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Russian Interests

On the Cato at Liberty blog, Benjamin H. Friedman notes that many commentators fatally misunderstand Russian foreign policy, due to an excessive focus on the intentions of the current government:

Commentators of all stripes seem to assume that Russia’s move into Georgia was driven by its increasingly autocratic nature. [...] It is worth considering whether this is a misperception. A powerful body of political science argues that states’ foreign policy actions are driven mostly by their circumstance and interests, not their regime type or the personality of the leaders. Regime type and personality affect how states interpret their circumstances, but maybe not as much as we tend to think. The United States is not particularly tolerant of seemingly hostile states in its near abroad either, whether they are democracies or not.

As Friedman states, there is an entire body of international relations that focuses more on the circumstances and interests of countries. Still, it is interesting that much the same argument was made about Russia by the current Prime Minister of the Ukraine, Yuliya Tymoshenko, in what now seems an eerily prescient 2007 Foreign Affairs article:

For most of the past 15 years, the response to Russian actions by the United States and Europe has been driven by their perceptions of Russian reform. Western policy seems to be based on the premise that peaceful evolution can be ensured by democracy and by concentrating Russia's energies on developing a market economy. Western diplomacy has thus seen its main task as strengthening Russian reform, with the experience of the Marshall Plan rather than the traditional considerations of foreign policy in mind.

But a far more important factor than reform is Russia's attempt to restore its preeminence in the territories it once controlled. The Russia that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991 came with borders that reflect no historical precedent. Accordingly, Russia is devoting much of its energy to restoring political influence in, if not control of, its lost empire. Alongside this effort has come a shift of Russia's focus eastward, making it a more active participant in the dynamic Asia created by China's rise.

Tymoshenko's article considers Russia's rise and what the west can do about it from various angles. There are many more nuggets in there. The section on 'pipeline politics' does make a mistake, in failing to take note of Russia's status as a transit country for Central Asian (former Soviet) oil and gas. This is an important factor in Russian policy.

Coming back to (mis)perceptions, the widespread western perception of Russia's authoritarian turn may itself be mistaken, as a recent thesis by Kevin Cyron 'The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism' notes. The thesis is being published as a series on Russia Blog.

Many analyses you see of Russia spend far too much energy on the opaque nature of the regime, and tend to degenerate into Kremlinology. Some western governments seem to act as if Russia is mysterious and different, its intentions forever unknowable. This is not helpful. We need to treat Russia like a normal country that acts in its perceived interests. As Tymoshenko argues, that does not mean that we should be any less vigilant.

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Zyme on :

Some points here are interesting. For example the Western belief that democracy is vital for economical growth and rising wealth among a nation's average citizens. I guess this was already disproved before, in Southern America for example, when autocratic regimes made the tough decisions which nowadays democracies benefit from. This brings me to the following: A democratic system seems to be the best system in a stage of steady and considerable upswing of a nation, as it distributes the new wealth most balanced among its citizens. An autocratic leadership is always (not only) tempted to pocket the biggest share of such an upswing. But in times of stagnation - when tough decisions are needed - our democratical system fails. Responsibility for misdevelopments is shifted from the companies to the government and vice versa. It is shifted even from different levels of government to each other! Nobody is feeling responsible for mistakes and everyone claims to have caused tiny successes. Hardly an environment in which politicians want to act and risk a failure. It is these circumstances in which temporarily a more authoritarian approach might be helpful. Clearly then a person or a group of persons with wide-ranging competence would then be responsible for the development of the coming years - be it positive of negative - and could in case of failure be replaced.

Don S on :

I on' buy this argument completely, Zyme. Sometimes dictatorships (Argentina under Pinochet?) or relatively strong democracies (think of France post 1957) can do this kind of thing, but I think authoritarian regimes normally create stagnation. Did Spain prosper under Franco, or Ireland under De Valera (authoritarian democrat)? No. Decidedly not. The story in Russia seems to be stagnation overcome by soaring commodity (oil and other things) prices. Regimes financed by oil allow the leadership to look good for a period during price runups but the gloss wears off quickly when prices begin to fall. Putin, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad look muh larger today than their historical stature will ppear, because they have wasted their country's partimony on adventurism rather than invested in things like education and industries which increase their nation's permanent wealth.

Zyme on :

Yes surely there are numerous examples of failed autocracies. Mostly because it all depends on one major person, and if he/she is unsuited, nothing can be achieved. I think the main difference between successful autocrats and unsuccessful ones is whether the ruler's main interest lies in gaining a major standing in a nation's history books - or in simply defending their current position. The former will be ambitious to further a nation's cause as far as possible. The latter will not be able to resist the slightest temptation of abuse. A society with a strong sense of love for its nation will exert a controlling influence, while a society of sheeps will follow whatever lunatic idea is pursued. My impression is that ideological dictatorships mostly belong to a sheepish society, while rational ruling in a sober society cannot go without boundaries.

