Saturday, March 12, 2022

Is Russia a Special Problem?

Western thinking about Russia has always fallen into two camps. One, which used to be led by George Kennan, holds that Russia is just a powerful nation like any other, looking out for its own interests, amenable to the usual diplomatic and economic leverage. This kind of thinking leads people like John Mearsheimer to argue that much of the blame for the Ukraine war lies with the west for pushing NATO expansion and threatening Russia in ways to which any nation would have to respond.

The other way of thinking holds that Russia is a special and strange place in ways that make conflict with the west inevitable. Historian Stephen Kotkin, author of a famous biography of Stalin, holds to this view, and he defended it in this interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker:

I have only the greatest respect for George Kennan. John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar. But I respectfully disagree. The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had NATO not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.

I would even go further. I would say that NATO expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today. 

This is, of course, one of the oldest debates, probably going back to discussions held around council fires about how to treat the tribe in the next valley. But anyway here is Kotkin's analysis of Russia:

Russia is a remarkable civilization: in the arts, music, literature, dance, film. In every sphere, it’s a profound, remarkable place––a whole civilization, more than just a country. At the same time, Russia feels that it has a “special place” in the world, a special mission. It’s Eastern Orthodox, not Western. And it wants to stand out as a great power. Its problem has always been not this sense of self or identity but the fact that its capabilities have never matched its aspirations. It’s always in a struggle to live up to these aspirations, but it can’t, because the West has always been more powerful.

Russia is a great power, but not the great power, except for those few moments in history that you just enumerated. [1721, 1815, 1945] In trying to match the West or at least manage the differential between Russia and the West, they resort to coercion. They use a very heavy state-centric approach to try to beat the country forward and upwards in order, militarily and economically, to either match or compete with the West. And that works for a time, but very superficially. Russia has a spurt of economic growth, and it builds up its military, and then, of course, it hits a wall. It then has a long period of stagnation where the problem gets worse. The very attempt to solve the problem worsens the problem, and the gulf with the West widens. The West has the technology, the economic growth, and the stronger military.

The worst part of this dynamic in Russian history is the conflation of the Russian state with a personal ruler. Instead of getting the strong state that they want, to manage the gulf with the West and push and force Russia up to the highest level, they instead get a personalist regime. They get a dictatorship, which usually becomes a despotism. They’ve been in this bind for a while because they cannot relinquish that sense of exceptionalism, that aspiration to be the greatest power, but they cannot match that in reality. Eurasia is just much weaker than the Anglo-American model of power. Iran, Russia, and China, with very similar models, are all trying to catch the West, trying to manage the West and this differential in power.
And this, part of Kotkin's response to the question, "What is Putinism?"
You have an autocrat in power—or even now a despot—making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps. We don’t know what the inside looks like. Does he pay attention? We don’t know. Do they bring him information that he doesn’t want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else? That seems highly likely. Does he believe his own propaganda or his own conspiratorial view of the world? That also seems likely. These are surmises. Very few people talk to Putin, either Russians on the inside or foreigners.

And so we think, but we don’t know, that he is not getting the full gamut of information. He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.


David said...

I like your image of people debating around council fires about how to relate to the tribe in the next valley. I agree this debate has probably being going on since those days. Are players essentially interchangeable, or is part of realism also assessing the particular culture/psychology of each player? (Incidentally, I would say this is *not* really a realism vs. idealism debate; it's a debate between two kinds of realism.)

I would lean to the Kotkin side, but I'm skeptical of his lumping Russia, Iran, and China together. Iran isn't in the running as a great power, and in terms of psychology/culture I think its most important interlocutors are other Muslims, not the West. And I think China *may* be different from Russia. Russia seems to always operate from a kind of wounded, resentful position. I'm not sure China is quite as wounded and angry. Mao was, but the current leadership doesn't seem to be too much like him (and I get the impression that part of his paranoia and resentment was that there always seemed to be a faction of Chinese leadership that didn't share his paranoia and resentment, and he hated it that they seemed to be his inevitable-eventual heirs once he was gone).

Lately we do hear voices out of China, both in the government (the "wolf-warriors") and online, who are much more angry. I simply have no idea how profoundly they represent China as a whole. They may simply be a tool for Xi, or they may represent a deeply- and widely-held feeling. (And yes, there are some historical grounds for such resentment; but that's not the same as that *actually* being a major, war-risking component of Chinese culture.)

