Putin's Foreign Policy in Historical Context

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"Examining Russian foreign policy from a historical perspective enables the reader to discern what is transitory from what is enduring in current practice," stated Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University at a 29 May 2007 lecture at the Kennan Institute. In describing his recent edited volume, Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century and the Shadow of the Past, Legvold explained that the book does little to predict the future or even explain the present. Rather, this historical examination reveals patterns of ideas and behaviors in Russian policy over a long period of time and allows an observer to distinguish between historical continuities and discontinuities in current policy.

Legvold emphasized that several popular explanations of Russian foreign policy are more myth than reality. These explanations include Russia's enduring quest to secure warm-water ports, authoritarianism at home leading to expansionism abroad, and Russia's messianic mission as "the Third Rome." A better guide, he suggested, are four "persistent factors" featured by Alfred Rieber in his chapter in the edited volume, which Legvold discussed one by one.

First, Russia's soft and mobile frontiers have contributed to its enduring sense of insecurity. From its peak of territorial expansion during the Soviet era, Russia is now reduced to its 1650 borders, noted Legvold. "Today nothing agitates Russian security policy more than the absence of strategic frontiers," he said. Russia now tends to view the post-Soviet space as an arena of rivalry rather than cooperation with outside powers. Hence, much of its policy is intended to counter and, if possible, exclude other major powers' influence within Russia's former imperial borderlands.

Second, Russia has historically combined autocracy and economic backwardness. When presented with a choice between continued autocracy and economic modernization, Russian elites have historically chosen absolutism, Legvold observed. This is especially true when modernization has implied a loosening of the elite's grip on power. This has often led Russia to forfeit the benefits it could have realized from greater economic integration, Legvold noted. In light of Russia's discomfort with the liberalizing imperatives of globalization, this is a pattern that Russia may repeat.

Third, the legacy and heritage of empire have led to profound insecurity over Russian national identity. "Russia is now shorn of empire, but I think most recognize that it is not free of empire's imprint," stated Legvold. Russia is "post-imperial" in the sense that it has accepted the independence of the other countries once part of the Soviet Union, but "it cannot imagine dealing with them by practicing a foreign policy of reassurance as opposed to a policy of coercion."

Fourth, Russia has long felt culturally alienated from both Europe and Asia. There has been a long-standing disagreement among Russians between those who see Russia's affiliation with the West as worthy but unrequited, and those who see it as undesired or even destructive of Russia's unique virtues. Much of the history of Russian foreign policy, according to Legvold, can be understood as a function of the tension of a Russia that admires and is attracted by the material benefits of the European model, but is at the same time repelled by or fearful of the political values of Europe.

In spite of these strong historical patterns, Legvold noted four historical developments that indicate that Russia is at a critical juncture, and that it may either move in a new direction or resume its historical patterns. First, for six centuries, Russia had been moving from the periphery to the center of global power relations, until it was one of two superpowers in the Soviet era. That pattern has been broken, regardless of Russia's recent successes on the global stage, Legvold noted. A second reason is that the traditional Russian model of the autocrat and state as the possessor of all property under perpetual military mobilization has been broken and is not likely to be reconstituted. Third, under the current global balance of power calculus, no major power identifies another power or group of powers as the main strategic threat, a situation unprecedented in the last 300 years. Fourth, Legvold continued, is the blend of continuity and change within Russia itself: Russia is returning to the absolutist tradition of a powerful managerial state acting with relative autonomy at home and abroad. Yet the state is now framing policy at home and abroad in the context of a more nuanced view of power as the product of a healthy economy and a supportive electorate. That is a break from tradition, stressed Legvold, where Russian foreign policy was disembodied from domestic needs and possibilities.

"We do not know what Russia will be in twenty years; and I don't think we will get that kind of clarity until Russia has a sustainable vitality to its society and economy, until it has made peace with the loss of empire, until it has begun to trust its ability to hold the country together, and until it comes to terms with what the trauma of the last twenty years has meant," concluded Legvold. "None of these things has happened, and it will be a while before it does happen."

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