above all, d) easy to communicate to Western public opinions, especially during a period in which these public opinions have experienced more confused identities since the end of WWII, and are beginning to question the legitimacy of their respective political and institutional establishments.
In other words, Russia is a reassuring enemy, the “Devil you know.” It is preferable to other threats, from Daesh to various forms of terrorism, which are much more disturbing insofar as they are difficult to circumscribe and define; so much that their roots are in those very Western societies they fight against.
The old channels of the anti-Soviet mainstream, which is still alive, have encouraged European and American political communication to switch from the rhetoric of the “red threat” to that of the “Russia threat”—a short step, easily put into practice.
Nor has the inclusion of Eastern countries in the European Union softened European and American rhetoric against Russia, despite the fact that their inclusion itself was obtained thanks to the approval and coordination of the Kremlin, as Romano Prodi has recently reminded us.
Some EU founding countries—Italy among them—soon abandoned the belief that the new members (above all, Poland and the Baltic countries) would bring with them greater expertise about Russia thanks to their historic proximity to that country. Indeed, these countries often took the European positions to the extreme as a result of their negative experience and obsession with Soviet times. These countries sought confrontation with Moscow, then put up the predictable Russian reaction as evidence of the threat coming from Moscow in front of the astonished EU older members, thus making anti-Russian positions even more negative.
From this perspective, it is no surprise that in July 2016, with the Middle-East ablaze, NATO gave priority to discussing military deployments in the Baltic countries; or that Merkel, in the middle of an unprecedented migrant crisis, thought it more important to implore German citizens to stock food in case of—among other things—a military conflict with Russia. It is even less surprising that a survey conducted in 2015 revealed that the majority of the interviewees considered Moscow a more serious risk to their security than the foreign fighters who graduate in British colleges and volunteer as Islamic extremists on the Syrian front. As if Russian oligarchs residing in London were scheming to detonate bombs in the heart of the City.
Having demonstrated that the reasons for the persistence and consolidation of the “Russia threat” rhetoric along the same trajectories that once belonged to the “red threat” are mainly political, the basic problem is that they create various distorted perceptions. Being widespread on intermediate levels, they end up being difficult to eliminate, influencing not only public opinions, but the very (micro) politics of the West, and increasing the gap between the West and Russia.
In particular, we would like to stress two main distorted perceptions: a) about the way and the instruments with which Russia interacts internationally and sets its foreign policy; b) the structure of domestic institutional power on which Russia bases its policy implementation.
Measured reaction vs over-reaction
During the main crises that have taken place in recent years (from Syria to Turkey to sanctions and the doping scandal) Moscow, surprisingly, did not immediately respond rashly or instinctively. On the contrary, the Kremlin’s response has been measured and focused on political negotiation—most of the time offering concessions to the opposing side. This runs counter to the well-established Western myth of Russia’s propensity to over-react and retaliate, which is seen as an essential feature of the emotional and vindictive Slav spirit. In fact, for Russia the use of military power has lost its primary role, becoming a last resort rather than a first choice.
Russia’s emphasis on negotiations is designed to advance its national objectives, which are openly and overtly declared in the first place. This frankness is alien to the narratives of Western foreign policies, which are busy framing and communicating every action of Realpolitik in terms of the universal values they themselves have created; values that have turned out to be political golden cages.
Western countries seemed surprised and fell in the trap of making the discussion more aggressive—often using rhetorical tones that were, frankly, a bit coarse—as if they were nostalgically looking for a conflict with the Red Bear; like in the good old times, when a blunt, obtuse “Niet” (No) from Moscow was a cliché to recite like a mantra on this side of the Iron Curtain.
Lacking arguments that appeal to public opinions (and voters) that were becoming more skeptical and disillusioned, mainstream Russia watchers again focused on the fear of the “red threat” and the Kremlin’s obscure intrigues, as was the case with accusations that Moscow was working for the collapse of the EU—incidentally, nothing more alien to Russian national interests; or that it was supporting Donald Trump in the race for the U.S. presidency, or hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
On the other hand, this negative over-exposition of Russia and its President in Western media has not always had the hoped-for delegitimizing effect. The unanticipated effect of continuously underlining Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian decision-making has been the creation of the myth of a charismatic leader in the mind of Western masses, as opposed to weak European and American leaders, so aloof in their bureaucratic short-circuits and internal political tactics.
If Putin is perhaps the only current establishment leader that can enjoy respect rather than disillusionment—if not sarcasm—of wide sectors of public opinion (not just in Russia), the reason also lies, paradoxically, in the public’s overdose on the rhetoric of the Western anti-Russia establishment.
