History has shown countless times that Moscow will not observe any economic or security arrangement that the U.S. or its European allies craft without the participation of Russia. As a result, Washington should take greater steps to integrate, rather than isolate, Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Photo: AP
Contemporary Russian foreign policy is a product of colossal disasters and titanic triumphs. Consider that the Russian Empire almost singlehandedly thwarted Napoleon’s relentless expansion only to suffer a humiliating loss soon after in the Crimean War. Russia witnessed the tragedy of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution only to break Germany’s advanced war machine during the Second World War and come to dominate the world scene just two decades later.
In addition, the history of Russian foreign policy shows how contradictory it has been from one era to the next. For example, in 1815 Tsar Alexander I established the Holy Alliance that incorporated the courts of Russia, Austria and Prussia into a bastion of autocracy and conservatism amidst revolutionary Europe. Yet, a century later, a new Soviet leadership declared its intention to spread the Bolshevik Revolution beyond the Soviet Union’s borders.
This historical rollercoaster means that Russian foreign policy has developed a certain character that still guides it today. Acknowledging the unique features of Russian foreign policy may save other countries the trouble of antagonizing the Russian nation. Today, a few principles passed down by history may help the U.S. to avoid facing a truculent and bullying Russia. Designing its strategy towards Russia in accordance with those principles may significantly improve the image of the U.S. inside Russia, too.
Russia views itself as a European power
The most fundamental principle that ought to be recognized by policymakers is that Russia sees itself as a full-fledged European power. Letting Russia out of the European orbit is bound to hurt other states.
The post-Versailles years demonstrate the recklessness of negligent disregard for Russia’s non-participation in European affairs. On March 3, 1918 a new Bolshevik government had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that ended Russia’s participation in World War I on disastrous terms. Later, Leon Trotsky, the first People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs, virtually renounced the very institution of foreign policy, save for periodic calls for world revolution.
A former European powerhouse shrunk and sealed itself off from European tides. But the political vacuum did not last long and by April 1922, Russia had been dragged back into a precarious state of affairs in Europe.
In 1922, British Prime Minister Lloyd George gathered European powers at the Genoa Conference to discuss the post-war economic order. On the agenda was the subject of reparations to be paid by a defeated Germany. Soviet delegates arrived fearing other participants would propose the Soviet Union to acknowledge a tsarist debt and pay it off by sharing part of the German reparations.
Had the proposition been voiced, it would have put the weakened and virtually friendless Soviet Union into an unfavorable position of confronting Germany. Dedicated to avoiding the emergence of a hostile Germany by all means, Georgi Chicherin, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, secretly met with his German counterpart on April 16 to draft an agreement that would establish favorable diplomatic relations between the two European pariahs. Through neglect and disdain, the war victors unknowingly gave momentum to a fatal friendship between the two revisionist powers that eventually culminated in the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Today, the European policy of the U.S. would be much more constructive if it acknowledged the Russian claim of being a European power. According to the Russian psyche, Moscow earned its place in the top tier of Europe’s great powers when Russian troops marched through the heart of Europe in 1812. Since then, no major European settlement has come about without direct Russian participation. And if it did, the results were highly dubious, as the example above demonstrates.
What it practically means for Russia-U.S. relations today is that Moscow will not observe any economic or security arrangement that the U.S. and its European allies craft singlehandedly. If its interests are not accommodated, Russia will work to spoil any arrangement even if it brings self-inflicted harm. Labeling Russia a “European outcast” will only instigate further truculent behavior.
Bluntly put, the current enmity between Russia and the U.S. is caused by what Moscow considers an unlawful encroachment of an outside power into the European sphere. Russia sees active U.S. engagement in European affairs as a distortion of a natural balance-of-power in the region that would have otherwise assumed a different form. Moscow feels that the U.S. presence in Europe comes at Russia’s expanse.
To prevent the further alienation of Moscow, Washington ought to refine its European strategy for it to fully accommodate Russia. This will allow the U.S. to safely preserve the current European order intact while greatly diminishing Russia’s opposition to U.S. interests in other strategically important parts of the globe.
Russia has difficulty forming alliances with non-European powers
The second principle passed down by history is that Russia does not easily build genuine and lasting alliances with non-European states. Nevertheless, thwarting all Russian maneuvers on the European continent will push Russia to develop an Asian vector of its foreign policy more actively. The U.S. must avoid this scenario by all means.
With a wise U.S. foreign policy, a genuine alliance between Russia and China is unlikely to spring forth in the coming decades. Russia has historically been unwilling to forge an alliance of equals with any Asian power, however colossal its capabilities were. As Russia views the world, a European power must not compromise its status in the European league of powers by binding itself into a permanent alliance with an Asian power. The deep distrust of a fellow Communist regime in China that developed among the people of the Soviet Union (with the blessing of its political elite) illustrates just how individualist Russians are in the design and practice of foreign policy.
For Russia, Asian states count as long as they advance the interests of European players in their confined playing field. Russia will be all too eager to exploit any opportunity to undermine the current position of the U.S. in Asia, especially if it helps to divert the attention of the U.S. away from European affairs. Since some of Beijing’s recent moves in East Asia are already troublesome enough for the United States, U.S. interests may soon dictate that Washington take a tougher stance on China’s expansionist tendencies in the region.
