Dear realists: please explain Russia

In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia.  Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you’ll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior.  As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons: 1)  The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia.  Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you'll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior.  As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:

1)  The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations

2)  Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations

In my experience, American realists just love the heck out of Russia.  Go scan The National Interest and inevitably you’ll see the most charitable of interpretations about Russian behavior.  As near as I can determine, they reflexively sympathize with Moscow for a few reasons:

1)  The Russians tend to be wonderfully blunt in explaining their motivations

2)  Russia rarely, if ever, dresses up their foreign policy actions in anything other than national interest motivations

3)  In the eyes of most realists, Russia is the status quo power justly defending its sphere of influence in the wake of revisionist American demands that have everything to do with ideology and nothing to do with American national interests. 

I raise all of this because a few days ago Charles Clover in the Financial Times wrote an interesting story about Russia’s foreign policy in Syria:

A respected Moscow-based military think tank has published a report that is likely to fuel more questions about the wisdom of Russia’s uncompromising support for the Syrian regime. It concludes that Russia really has few – if any – fundamental national interests to defend in Syria….

Russian support for Syria appears to be more emotional than rational, according to the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a consultancy with strong links to Russia’s defence community. It characterised the Kremlin’s Syria policy as a consensus of elites who “have rallied around the demand ‘not to allow the loss of Syria’ ”, which would cause “the final disappearance of the last ghostly traces of Soviet might” in the Middle East.

“The Syrian situation focuses all the fundamental foreign policy fears, phobias and complexes of Russian politicians and the Russian elite” said CAST.

Russia’s actual stake in Syria is not massive, according to CAST. It described Russia’s arms exports to Damascus as a “significant, but far from key” 5 per cent of total arms exports last year, and characterised Tartus, Moscow’s last foreign military base outside the former USSR, as little more than a pier and a floating repair shop on loan from the Black Sea fleet.

Now, it sounds an awful lot like CAST is arguing that Russian foreign policy leaders are wildly inflating their interests and acting in a — dare I say it — neoconservative fashion towards Syria. 

I’d be very curious to hear from realists if they concur with this assessment.  If it turns out that Russia is not acting in its national interests, it would be a body blow to both realism as policymaking advice and as an objective paradigm to explain world politics.  Realists would no longer be able to say that the United States was the only great power not acting in its national interest.  More significantly, if lots of great powers act to advance their emotional, historical, or ideollogical interests, then the world doesn’t look very realpolitik at all. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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