Worlds Apart?
No. 2 2015 April/June
Simon Saradzhyan

Research fellow at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

Are Russia’s and the U.S.’ National Interests So Different?

In underscoring the difficulty of predicting the Kremlin’s next steps, many Westerners would often cite Winston Churchill’s famous reference to Russia as a “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 interests.”

When explaining what guides 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 jointly on them. Among these common interests mentioned by Putin are: countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; fighting international organized crime and terrorism; eradicating poverty in the world; making the global economy “more democratic and balanced;” and “making global order more democratic.” But while weighing up common interests with specific countries neither Putin nor his advisors have offered a comprehensive list of what constitutes Russia’s national interests or what their order of importance is. A search for the combination “national” + “interests” on the Kremlin’s website provides hundreds of results, but no strategic document that would spell out what these interests are. Nor could I find a comprehensive and clear-cut hierarchy of such interests in reports by Russia’s leading think tanks. One possible exception is a 2009 report by Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy which surveyed the interests of Russia vis-à-vis the U.S., but it did not produce an overall hierarchy either.

Of course, no matter what a government agency or think tank produces as a list of their nation’s interests, it should not be viewed as a dogma this government would follow by all means. Still, I believe crafting a hierarchy of national interests is a very useful exercise, as it gives the implementers of state policies an idea of what overarching priorities are guiding their governments and how their own work matches these priorities. Such a hierarchy also helps both domestic and foreign audiences to better understand what drives a nation’s policies, and dispel simplistic claims that a leader’s personal qualities or interests are the sole decisive factor in shaping these policies. Perhaps, the demonization of Putin as “evil enough” and a “land-hungry” ruler “bent on re-establishing a Russian empire” in the Western mass media would have gained less attraction with the Western public if there had been a Russian strategic document or a report that would spell out that Russia’s vital interest is not to acquire more territories, but to prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or regional hegemonies on its borders and ensure that Russia is surrounded by friendly states. Taking territory from a neighboring state is bound to be condemned by other countries and cannot be done without tangible material and reputational costs. However, I would argue that the reason why Russia acted this way was not because it needed more land, but primarily because it wanted to signal that it considers Ukraine’s political and military integration into the West a violation of its vital interests and, therefore, unacceptable, and that Russia no longer considers its own integration into the West an option.

Hopefully, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy or some other authoritative Russian institution will produce a report on a par with or better than the Report on American National Interests put out by the Commission on America’s National Interests and subsequent papers. In the meantime, let me offer my view of the hierarchy of Russia’s national interests, which I drafted several years ago, distilling points from Russian leaders’ statements. I have recently updated this hierarchy. I first showed it to the leading Russian policy experts for a reality check, 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. Here are the results of my comparative analysis.

As is clearly seen from the chart above, Russia’s vital interests partially diverge with those of the U.S. only in two domains; in other areas they either converge or have no equivalents. Theoretically, such a convergence of vital interests may pave the way to mending fences between the two countries, with joint counteraction to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda being the most evident opportunity to start such a rapprochement. In reality, however, the West’s concern about Russia’s actions in Ukraine and their repercussions for collective security in Europe, on the one hand, and Russia’s concern about NATO’s expansion, U.S. advanced weaponry programs, and America’s pressure on the policies of its strategic allies and partners, on the other hand, as well as Russia’s and the United States’ domestic policy priorities can all considerably delay such rapprochement and even prevent it altogether. And so can some “black swans” and more benign but no less distracting “bright shiny new objects” that have become so common in the age of global political disorder.