If this scenario plays out and Russia’s Asian vector is not checked, the U.S. will be forced to deal with a coalition of a benign expansionist and a vocal facilitator. Containing China would be a lot harder goal to achieve if Beijing has a valuable ally, however artificial – an ally, by the way, which has never failed to demonstrate its contempt for the global leadership role of the U.S.
Confronting two powers with veto authority in the UN Security Council simultaneously may well undermine the ability of the U.S. to effectively manage affairs of the East Asian region. The worst-case scenario in this regard is the failure of the U.S. to stand by Japan, Taiwan, or any other of its East Asian allies in their game of chicken with China. Should this happen, history would credit Russia with facilitating a “Chinese crack” in the global leadership era of the U.S.—a fracture that is most likely to spring in the turbulent East Asian region.
The Sino-Soviet clash occurred in 1969. In 1972, Richard Nixon capitalized on growing antagonism between China and the Soviet Union by visiting the People’s Republic of China in an attempt to normalize relations with Beijing and rebalance the geopolitics of the Cold War. Today, substituting “Nixon goes to China” with “Obama goes to Russia” might help the White House normalize relations with Russia.
Russia values realism - not idealism - in foreign policy
The third historical principle concerns the language of foreign policy practice. Moscow will comprehend Washington only if it speaks to Russia in Teddy Roosevelt’s language (“Speak softly, and carry a big stick”), not in Woodrow Wilson’s language. While the U.S. willingly accepts the Wilsonian rejection of systemic causes of international conflicts and criticizes individual violators of international norms, Moscow continuously highlights structural roots of international quarrels.
The Kremlin rarely mocks the U.S. for aggressive currents in its foreign policy, but it persistently accuses Washington of undermining a systemic balance, be it via NATO’s eastward expansion or via humanitarian intervention into Third World countries.
For Russia, powerful states are more Roosevelt’s giants “engaged in a death wrestle,” rather than Wilsonian liberty-loving commonwealths. However genuine Wilsonian language might sound to the American ear, Russians will inevitably dismiss it as perfidious cant—a disguise for American attempts at systemic domination.
To be fair, Russia has appeared to resort to idealism in its foreign policy at times. There was a reason Roosevelt compared Tsar Alexander I of Russia to Woodrow Wilson and the Emperor’s conservative Holy Alliance designed to preserve autocracy in Europe to Wilson’s League of Nations proclaimed to spread liberty and peace. However different the ends might appear, the means could have hardly been any more uniform.
Decades later, the Soviet Union had revived the idealist tradition in its foreign policy, but only on the surface. Material, quite often military, support to various countries in Africa and Latin America came under the banner of helping ideologically friendly regimes all over the world. However, a hallmark of American idealist foreign policy, as opposed to Russian idealist foreign policy, is the degree of popular support this philosophy enjoys in the States.
Many in the U.S. may genuinely believe that the spread of democracy diminishes outbreaks of international conflicts. To the Russian ear, this proposition doesn’t ring true. Few deluded themselves that the Soviets supported Cuba out of warm feelings to a brotherly Communist regime and not out of its vital geopolitical location. A popular Soviet anecdote about a Congolese independence leader is telling in this regard:
“Tell me honestly, do you like Lumumba?” a Soviet ambassador was asked during a reception organized by a leader of a new regime in an African country.
“Yes, I like him!” replies the Ambassador, a dedicated Communist.
“Then eat one more piece.”
With centuries of lies and deceptions, the Russian people have developed an appropriate level of historical cynicism and skepticism about domestic and international politics. American idealism is ridiculed quite often by Russians, both by ordinary citizens and members of the political elite. This is why a quintessentially American remark about a request to extradite the former agent of National Security Agnecy (NSA), Edward Snowden, — “Russia is not a country that extradites human rights activists!” — sounded so mocking when it came out of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mouth.
Russia does not believe in idealism in international affairs. Practically, this means that any superfluous language of foreign policy should be dropped and that a genuine agreement with Russia must be formulated in a straightforward language of power that Moscow respects. Swapping Russian support of a matter particularly critical for U.S. interests for carte blanche in an area critical to Russia’s concerns will facilitate the Russia-U.S. dialogue. An operational expression of this U.S. strategy would be to abandon attempts to secure Russian collaboration in any institutional framework and instead cultivate bilateral communication channels that could yield much more constructive results.
The history of Russian foreign policy is chaotic. Throughout the centuries self-contradictions have been the most representative feature of Russia’s international behavior. This, however, must not perplex contemporaries struggling to understand causes that drive Russia today. Even if those appear well hidden, it is possible to derive a few principles passed down by history that determine Russia’s international behavior today.
At a minimum, one ought to remember that Russia views itself as a full-fledged European power that fails to easily build lasting alliances with non-European states and rejects an overly idealistic approach to international politics. Observing these three principles might well save the U.S. and its allies the trouble of facing a truculent Russia.