Shadow said...

Is he accusing Russia of being too much of a bully or of not being a good enough one?

This sounds imaginatively pat, perfect for the moment, for those predisposed to thinking something is terribly different and wrong with Russia (rather than with Putin). How was the Monroe doctrine different from Russian projection of power? The U.S. does not annex countries, but it certainly bullies some, and tries to rebuild others, into its image. (And it's not very good at it. Just like Russia isn't. And it doesn't stop either of them.) But isn't this true of almost every large country?

It's almost like there's an unwritten rule that countries with the largest land masses and biggest populations will exert influence and power over those countries around it. Next up, China. Look at how China, now with its huge economy and modern military, has started bullying those around it, with Xi in charge. Is it really that different?

David said...


I think the question is, can one say that China, Russia, and the US are different, without making this a moral argument? Mearsheimer would say they are alike (but signally without the moral judgment you're bringing to the argument). Kotkin would say the three are different culturally, and hence psychologically.

Perhaps another way of looking at it is that Mearsheimer shows some signs of advocating, in a world with three great powers, that the US lean toward Russia. Perhaps Kotkin thinks China is a safer way for us to lean, because of their cultural differences. Certainly the least smart thing would be for us to bring them closer together by antagonizing both (which is what we've been doing for a while now). The one option the US doesn't have is moral spotlessness, partly because it's too late, as you say. I think Kotkin would probably agree on the last point.

G. Verloren said...

Every time I hear people seriously ascribe the problem to "the expansion of NATO", I am flabbergasted. I can understand it existing as one of Putin's talking points, a fundamentally illogical but convenient excuse to justify his own actions - but I am amazed that other people respond to it as if it is in any way legitimate.

NATO is a mutual defense agreement. The fact that Putin feels threatened by people agreeing to come to each other's aid if they are attacked is laughable - it is perhaps the most up-front admission possible that Putin is an insane warmonger who wants to murderously invade and conquer all his neighbors, and that he resents the world not just sitting back and letting him do so.

Putin decrying the expansion of NATO is like a serial killing decrying the expansion of community policing into unpoliced territories - the people who are banding together to prevent themselves being killed off one by one are not the problem!

I seriously cannot fathom how anyone can entertain the idea that Russia is "just lashing out from fear" or similar. But it's a clear historical trend that some people will always do exactly that in the modern world - the number of people who historically tripped over themselves to argue that the Third Reich was only so belligerent because they were fearful and felt rejected by the world is obscene.

Appeasement ~does not~ work. It has never worked, and it never will. And it is utter lunacy to look at someone who has clearly demonstrated themselves to be a selfish victimizer, and then turn around and defend them as simply being a victim.

pithom said...

"Appeasement ~does not~ work. It has never worked, and it never will."

Exactly. And that is why Putin invaded. If there is anything he has learned over the past two decades, it is that appeasing the West carries no good outcomes for Russia, and many bad ones.

"NATO is a mutual defense agreement."

AKA a protection racket. AKA, the last thing the world needs.

"it is perhaps the most up-front admission possible that Putin is an insane warmonger who wants to murderously invade and conquer all his neighbors"

Mongolia, China, North Korea, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Finland, Japan, the United States, Azerbaijan, etc.

G. Verloren said...


Goodness, you live in a rather special version of reality, huh?

There's no point is talking to people who insist that black is white and up is down, so good day to you.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Russian agents have arrived.

AKA a protection racket. AKA, the last thing the world needs.
LOL, good one, comrade. Have vodka on us!

Anonymous said...

In America, people hate Putin, in Russia Putin hates people! What a country!

David said...

Yesterday I saw a report that Putin had asked Xi for military aid. The United States responded by threatening the Chinese with sanctions.

It strikes me that this is an example of a classic blunder of US diplomacy. Why insult the Chinese with threats instead of using this as an opportunity to make nice with them? I would think this would be a good time for a "you're one of the adults in the room, help us curb this raging child" approach to Xi.

Overall, I would favor the Kotkin-Zakaria suggestion of leaning toward China over either opposing both on moral grounds or Mearscheimer's philo-Russian approach.

Shadow said...

An d why makes the insult public? So we would look tough?