Indifferent, but also annoyed by the excessive criticism it is exposed to in any case, contemporary Russia has not responded by easily resorting to weapons, which would have been typical of the Western stereotype of the Kremlin as being traditionally “trigger happy.”
Russian foreign policy has invested in the use of those means of persuasion\pressure\conditioning that are commonly included in the definition of ‘soft power.’ This was against the “Tank you” expected (and possibly even hoped for) by the theorists of Russia as a country always ready to attack—despite, we may add, its historically being mainly obsessed instead with defense.
To do so, on the one hand, Russia has resorted to classic means and methods of intervention, such as using energy supplies as a geopolitical instrument, and acting as a catch-all donor by allocating aid to strategically interesting countries and political actors. On the other hand, Russia adapted itself to using traditional Western means, even making use of, when necessary, the strategies and tactics of its adversaries.
This is demonstrated by counter-sanctions and the re-launch of the sector of media addressed to foreign countries (where Russia Today and Sputnik have taken the place of the old Voice of Russia, with an angle that is directly addressed to Western publics), up to marketing campaigns and tourist promotions abroad that aim to convey the image of a happy, optimistic country—whose ideological manifesto were, in a way, the Olympic Games in Sochi.
The significant costs of all these tools, on the other hand, do not prevent Moscow from using them, despite the economic crisis triggered by the sanction conspiracy, the low price of oil and the plummeting value of the ruble.
Unlike American foreign policy—which always keeps an eye on costs with a military industrial complex largely controlled by the private sector—Russia sticks to old habits. From the Soviet period, Russia has inherited a culture of public expense that prioritizes geopolitical objectives over the necessary costs to attain them. Paradoxically, despite considering the Kremlin as the natural heir to the USSR, the West has not fully grasped this element of political continuity.
This mistake has been paid for with the failure of the main objective of sanctions: changing Russian foreign policy, and starting a crisis, first economic, then political, which aimed to change the leadership of the country.
The theory of the three Elites: spies, jurists, diplomats
As far as the institutional structure is concerned, the toughest prejudice to overcome is accepting that the Russian political system is well-rounded, for sure hard to understand, but not impossible to understand. And the simplistic interpretation of a “Tsar ruling alone”—even better if he is a moody tyrant—shows its limits every time it is recalled to explain the Kremlin’s latest decision in foreign or domestic policy. When in the past the information coming from Russia was sparse, this approach could be used from time to time; now that relevant information is readily available, it shows its limits, besides some side effects.
Western countries have always struggled to understand the dynamics of Moscow’s decision making and the relations between Russia’s power elites. The attention, focused on the Emperor, has often concealed the lack of first-hand information about the Empire, and has made us forget that, in large countries like Russia, the destiny of the latter is always more important than the destiny of the former.
The direct evidence of this lack of understanding is the interpretation of the last fifteen years of Russian political history since December 31, 1999, when Vladimir Putin took Boris Yeltsin’s place as the President of the Russian Federation, at the end of a very rapid turnover—incidentally, yet another one that Western countries did not expect and that caught them unaware.
According to those who embrace a person-oriented interpretation, Russia’s last fifteen years have been dominated by Tsar Putin tout court, without adding many explanations.
It is a direct representation, easy to comprehend, which, however, does not help us understand several public policies and international choices that Russia has opted for in the last decades.
We believe instead that in the aforementioned period there have been three public functions played by distinct groups of élites as they rotated in and out of the Kremlin’s ruling positions. Though different they were not opposed to one another and they took the prominent front runner position in government according to the governmental priorities of the moment.
The first elite that was appointed to lead the country was from the intelligence service, in the first five years of the Putin era (the indication is obviously approximate), that is, from 2000 to 2005.
This group was appointed in the most important and most visible role to ensure safety in the country “the Russian way,” that is, as a reaction to the perception at the end of the 1990s that the state was dominated by liberal economists inspired by Gaidar, and was close to collapsing and being sold off to foreign subjects.
The modus operandi that was chosen was deeply rooted in the Soviet experience, since the choice fell on the representatives of one of the main elites of the Russian public administration, that is, the intelligence community (the razvedchiki).
This passage of recent Russian political history is best known and most visible to the West, and the fact that Putin came from the ranks of the intelligence service contributed to the creation of a series of negative narratives that linked him and the Russian elite to stereotypes of the “spies from the cold” of Soviet times.
What the West has not grasped yet is that this phase was only of a limited duration, and the fact that Putin is still the leader of the country does not mean that Russia is, just as simply, “ruled by the KGB,” an idea that the West is still trying to validate.
Though the intelligence community still continued to play an important role in leading the country, in the following five-year period (2005-2010), it ceded leadership to the emerging category of jurists, who started to take the most high-ranking roles.