Pat Patterson on :

Argentina under Peron and Menem! Chile under Pinochet, Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew or Malayasia under Mahathirbin Mohamad also come to mind. But the one thing the latter group shared was that they, more or less, gave up power and did not find themselves indespensible.

Marie-Claude on :

they shared a taste of shoes collectionners :lol:

Pat Patterson on :

This makes no sense so please don't provide a confusing array of links!

Marie-Claude on :

you mustn't be a funny guy, that was a joke

Don S on :

"The United States is not particularly tolerant of seemingly hostile states in its near abroad either" I can think of one marked counter-example to this argument, Castro's Cuba being the major argument for. Many peoplke forget that the government of Mexico was more or less virulently anti-Americano for many years this century - and yet the US 'tolerated' this by the only measures that count. The US did not invade Mexico without provication. The 1916 Mexico incursion was a response to invasions of US territory by the Mexican warlord Pancho Villa, and the US withdrew from that after a lesson had been delivered. Similarly, Cuba offers room for two conflicting interpretations. Certainly the Bay of Pigs invasion and the various attacks on Cuba and Fidel Castro cannot be called tolerance. But after JFK died US policy toward Cuba chnged to de-facto tolerance of the Castro regime. That policy has continued to the present day. The policy under John Kennedy can therefore be considered the abberation and official (if bare) tolerance the rule - a rule unbroken by 8 US administrations in a row.

Pat Patterson on :

And almost 1,4000 people, Mexican and American citizens, have been murdered along the US-Mexico border just this year. Sometimes with the active participation of the Mexican police, judiciary or the army. There have been at least four documented cases of Mexican Army soldiers crossing the border. One incident in Texas had a platoon of Mexican Army soldiers stopping and searching cars near El Paso but that one ended when the soldiers began to wonder why their promised lunch and water hadn't shown up and when they figured out were they were they asked a bus driver to take them back to the crossing at Juarez. Yet with much more provocattion then anything the Russians could mount the US has not invaded Mexico nor has it stolen the pyramids at Chapultepec to make sure the Mexicans didn't use them as sniper outposts to shoot American citizens. Also in regards to Cuba it should be noted that much of the bellicosity of the US has receded to legalisms once it became obvious that the Russians would not stay or seriously help the cubans. The Monroe Doctrine may indeed have made Central and South America protectorates but it have also kept out foreign interest and allowed those countries the freedom to be stupid without US interference.

quo vadis on :

I believe that Russian policy is smart but ruthless, and that ruthlessness is more a feature of autocratic governments. The competition for power in autocratic governments, unchecked by democratic processes, tend to favor the most ambitious and ruthless of competitors and the resulting governments and their policies tend to reflect this. In the end you always wind up with Stalin. I think Russian foreign policy is being driven primarily by the realization that for the next 20-30 years at least, the world belongs to the energy exporters. The ability to control a significant portion of the world's oil and gas reserves makes a country impervious to economic and political sanctions. Combine that with Russia's growing military power and they can do whatever they want short of triggering an all out war with the US or China. Several of the USSR's former republics in the Caspian area have significant underdeveloped energy resources and the Russians would love to control those resources themselves. At this point there are few options for those countries to get their resources to world markets and, just coincidentally, one of the most important goes through Georgia.

Don S on :

Quo, I agree tht this is possibly Putin's thinking, but I think if so he's mistaken - that energy won't be as determinative the next decade as it has been this one. The world economy adjusts to extremes, and the rise of oil prices since 2000 has been extreme. Remember that this has occurred before. In 1979 during the Iran hostage it was impossible to visualize the coming oil bust. We'd had nothing but soaring oil prices between 1973 an 1979. Texas was expanding like mad because they were swimming in capital. I spent 6 months working in Dallas in 1987 at the bottom of the oil bust, and it was grim. Enormous luxurious houses were selling at auction for peanuts, and merely nice houses for as little as $70,000. You could drive down the streets and see entirely empty shopping centers just mothballed. I couldn't have visuallized this in 1979, but it's clear that changes in habits can have this kind of effect. People buying a prius rather than a SUV, fuel-efficient jets, fuel-efficient devices of all kinds. Even global warming and climate change can have their effect. The UK has had two or three cool summers in a row.

quo vadis on :

Don, I wish I could agree with you, but I expect the trends in global commerce that are driving China's and India's growth to continue and to spread to other developing countries. I expect the subsequent energy demand to exceed any reductions in the developed countries. Developing countries are going to power their development with an energy infrastructure with the lowest up-front cost, and that will probably continue to be oil and gas (and probably coal despite the GW issues) for some time to come.

