Shadow Government

The sources of Russian conduct (same as ever)

By Will Inboden This week brings President Obama’s visit to Moscow, and with it a cauldron of questions over the state of US-Russia relations and the curious trajectory of Russia itself. Continuing uncertainties over who is really in charge in Russia and what Russia wants were further complicated by Prime Minister Putin’s abrupt announcement a ...

By Will Inboden

This week brings President Obama’s visit to Moscow, and with it a cauldron of questions over the state of US-Russia relations and the curious trajectory of Russia itself. Continuing uncertainties over who is really in charge in Russia and what Russia wants were further complicated by Prime Minister Putin’s abrupt announcement a few weeks ago that — sixteen years after applying and just as admission seemed to approach — Russia was suspending its bid for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and instead forming a trade bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan (which, at 66th and 53rd respectively in global GDP rankings, are hardly economic powerhouses).

This odd gambit, seemingly against Russia’s own economic interests as well as President Medvedev’s previous statements, recalls an earlier episode in history. In February 1946, the Soviet Union decided against participating in the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, both of which were just being formed as institutional pillars of the post-war global economic order. As George Kennan relates in his memoirs, this news caused no small amount of distress within the US Government, as it seemed to go against the USSR’s own economic interests and indicate an adversarial posture towards the West. And it was also this Russian decision against international economic cooperation which prompted Kennan, then a diplomat at the US Embassy in Moscow, to compose the “Long Telegram” inquiring into the puzzle of Russian behavior.

Expanded the next year into an article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", Kennan’s argument is remembered today as the paradigmatic exposition of the containment doctrine that defined American grand strategy during the Cold War. But one of Kennan’s central themes is easily overlooked yet unfortunately still relevant. This is his analysis of Russian political character, or what might be called the Sources of Russian Conduct.  Before studying Marxist-Leninist ideology, Kennan was first and foremost a student of Russia — its language, history, culture.

Even hinting at parallels between the Soviet Union of the past and the Russia of today is fraught with peril, because they are not the same, and the United States is not in a “new Cold War” with Russia, and should not seek a new Cold War with Russia. On this President Obama got it exactly right when he warned Putin against such a posture. But just because history should not be repeated does not mean it should be ignored. 

So Kennan’s article still has much to teach us, as it described a nation with an intrinsic distrust of others and a zero-sum view of international relations.  Kennan observed how Soviet ideology interacted with Russian history in the minds of the nation’s leaders.  It “taught them that the outside world was hostile…[and] the powerful hands of Russian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling.”  Moreover, members of the Russian government “are unamenable to argument or reason which comes to them from outside sources. Their whole training has taught them to mistrust and discount the glib persuasiveness of the outside world.” Presumably, such “glib persuasiveness” would include things like “reset buttons."

Kennan also described a lamentably familiar posture towards dissent: “all internal opposition forces in Russia have consistently been portrayed as the agents of foreign forces of reaction.” Such slurs are well-known to the brave few remaining Russian political dissidents and independent journalists who are regularly disparaged as tools of the West, or America, or Britain, or Georgia, or whomever the Putin regime’s villain du jour may be. 

This kind of paranoia and xenophobia may seem oddly misplaced, even irrational, today. After all, it is hard to conceive of a threat that the United States and the rest of the outside world really pose to Russia, especially to a Russia whose most profound problems may be its own demographic death spiral. But here Kennan’s analysis may still help explain Russian actions that might otherwise seem to go against Russia’s own interests — whether it be WTO application suspension, continued belligerence toward Georgia, arms sales and a political heat shield to Iran, and fulminations against the third site ballistic missile defense.

President Obama, for his part, has thus far admirably resisted including Russia in his series of international apologies. And the Russians seem willing to show some good will, at least in their own way, by dialling back on the state-sponsored media slander of America during Obama’s visit. His meetings this week seem to be producing some modestly encouraging cooperative steps, such as the nuclear arms reduction agreement (though still a sideshow from the more substantive issues in US-Russia relations). Yet on the most contentious issues a firm and realistic posture is needed, and promising in this regard is NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul’s assertion that,

We’re not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense…We’re going to define our national interests, and by that I also mean the interests of our allies in Europe with reference to these two particular questions.

Whatever the outcome of this week’s summitry, going forward relations with Russia will probably continue to be a significant challenge for the Obama administration.  Perhaps most prescient is this line from Kennan, as true in 1947 as it is today: “we are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with.”

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Tag: Russia

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