Russian foreign policy in the Putin era has drawn particular attention, and even praise, from the realist school of international relations scholars. John J. Mearsheimer, for example, has written that “Putin and his compatriots have been thinking and acting according to realist dictates” in their policy towards Ukraine.
Indeed, senior Russian officials often make statements that suggest precisely that. President Vladimir Putin has lamented anarchy in the international system: “If you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security.” He has also spoken, like Hans Morgenthau’s archetypical statesman, “in terms of interest defined as power:” “Some of the recent events in Ukraine directly threaten our interests, first of all with regard to security… And we responded to this force. Why? I told you why. Because the interests of the Russian nation and the Russian state were at stake.”
Realism, then, seems like an appropriate frame of analysis for understanding Russian foreign policy. The problem, however, is that despite Mearsheimer’s praise, realism is not concerned with explaining concrete policy outputs and decisions; its focus is on the structural incentives decision-makers face. It establishes a range of possible outcomes, and the pressures on states from the international system. On its own, it cannot tell us much about particular decisions or actions. As the doyen of the realist school, Kenneth Waltz, acknowledged, realism “does not tell us why state X made a certain move last Tuesday. To expect it to do so would be like expecting the theory of universal gravitation to explain the wayward path of a falling leaf.”
Realism can explain states’ broad long-term foreign policy goals, but it does not clarify why or how states choose different means or mid-term objectives to achieve those goals. Thus, although realism could (correctly) foretell Russia’s efforts to rebuild the considerable power it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it tells us little about the policies Moscow has adopted to realize this goal. To take a concrete example: realism explains Russia’s policy of seeking influence in Ukraine; it cannot tell us why Putin decided to annex Crimea in March 2014.
Many Western analysts have attributed this decision to Russian domestic politics. However, all available evidence suggests that domestic factors do not have a decisive impact on Russian foreign policy. They are important on the margins, either by reinforcing existing policies or determining outcomes on matters of secondary import. But none are the central driver of Russian foreign policy. What then could be that driver?
In other comparable contexts – that is, globally significant countries with large policy bureaucracies, such as the United States, China, or Germany – analysts tend to assume that when decision-makers conduct foreign policy, they are generally driven by their understanding of national interest – not, for example, narrow clan, ideological, or political interest. Russian policymakers are generally no more (and plausibly less) beholden to such considerations than their counterparts in those other contexts. Analysis of their policies ought to begin with a baseline assumption that they, too, make choices based on their perception of Russia’s national interest.
This shouldn’t be a contentious assumption. But it has become just that, particularly in the wake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine in 2014. Observers have put forth multiple hypotheses about Russian motivations, including many that do not assume the centrality of the Russian leadership’s calculus of national interest. One of the most prominent hypotheses is that Putin’s actions were driven by a need to shore up domestic support. Michael McFaul, for example, has written that “Russian foreign policy did not grow more aggressive in response to U.S. policies; it changed as a result of Russian internal political dynamics.”
But particularly in the case of such a momentous decision, it makes sense to start with the assumption that Putin – or whoever occupies the Kremlin at the time – makes decisions on the basis of his understanding of Russia’s national interest.
This does not mean that Putin’s understanding of the national interest is, as Mearsheimer argues, a function of “realist dictates.” In his article on the Ukraine crisis, Mearsheimer lauded Putin as a “first-class strategist,” writing that, “Washington may not like Moscow’s position, but it should understand the logic behind it. This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” While this maxim may be true, it is hardly self-evident that the events of February 2014 were as grave a threat to Russia as Mearsheimer makes them out to be. In itself, “Geopolitics 101” also does not explain why the Russian leadership decided to respond to the February 2014 change of power in Kyiv with the invasion of Crimea, rather than any of the other options at its disposal.
It is plausible, however, that decision-makers in Moscow believed what had happened in Kiev posed such a threat and concluded that invading Crimea was the best way of addressing it under the circumstances. Individual leaders’ understandings of national interest are inherently idiosyncratic and cannot be derived from universal formulas. Instead of praise or condemnation, foreign policy analysts need to offer more fine-tuned explanations for how leaders (like Putin) reach their understandings of the national interest. Normative assessments of their policies are a different enterprise than foreign policy analysis.
