The Deceptively Romantic Historical Musings of the Russian Foreign Minister

April 6, 2016

Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote a lengthy article that attempts to give a historical background for — as well as justification of — Russian actions, from a wider civilizational context. Lavrov, a veteran of word wizardry, is at his best here, driving us through carefully selected phases of Russian history, including the Mongolian invasion, the formation of the Kievan Rus identity, and the defense of the motherland. He mixes Russian-Eurasian identity with a tinge of Lev Gumilyov (a philosopher who is suddenly in vogue in literary discussion circles and foreign policy analysis). In academia and politics, there come phases when civilizational and historical narratives are used to decipher the direction of a great power’s foreign policy. These approaches try to give a sense of understanding to the otherwise opaque geopolitical manipulations and often explain actions on the basis of historical and ideological identity. At the end of the day, however, these are romantic narratives weaved cynically to support rather prosaic realist goals. It would be misguided to accept Lavrov’s article as a window into Russia’s decision-making process.

Russian civilizational exceptionalism

What is at the crux of Lavrov’s revisionism? Let’s dig into his account: Russia has not only been a principled great power but has also provided Europe with great cultural and civilizational achievements. Russia was not a backward country. In fact, for some time, Russia was actually more advanced in science, technology, and liberal politics than the states in Western Europe. Russia has also steadfastly carried the Christian conservative civilizational burden against barbarians and invaders, and has been a bulwark against chaos when it came from the far east, south, and west, over a span of 800 years. Lavrov wrote:

In 2015, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Victory in WWII, and in 2014, we marked a century since the start of WWI. In 2012, we marked 200 years of the Battle of Borodino and 400 years of Moscow’s liberation from the Polish invaders.

He carefully equates distinct phases of Russian history, mentioning how Russia provided stability against the Polish invaders (curious word choice there) from the west, fought fascism and Napoleon, as well as defended Europe from the barbaric Mongols in the east. Russia fought the crusades as well as fascism, a thankless burden that Europe never fully acknowledged but should.

This idea of civilizational exceptionalism is not something new, nor is it unique to Russia. Almost all great powers indulge in it. The British Raj, London tells us, gave us Pax Britannica based on the ideas of liberalism, democracy and the free market. The United States, we are told time and time again, is a “city on the hill” — the first country to be based on an ideology and bill of rights. India has been a singular civilization for over 4,000 years, we hear, contributing to global peace for thousands of years, culminating with Gandhism and subsequently a Nehruvian ideology of peaceful coexistence and global peace and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. China is socialist but with special Chinese characteristics, which reflect the synthesis of socialist science and Confucian wisdom. Almost every great power somehow uses exceptionalism as a narrative.

The problem comes when exceptionalism seeps into analysis of foreign policy. Then, claims to exceptionalism start to sound like retrodictive justifications. As early as 2012, analysts wrote about Russia’s support of Syria’s Assad through a lens of civilization. Apparently the Russian regime is not helping Assad for strictly structural reasons, but rather was guided by its identity as a traditional saviour of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, an identity formed and shaped by Russian actions since the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

More recently, Russian actions in eastern Ukraine have been justified by Moscow as a battle for civilizational conservatism. Volumes of analysis were written to explain why Putin is a conservative icon and a Euro conservative, why Putin supports the far right movement in Europe, and why Donald Trump is a natural ally to Russia. This is all justified on the basis of this simplistic narrative of Huntingtonian civilizational Christian conservatism, an echo of academic battles that took place in policy circles during the early 1990s, when realism as a theoretical framework was replaced by liberalism. Since then we have seen several different analyses of Russian actions through non-realist lenses.

The problems with historical narratives

That brings us to Lavrov’s historical justification of Russian actions. The problems with his historical narratives and interpretation are manifold. First of all, they are interpretative. Yes, Russia was historically a great power, but contrary to whatever Lavrov is writing, there is no evidence Russia was always a principled martyr and victim. If one carefully analyzes Russian actions from Catherine the Great to Vladimir the Cunning (for lack of a better word), one will see that Russia, just like any other great power, sometimes acted aggressively and other times came to tacit understandings and deals with friends as well as foes. Putin never made any attempt to hide that amorality, even as analysts tried to find the underlying domestic and economic variables responsible for Russian behavior.

