Conference reports Russian politics and foreigns policy – driven by what? Emotions versus interests

Rationality versus irrationality, emotions versus calculations – these were the main issues to be discussed under a seminar in May, organized by the Aleksanteri Institute (Helsinki). Actually, the emotions theme became a starting point for the participants to approach the nature of Russian foreign policy and decision-making inside the post-Soviet bureaucracy.

Published on on June 1, 2011

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Rationality versus irrationality, emotions versus calculations – these were the main issues to be discussed under a seminar in May, organized by the Aleksanteri Institute (Helsinki). Actually, the emotions theme became a starting point for the participants to approach the nature of Russian foreign policy and decision-making inside the post-Soviet bureaucracy.

Former ambassador Jaakko Iloniemi in his introductory speech put Russia into a broader historical perspective. He compared it with other two other great powers, Sweden and Britain, and how they defined their path after the loss of their empires. Indeed, Russia still matters in world politics in terms of nuclear weapons and as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However, economic (mis)achievements downgrade its status. According to Iloniemi, present-day Russia’s military capacity is about one-forth of that of the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation does not pursue the same foreign policy as the former Soviet Union; the main problem, however, is that the Russians themselves have not managed to define their identity. Is it a European or Eurasian nation? Is it part of Europe or does it represent a special way? This uncertainty is reflected in mixed messages that the Russian leaders send to the world.

Professor Daniel Treisman from the University of California, LA, claimed that conceptions of the national interest and decision-maker psychology are important determinants of any country’s foreign policy: to understand a country’s foreign policy means to comprehend the way its leaders think. However, during the last 20 years American administrations focused too much on psychological problems within the Russian leadership. When American initiatives were rejected, they were accused for being overly emotionality, prone to hysteria, or for “wounded pride” as a result of resentment of the lost superpower status. Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, characterised the Russian leaders’ opposition to the colour revolutions on post-Soviet territory as a result of a “paranoid, aggressive impulse”. However, according to Treisman, that Russia has not cooperated with the US to the degree the latter had hoped can be explained rationally by fact that the foreign policy interests of Russia and the US differ. Russian leaders are concerned about economic growth, but today Russian prosperity depends mainly on exports of oil and gas. This export is oriented towards Europe, not the US or China. Dependence on oil and gas is more essential for Russia than for Europe, since a loss of the European market would mean a catastrophe for Russia. That is why Russian leaders react so nervously to rival energy projects such as Nabucco or to the energy price discussions in some Eastern European countries. Russia’s wish to have friendly neighbours, with 16 million Russians living in former Soviet republics, is also quite understandable. No country would appreciate a military alliance of which it is not a member close to its borders. The same applies to Russian concerns about terrorism. At the same time, while Russian leaders adhere to the national interest of their country, they do not always pursue them in a rational and effective way. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that lot of foreign policy rhetoric is addressed towards a domestic audience. Recent divergences on Libya expressed by Putin and Medvedev illustrate this.

Hanna Smith, a researcher from the Aleksanteri Institute, concentrated on the nature of the Russian identity. Indeed, there are several identities formed under different historical conditions. Russian foreign policy can be understood as a rational expression of its great power identity. Now, the Russian perception of its great powerness is not generally shared by other parties. Russian historical victories, so often stressed by Russian leaders, left mixed feelings in neighbouring countries. Russian achievements in the cultural sphere are undisputable – for instance in sports – but where are the innovations to support Russia’s role as a great power? Russia has the power to be heard and to make trouble, but does it represent a real threat to the rest of the world? As surveys of Russian foreign policy elite opinions between 1993 and 2008 show, the Russian ruling class is increasingly occupied with protecting national interests limited to Russian territory rather than extending them to the CIS-countries or globally. Meanwhile, the results of Russian foreign efforts are quite contradictory, whether they concern the unfinished process of Russia’s membership in WTO or the Georgian war. Attempts to counteract terrorism in the hands a strong state have not been successful, creating more unpredictability than stability. Hanna Smith’s main conclusion was that the Russian leaders should learn to master not only issues of traditional politics but also “post-modern” policy issues such as global ecology, poverty reduction and conflict prevention. They should realize that fear is not the same as respect and that the art of compromising, both in domestic and international politics, may actually create a win-win situation.

Senior lecturer Luke March from University of Edinburgh took up the issues of nationalism and rationalism in Russia’s policy towards Georgia. He stressed that the Russian political elite is split between westernizes, statists and civilizationists. The latter are more inclined to go for what they perceive as an independent foreign policy. Regina Heller from Hamburg University argued that Russia would be a suitable case for studying subjectivity in the field of international relations. Maria Mälksoo from the University of Tartu dealt with Russian politics of memory and the current de-Stalinization campaign initiated by the president Medvedev. According to Maria Mälksoo, Medvedev expresses a nuanced view on the Soviet legacy.

Under the discussion, some aspects of Russian foreign policy were highlighted. Hanna Smith claimed that, despite the enlargement of NATO, Russia is still quite capable of influencing domestic policy in some NATO member states, first and foremost through energy export. In terms of rationality, however, it would be more fruitful for Russia to cooperate with NATO. Another question that deeply engaged the participants was the ongoing military reform in Russia. Daniel Treisman pointed out its risky character while Professor Tuomas Forsberg from University of Tampere believed it is a “real” reform, quite comparable in its historical importance with Milyutin’s military reform under Alexander II. Indeed, the negative demographic aspect in Russia should be taken into account while assessing the cause of the reform. And some changes that actually happened could not be predicted just 20 years ago: “There is no Leningrad military district any more.”

Tuomas Forsberg in his concluding presentation stated that there are two stereotypes about Russian decision makers. One views them as calculating chess players, the other as emotional blokes. Such an approach may be found in the academic literature and often takes Yeltsin and Putin as focal points of attention. Are these stereotypes useful? Until recently there was no research in the field. Rationality assumption prevails among scholars. Rationality in this context is understood as ways of instrumentally pursuing national interests. According to Forsberg, there is no need to prioritize rationality explanations. An alternative approach, however, could be fruitful. Methodological considerations must be taken into account. Emotions should be seen both as individual and as social phenomena. For example, Putin is often presented as an “angry man”. How do we study anger? It is not equivalent to hate; nevertheless, to be angry it is not regarded as being rational. Such problems should be put into a broader cultural context. I could be argued that anger is more tolerated and accepted in Russia than elsewhere. Harsh rhetoric, however, does not inevitably generate hard actions. The case with the Bronze Soldier in Estonia in 2007 is a good illustration. Russian politicians issued threats – few of them were actually carried out.

The nature of the Russian state compared to the Western democracies was not on the agenda. Independent institutions and civil society are weak in Russia. The country lacks upper classes whose representatives can constitute and guarantee the existence of self-sustaining organizations. There is not even an independent business community in Russia. Decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a handful of politicians at the top of the political hierarchy with a low degree of transparency. Thus, emotions and preferences of individual leaders matter more in Russia than in countries where decision-makers do not enjoy the same degree of independence. In Western democracies leaders have to balance the interests of broader elite groups. Foreign policy is no exception to the rule. Russian leaders are confined in their actions by the rest of the world, but they do not face serious constraints at the domestic level. This, after all, is a good argument for the study of emotions in Russian foreign policy.

Note. – CIS is an acronym for Commonwealth of Independent States.