Professor Kimberly Marten tries to explain an apparently schizophrenic Russian foreign policy toward the United States in this policy memo on PONARS Eurasia.
She comes up with four possible explanations:
- Putin succumbed to his own ignorance and biases.
- Putin’s advisors are afraid to tell him the truth.
- Inconsistent foreign policy is the result of infighting in Putin’s inner circle.
- Disparate members of Russia’s intelligence network are controlling foreign policy with negative consequences for state interests.
I think there are a few additional explanations to consider.
It’s not about Russia: Nobody can figure out Donald Trump
Marten gives two examples of inconsistencies in Russia’s foreign policy toward the United States.
The first one is that Russia seemed to have very accurate data to skillfully influence the 2016 presidential election, but they were caught off guard by the decision of Congress to ramp-up the sanctions against Russia in 2017.
Marten’s second example is that Russia offered the Trump administration a complete reset of the relations between Russia and the United States in the spring of 2017 while simultaneously continuing actions in the world that challenged U.S. security interests.
According to Marten, these examples demonstrate that Russia has an inconsistent foreign policy line. But seriously, these examples are superficial. In fact, by combining the examples differently, one could also show a fine consistency in Russia’s foreign policy. Helping Donald Trump in the election is in line with the suggestion of a reset of relations after the inauguration. And the continued Russian challenges to U.S. security interests seem consistent in the light that Donald Trump did not deliver on any (perceived) promises of better relations.
So maybe it’s more a question of inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy under the current administration than it’s about Putin.
International relations are not actually a calculated game of chess
Marten suggests that the inconsistencies in Russia’s foreign policy indicate “that Putin may not be the only figure who matters going forward”. After the presidential election in March, Putin will – probably – be on his last term, and the power struggle around him will grow as other people try to position themselves. Marten sees the “schizophrenic policy toward the United States” as proof that such a power struggle is already happening.
But was there ever a time when Putin was the only figure who mattered? Marten greatly underestimates the complexity of Russian politics with this statement. She rightly sets out to investigate the notion that ”[p]resident Vladimir Putin is often seen as a foreign policy wizard, leading Russia to a string of successes and heightened international influence”, but ironically her approach builds on the same false assumption that this used to be the case.
In reality, Russian foreign politics was never a one man show. International relations are not the coolheaded game of calculation that some scholars try to make it look like. Actors are influenced by human emotions, insecurities, desires, ideals, biases, and limited ability to make sense of events.
So while Marten is right to state that the transition of power during Putin’s last term will be interesting to follow, her empirical examples don’t support the notion that Putin is losing the grip. All they show is that the Russian leadership is human and complex, and that American politics are hard to make sense of these days.