A simple test of the hypothesis is the rise and fall of the rhetoric of the now discredited Novorossiya project. It was used to justify Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and mobilize the Russians to rally around the flag. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent intervention in eastern Ukraine were arguably for structural reasons, like EU politics and a spiraling, acute security dilemma in Eastern Europe. Russia, of course, tried to justify this intervention from the lens of historic claims of Novorossiya and Russian identity. However, that project was discarded the moment Putin’s forces suffered battlefield reversals and met stiff Ukrainian resistance, and rising Euro/American sanctions started to take effect. No amount of Lavrovian civilizational burden made them continue to carry on with that “heroic” struggle. The one thing foreign policy analysts usually tend to overlook is what Putin was always clear about — that Russian actions have always been primarily about Russian interests and the interest of her citizens. I believe that even when Putin talks of moral dilemmas and choices, he is using such rhetoric as a screen for pure realism. As evidence of this, one might juxtapose his litany of complaints about U.S. behavior in his 2007 Munich Security Conference speech with Russian behavior today in Syria and Ukraine. It reveals Putin’s past and current protestations about international law and sovereignty as cynical.

One might still argue that my own particular analysis can also fall into the same trap of monocausal interpretation of Russian behavior. I refuse to take that path. There are intra-theoretical debates even within realism when it comes to analyzing Russian behavior, both past and present. It has been argued that Russia was an offensive realist power through the greater part of late-medieval Europe. This claim has been disputed by defensive realists who claimed that Russia, even during her most powerful stage of history under Tsar Alexander during the concert of Europe, was not aggressive, but actually quite conciliatory towards other powers in Europe. Russia played a careful balancing game to preserve the peace in the continent, sometimes dealing with the Ottomans and other times dealing with Austria and Prussia, as well as alternating policies during the “Great Game” with the British in Afghanistan. Even then, realpolitik, rather than religion, influenced and guided the moves. Similarly, modern interpretations of Russian actions in Europe, when analyzed by neoclassical realists as well as neo-realists, although considerably different, are united in their assertion that this Huntingtonian exceptionalism doesn’t play a role in influencing Russian behavior. The jury is still out on which strand of realism might fully and successfully explain current Russian behavior since the oil boom of 1999, but it is clear enough that Lavrov is dead wrong to paint the picture that Russia always or even mostly acted on civilizational principles of Rus. Rather, Lavrov’s analysis is an exercise in reasoning backwards to justify dry realpolitik. For that matter, historical narratives — used by anyone, be it a politician or an academic, Russian or Western — impose a value judgement and either make a state look heroic, or demonize it.

Russian claims to be a heroic principled nation don’t justify Moscow’s support of dodgy client states like Yanukovich’s regime in Ukraine and despicable war criminals like Assad, nor do they justify forced change in European geography. Accusations of Russia being a complete revanchist power also fall flat when one comes to see its cooperation with other countries, from intelligence-sharing with Israel and Iraq and cooperation in the campaign against the Islamic State in Palmyra, to constant collaboration in space research. Lavrov’s historical worldviews and narratives — and the Western analysis of them — invariably tend to be simplistic and binary, dividing the world in black or white. They don’t take into account the amoral nuances of foreign policy and the persistence of overlapping interests, even if they are increasingly rare.

It is foolish to conclude that Putin, who has established himself — rightly or wrongly — as one of the short-term tactical masters of foreign policy, is thick as the proverbial plank and lets his worldview be guided and shaped by simplistic religious or cultural identity politics, even when Lavrov tries to sell that to an academic audience desperate to predict future Russian behavior. There are debates on whether Putin is a brilliant strategist, or a smart tactician who ultimately is dragging his country down the drain. I would argue that Putin is not a strategic genius, and his long-term ideas are to be tested by the forces of economics very soon, but he is also not the kind of person who decides on foreign policy reflexively and irrationally. It is dishonest and detrimental to academia and long-term policy framing to judge Russian foreign policy by that narrow logic. The structural anarchy of the world order shapes states to act in certain ways, and it is therefore prudent to take Lavrov’s historic justifications with a pinch of salt. At the end of the day, Russian policymakers are quite rational and primarily care about the survival and well-being of their own state and regime. They act within the structural constraints of this order, and will continue to act as Russia’s military and economic might permits and her state interest guides. Policymakers in the West would therefore do well to find and spot correctly what those areas of interests are, rather than paying too much attention to narratives, psychoanalysis, cultural identity and so forth, even when they are churned out from Russian politicians as official ideology.


Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. His research is on Russian foreign policy and neorealism. He can be found on Twitter @MrMaitra.


Photo credit: Kai Mörk