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Russian Enigma Part Two

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on January 5th, 2005
LOOKING FORWARD

Winston Churchill thought that the key to the USSR’s future behavior would be “Russian national interests.”  This sounded like wisdom at the time, but in fact it tells us nothing unless it specifies what exactly are Russian national interests—and on that there was no obvious single answer even at the end of World War II but rather a host of competing imperatives—not least the need to keep the Communists in power, regardless.

The same situation exists today: Russians cannot state clearly what their national interests are, though feelings and emotions are clear—a sense of status deprivation, greatness, gloire—a psychology not unlike that of France.

At the moment Moscow seems to be returning, with some modifications, to the old ways in many areas. Mr Putin has tightened his authority, interfered in the economy, greatly increased the size of his secret service and its operations beyond Russia’s borders, ended election of provincial governors, and so forth. But while attempting to restore something that resembles the old Soviet System in certain ways, he has also completely reorientated the state’s claims to legitimacy, reaching across the Soviet interlude to embrace older Russian loyalties to the Orthodox church and her history since before the Romanovs arrived in 1613. 

This is a very important development. When the Solovetskii islands, in the arctic ocean, an ancient monastery and more recently (like Mont St. Michel) a prison, are having their cathedral gloriously restored and becoming once again a goal of pilgrimage, when the Chapel of the Iberian Virgin has been rebuilt by the Kremlin wall, and when little models of the Church of the Saviour, built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon, dynamited by Stalin, and now rebuilt—when these models, with the word “Moskva” on the base—have become the standard souvenir, something has changed.

In a few words, Russia has started being Russian again after an enforced fling with cultural iconoclasm and political internationalism. That said, what might her national interests be?

To this observer, it seems obvious and undeniable that Russia either joins Europe and the West, and moves forward as a member of that community, rather as she was in the nineteenth century—or she goes nowhere at all. No alternative exists, save the increasing Soviet style poverty mentioned in the first essay, and with it the near certainty of a second wave of political change.

But not since the Byzantine heritage was embraced by Tsarist Russia in the fifteenth century, with the double-headed eagle of Constantinople becoming the new Russian symbol and Moscow, as is well known, the “Third Rome,” have Russians been entirely comfortable with the west. It is the source of dynamism, technology, capital, and markets—as well, potentially, of genuine friendship that can endure tests (as in World Wars I and II). But its influence unavoidably undermines the foundations of the autocratic system to which Russians are accustomed, if not attached.

For this reason, Russia’s engagement with the west, even at such times as the Napoleonic Wars, has never been complete. It has been episodic, not least because it has led to such things as the Decembrist protests, defeat in World War I, and ultimately the final economic and political pushes that brought down the USSR. Peter the Great may have created Sankt-Peterburg as a capital looking to the west, but the Communists immediately moved back to Moscow, deep inland, the city of Ivan the dread.

We would seem to be in the midst of one of these oscillations. Russia’s autocracy is not robust: remember, it claims to be a democracy, and has many democratic elements that weaken its grip. Dealing with a much wealthier and powerful West is unavoidably difficult for a state before which most of Europe once cowered.

The answer, therefore, seems to be somehow to get what one wants from the West—money, markets, technology, face, and so forth—without actually joining. This is the strategy of which China has made so far successful use. Somehow balance tightening at home with loosening abroad.

The problem with this policy is that it is unstable and cannot work. It attempts to combine two incompatible elements: the constitutionalism and so forth that are required to join the West, and the arbitrary autocracy that the Kremlin seeks to exercise. So it cannot last. It must (like China) ultimately tip in one direction or the other.

What is Russia’s national interest, to return to Churchill’s question? Clearly and without question it is to tip in the constitutional and democratic direction that will bring it fully into Europe, where it belongs. Only by moving in this direction can Russia escape the traps of economic and demographic stagnation, military overstretch, and potential chaos mentioned in the first essay.  There is simply no other way.

Although many in Russia understand this fact very clearly, however, indications are now that these do not include Mr Putin. Like the Chinese dictator Deng Xiaoping, he seems to imagine that one can have all the good things the West offers, without making changes to fundamental national political structures.

As a result, we are seeing from Moscow a rather promiscuous search for allies or connections that, so it is imagined, will leverage Russian economic growth and political power sufficiently to obviate the need for further reform.

This is particularly the case with respect to the Russo-Chinese relationship, one of several which we will examine in the next essay.

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