Don S on :

Quo, perhaps so. But you are talking about long-term trends, and I think that oil markets have been getting ahead of themselves. I can't prove it, but a range of things could happen to take the heat out of the oil market. Conservation, new discoveries, new methods allowing better extraction from old fields, nd new technology. The real wild card is in biofuels. Not current 1st and 2nd-generation fuels made from foodstuffs, but rather fuels made from biological waste, and 'frankenfuels' made from GM tailored bacteria in a process similar to brewing beer. The visionaries in the latter field say that 'designer' bacteria can and have produced fuels which are very similar chemically to petrol currently burnt by automobiles. These fuels may turn out to be far more carbon-neutral than current fuels, as they apparently take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The piece I read seemed to promise that the infrstructure for this brewing industry would be far more local than the oil industry is at present, with brewing from local materials replacing oil tankers.

Pat Patterson on :

Don S-I think this article from Science Daily is an example of new sources of biofuels. There was not only this press release but also a tv article which naturally scared the pants off of some activist group, isn't there always, when the words E. Coli and bio-engineered were noticed. I'm surprised that no one noticed that this is a profit making venture between UCLA and a local researcher based company called Gevo. Remember profit bad, Gaia good! Link below! http://www.sciencedaily.com/releaese/2008/01/080106202952.htm

Don S on :

Sometimes this kind of attitude toward GM seems like the rankest superstition. Other criticisms of some GM techniques seem justified, such as the GM crops made heavily resistant to pesticides so that farmers can nuke the weeds out of the field with massive spraying of pesticide. It seems unbalanced, has a bad effect on other wildlife, and surely is bad for the ground water. But turning down advanced bio fuels because they are somehow evil seems seriously weird to me.

Pat Patterson on :

Don S-Here's at least one article, from Science Daily. A longer version is in comment purgatory. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080106202952.htm

Nanne on :

Both wound up in purgatory :-) Sorry for the short delay.

Pat Patterson on :

Thanks, I promise to use the BBCode next time.

John in Michigan, USA on :

I've just [url=http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article4547883.ece]read[/url] (thanks to Josh57) about Russia's threats to place nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and perhaps even Cuba. Talk about a disproportionate response! This threat seems so over-the-top, it reeks of desparation. Forget about justification, no amount of "Western" "provocation" could possibly even [i]explain[/i] this. From a tactical point of view, how could it possibly be in Russia's interest to place nuclear weapons in hard-to-defend places, surrounded by enemies? Unless, of course, it intends to make them a first use/first strike weapon, meaning they are used in response to conventional threats to the regions where they are housed... Is Russia that desparate? Is it possible Russia is facing some vast internal crisis that the West (or at least, Western media) has not detected? I am thinking internal revolt, starvation, economic collapse, or a collapse of the energy sector. Perhaps it is designed to help them request Western aid (like during the Cold War) while saving some face? Russia is doing its best to awake Europe from its pacifism.

quo vadis on :

I’ve been thinking about the path Russia has chosen over the last 10 years or so and I think they may have made some serious errors that put Russia’s future position in the world at risk. They may be realizing that there are consequences to their heavy handedness that are going to become increasingly apparent to ordinary Russians. Who would you guess will be enjoying the higher standard of living 10 years from now, the average Estonian or the average Russian? Russia’s thuggish behavior has been driving away investment and damaging their opportunities in the global markets that are propelling other countries from poverty to world economic power. Consider where Russia was 10-15 years ago compared to China or India. Russia had a lot of things going for it; they had a better technology and industrial base than China or India, and decent universities, and yet those countries are passing them by. Russia has oil and gas resources, but unlike Saudi Arabia, Russia is a large country and oil money will only spread so thinly. They don't seem to be able to leverage the oil income to build a strong diversified economy. How would your average KGB thug deal with these problems?

Pat Patterson on :

Quite a bit of the bluster that Ch. Kruschev exchibited during the Cuban Crisis turned out to be based on a mere threat of a few missiles, non-nuclear as it turned out, in exchange for the US secretly abandoning their ICBM bases in Turkey. Plus pushing the Cubans further into the orbit of the Soviets. Considering how reliant on conscripts Russia is one would think that spending on professionalization would be a much more serious threat to the West then as John pointed out placing missiles and assets "...in hard-to-defend places." But then again reinstating long range patrol missions of out-of-date bombers achieved a certain amount of strategic success even though, once the publicity wore off, have experienced a cut back of 2/3. Not to good for the image when your bombers begin falling out of the sky or can't even take off.

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