There is a particular need for understanding leaders’ perceptions and misperceptions, in the vein of Robert Jervis’s pathbreaking scholarship. Cognitive theories emphasizing how individuals process, update, and interpret information, including how they learn from history and their own immediate contexts, project biases, and estimate risks and outcomes, may help account for how Putin and other Russian decision-makers perceive international threats and opportunities and select policy options from a range of potential choices.
Among other things, Jervis’s work underscores the impact of recent international history on leaders’ worldviews: “Previous international events provide the statesman with a range of imaginable situations and allow him to detect patterns and causal links that can help him understand his world.” This is particularly true in the case of Russia vis-a-vis the United States’ past behavior. Russian policymakers not only spend a lot of time focusing on what they see as potentially threatening U.S. actions, but Moscow also looks to Washington as the standard-setter for international politics. Following the annexation of Crimea, for example, Russian leaders consistently pointed to the recognition of Kosovo as an alleged “precedent” for its actions. There are significant differences between the two cases, but this is beside the point. If Russia annexed Crimea (and, before that, recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia) due to a normative commitment to self-determination, it would have recognized Kosovo too. Instead, Moscow cites Kosovo as proof that it’s normal and acceptable for great powers to violate international rules: if the Americans can do it, so can we.
Jervis also reminds us that outcomes in international politics do not necessarily correspond to leaders’ original intentions. Outcomes often result from a chain of action and reaction, and are rarely a function solely of a single state’s behavior. Furthermore, a state’s steps to achieve a particular goal might actually move it further from that goal. Jervis gives the example of a student putting a lock on his bedroom door to protect his valuables – which leads to thieves targeting his room instead of those left unlocked.
In the case of Russia’s Ukraine policy, there is a case to be made that precisely such a dynamic involving unintended consequences was in play. In the final days of February 2014, when Putin took the decision to insert special forces, paratroopers, and other servicemen into Crimea, he was seeking to prevent a strategic setback in Kyiv from becoming a strategic catastrophe – his nightmare scenario of Russia’s complete rollback out of Ukraine at the hands of the West. That decision – meant to secure Russia’s most important physical assets there, but more importantly to coerce the new Ukrainian authorities into accommodating Moscow’s broader interests in Ukraine – had almost immediate knock-on effects. It released latent separatist sentiment among the majority of the Crimean population, enabled local separatist-minded elites, and hardened the position of the new government in Kyiv. It compelled Western governments to double down on their support for that government, demand immediate Russian withdrawal, and threaten consequences.
So even though Putin’s public statements reaffirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity as late as March 4, the forces unleashed by his own invasion left him with a choice of capitulation or annexation; in his mind, not really a choice. The decision he took (invasion) led to an outcome he did not initially intend (annexation). Further, this outcome actually produced the opposite of the intended effect of the invasion – increasing leverage vis-à-vis Kyiv – since Moscow had swallowed its bargaining chip. Subsequent intervention in Donetsk and Lugansk aimed to acquire a new one.
While this, too, is a hypothesis that requires further investigation, the Ukraine crisis offers a stark reminder that Russia’s foreign policy is a product of the interaction of international, domestic, and individual factors. Analysts should assess Russian foreign policy with the same methods they employ for the study of other countries’ foreign policies. They should be clear about the theoretical arguments they employ and defend them with sound empirical evidence.
At the same time, we should not assume that Russian leaders share our understanding of Russia’s national interests. When we encounter policies that fit our understanding, this does not mean Russian leaders have reasoned like us; when we identify policies that contradict our understanding, this does not mean other levels of analysis must be at play. Instead, it may be more fruitful to attempt more nuanced analyses of Russian leaders’ views and how unfolding dynamics influence their understandings and the policy choices they make.
This is a revised version of the article “Making Sense of Russian Foreign Policy” by Samuel Charap and Cory Welt, published as the introduction of a special issue of Problems of Post-Communism 62 (2): 67-70, reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis LLC (http://www.tandfonline.com).