They were faced with the task of the new emergency that followed, that is, (re)creating a middle class that was satisfied and, therefore, conservative (until then it had been almost non-existent and crushed by the 1990s gap between the rich and the poor) so as to consolidate mass consensus around the Russian leadership.
As Russia was, by tradition, culturally dominated by bureaucratic formalism and hyper-normativism, and witnessed the rise of oligarchs as the consequence of wild deregulation—which was recommended by Western aides to foster the free market—state jurists seemed the best subjects to grant the introduction of (some) rights and (many) rules to encourage the redistribution of income in favor of the middle class.
Rather than adopting economic and structural reforms—which were postponed time and again—the country reached stability by developing a state subject to the rule of law, with limited participation (a hybrid model of liberalism with little democracy), that still persists. This model looked more similar, however, to the Bismarkian Rechstaat or to Giolitti’s Italy from the beginning of the 19th century than to the recurring Western narrative of the “dictatorship of spies” mentioned above.
This second phase—which played itself out well before the patriotic solidarity that followed the Ukrainian crisis—resulted in the real strengthening of the leadership in the eyes of the population and the onset of a real majority consensus in the country.
The West would not acknowledge these changes, and for several years would continue to comment on the Russian leadership as if it were a group of “praetorian spies,” distant and insensitive to the people’s requests, which manipulates the result of the elections and is about to be wiped away by increasing, unstoppable grass-root opposition.
At the same time, the West would not abandon the stereotype of Moscow as the “dark city” of the Evil Empire, and failed to acknowledge the impressive urban and cultural renaissance experienced by the biggest city in Europe, the real beating heart of a huge country with a hyper-centered political and administrative organization.
In the meantime, once it was sure that “Ivan, the civil servant (apparatchik)” was socially put back on center stage and released from the humiliations endured during the oligarchs’ period (the public pillory reserved to Khodorkovsky is only the most striking example), the Kremlin moved towards a new political objective that has characterized the third five-year period, that is, the current phase that began in 2011 (ideally with the end of Medvedev’s presidency).
This phase is dominated by Russia’s strategic decision to resume its traditional historical role—on an international scale—that, rightly or wrongly, it thinks it deserves: to return to being the main geopolitical interlocutor, if not competitor, of the U.S.
Among the three objectives of the government in the fifteen years under analysis, this one directly involves the country's foreign policy, which now again occupies the heart of the political agenda after two decades in which the domestic dimension was primary.
As a consequence, the third elite that has emerged at center stage are diplomats, another top function in Russia’s public administration. By diplomats we mean not only not only the powerful MID (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) personnel, but also the graduates of MGIMO State University of International Relations—the prestigious, isolated “Grand École” that has now regained its former glory.
Professional diplomats also take on positions at the top of the Ministry, thus creating an efficient functional bridge between the political level and the administration. Moreover, when they are sent to the main reference embassies, their mandate is uncharacteristically longer and they are involved in prior consultations by the Presidential Administration, the real political and constitutional heart of the Federation’s policy making. Incidentally, here we have also seen the rise of MGIMO graduates to key positions—from discreet but ubiquitous Yuri Ushakov, the President’s main counselor for foreign policy, to Anton Vaino, the head of the Presidential Administration, to his deputy Vladimir Ostrovenko, to the President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
This happens both on the multilateral level (before becoming Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov was the Russian Ambassador at the UN in New York) and on the bilateral one: the Kremlin’s main decisions in foreign policy have witnessed a growing, precise, direct involvement of embassies and ambassadors like of Sergei Razov (in Beijing for a decade, now in Rome), Vladimir Chizhov (in Brussels for over 10 years), Alexander Yakovenko (in London since 2011), Vladimir Grinin (in Berlin since 2010), Alexei Meshkov (in Rome for a decade, now vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs with the crucial mandate for European Affairs), etc.
The return of the diplomats to the core of the public administration does not imply the demise of the other two elite groups (intelligence servants and jurists), which keep dictating Russia’s domestic political course of action.
Rather, their growing influence is functional: to affirm and fine-tune the technical use of those instruments of foreign policy mentioned above, which clearly contradict some of the stereotypes most rooted in Western governments, preventing them from understanding not only Moscow’s final objectives, but also the meaning behind its intermediate moves.
While in the last three decades the Kremlin has been intensively working on its foreign policy and developing bilateral contacts with each Western actor individually at an unprecedented pace—despite, or maybe, thanks to the hostility of the EU and NATO—the Western mainstream has not revised its own categories.
It keeps telling us that Germany is no longer the same as it was at the time of the Third Reich, but Russia remains essentially Soviet to its core and that this will never change.