Here, as promised, is the post about realism. In case you haven’t heard, “realism” is supposedly the basis of Russian foreign policy. According to them, great powers (and of course they’re a great power) should act according to self-interests without considering morality or ideology. For some unknown reason, those in Russia who claim to support such an approach to foreign policy can’t seem to fathom the possibility that some other great power might find it in its self-interests to stomp all over Russia without regard to morality or ideology. No, as I’ve written before, according to the realists, American foreign policy should be isolationist and concerned mostly with domestic issues, whereas Russia’s allowed to find its self-interests wherever it sees fit. In other words, this whole argument is bullshit.
Those Russians who genuinely support Trump seem to believe that he is a realist with an “America first” policy. This would be a mistake on their part. Trump has no policies; he has only whatever he happens to be saying in response to a question at a given time. The beltway pundits recoil in horror when Trump supposedly ponders leaving NATO members to stand alone, or when he says he’ll have people look into the issue of recognizing the annexation of the Crimea. They really ought not to get their heart rates up; it’s painfully obvious that when Trump answers questions in this way, he has no idea what they’re actually talking about. His answers truly sound like a man who knows he’s been caught with his pants down and needs to give an answer that makes it look as though he’s familiar with the issue. In short, Trump is not a realist. Trump is not anything but Donald Trump, and that’s bad enough.
I have a better question to think about, however. Is Vladimir Putin a realist? Does he practice what he preaches? HINT: No, he is not.
It’s a rare occasion that I find myself agreeing with a conservative pundit, but Twitter Trumpkin slayer Tom Nichols has raised the question of Putin’s “realism” and provided an accurate answer, though I must disagree with his assessment of Putin’s thinking on some levels. Here is the relevant passage:
“Finally, if Putin is a realist, it is a strange realism indeed. This is where counterfactual thinking might help: a realist seeking to increase the power and influence of his state simply would not do most of the things Putin is doing. The Kremlin’s foreign policy at this point violates almost every rule of competent strategy, to say nothing of common sense. From the injunction to avoid the needless multiplication of enemies to the danger of letting emotion overcome policy, Putin has trampled all over “realist” expectations.
This is an especially remarkable series of errors because Russia faces, in the administration of Barack Obama, an America that has no interest in a fight and would just as well walk away from European affairs if only given half a chance. Or put another way, America is being drawn into a European conflict only because Putin is too stupid to know enough to keep us out of it, despite every indication from the White House that we want nothing to do with any of this. If this is Russian “realism,” it’s the dumbest realism in modern history.”
Indeed this brand of realism is a strange one. Nichols goes into more detail regarding what Putin has wrought in Ukraine, but I’m writing this post because I wanted to go a bit deeper.
First of all, according to the realist school Russia could be seen as looking out for its self-interests (for the moment let’s ignore the fact that the interests of a country’s ruling class rarely coincide with the majority) when it engaged in a trade war with Ukraine in order to pressure Yanukovych away from the EU Association Agreement and towards Russia’s Customs Union. But if that is the case, the Russians can’t complain when they accuse the US of orchestrating a “coup” with Maidan. After all, what right have they to say this wasn’t in the best interests of the US? It wasn’t about morality or ideology, after all.
More importantly, however, is the fact that Russia’s reaction to Maidan, almost from the beginning, was incredibly stupid and ideologically-driven. The fact is that Maidan was not a Western-orchestrated coup; what happened is a protest movement grew, the government reacted improperly, and the West saw this and backed the right side. Russia, as has often been the case in recent decades, decided to throw in with the corrupt dictator. Not only is this incredibly stupid strategy, but it was definitely influenced by ideology, inasmuch as you can call the fantasy of Russia being surrounded by enemies and threatened by NATO an ideology.
Russia had other options even before Yanukovych fled. First, they could have dumped him like a bad habit. “Viktor, you idiot! You make this EU trade deal the cornerstone of your administration, and then you walk away from it? The people are right to protest you! Do not blame this on us!” This alone would have been a major game changer.
But let’s not go back that far and instead focus on the moment after Yanukovych left. Instead of seizing the Crimea and starting a war in the Donbas, once again Russia could have scolded Yanukovych publicly. Putin could have pointed out that the idea that Russia is controlling Ukraine is absurd, and to prove this he could have publicly recognized the interim government. This, of course, would leave several million pro-Russian or at least anti-Maidan voters in place throughout Russia. No Odessa riot, no annexation, no war. Russian media would be free to operate all throughout Ukraine. Putin would have a massive “fifth column” of voters and politicians in Ukraine to sabotage or hold up EU reforms. All the while Russia sits back and watches. No sanctions, no bad press over invading another country. No war for corrupt Ukrainian politicians to use as an excuse for their lack of reforms. Ukraine’s official non-bloc status would remain intact, and if the government actually did try something unpleasant to Moscow, well there’s always that contingency plan to seize the Crimea, right?
Such a strategy is obviously far more intelligent than what Putin actually did, and he did it because he’s not a realist and he is driven by a kind of ideology, a propaganda narrative. According to what passes for an ideology in the Kremlin, Putin and his cronies knew that this was orchestrated by the US. They knew it was all about getting Ukraine in NATO. They knew it would make Putin look weak and they’re extremely afraid of Russian-speaking people rising up an holding their government accountable. They were so convinced of their own bullshit geopolitical theory.
The fact is that the Kremlin’s foreign policy isn’t realism. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. It’s driven largely by fantasies that exist in an echo chamber; dissent equals disloyalty. The truth is that when the Kremlin ideologues or their sympathizers peddle this idea of realism to the West and in particular the United States, it’s really just a scam. What they’re saying is “Let’s not strive for a better world. Let’s all be as bad as we like, without criticizing one another.”
I’ll be really frank here- if someone asked me if I think the United States government should be more concerned with the state of its own people, I would generally agree with that statement. Of course I’d also say that the Russian government needs to show far more concern for its own people, and the need is far more urgent than in the US. We have to ask ourselves if it is better to live in a world where countries strive for lofty goals while often falling short, sometimes far short of them, or do we want to live in a world where the majority of people are at the mercy of wheeling and dealing great powers like some kind of neo-Victorian dystopia. I would rather see a world in which Russia improves its human rights record and foreign policy in order to legitimately challenge the moral superiority of the US, than to see the US abandon its stated values and emulate Putin’s Russia as it presently exists. Of course my own politics are far more radical, but while the former scenario falls short of my personal ideal, it is, at least, realistic.