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Kennan Institute
Washington DC
May 29, 2007
Putin's Foreign Policy Viewed in Historical Context
Event Summary

When viewed from a historical perspective, several persistent patterns can be identified in Russian foreign policy, said Robert Legvold, Marshall D. Shulman Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University. Speaking at a recent Kennan Institute talk, Legvold presented a book he edited titled Russian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century and the Shadow of the Past. By analyzing Russian foreign policy from a historical perspective, Legvold stressed that he did not seek to predict the future, nor to explain directly the current policies of the government. Rather, he said a historical vantage point helps to distinguish what is transitory from what is enduring, and allows the reader to see the deeper elements in Russian policy.

The perspective from which Russian foreign policy has engaged the world has been that of a relatively small geographical core area expanding out across the Eurasian heartland, Legvold said. This process created a multinational and multi-confessional empire with large borderlands. In the process, Russia ran into conflicts with other powers contesting these areas. This has led some, such as John LeDonne in his history of Russian foreign policy, to wonder whether Russia will seek to recreate its customary hegemony in this vast region. Legvold observed that history echoes in contemporary Russia's tendency to view the post-Soviet space as an arena of rivalry with outside powers, rather than one inviting cooperation. Hence, much of its policy is intended to parry and, if possible, exclude other major powers seen as competitors from Russia's imperial borderlands, he asserted.

Legvold emphasized that several popular explanations of Russian foreign policy remain more myth than reality. These 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 the 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. Russia is now bereft of the strategic parapets it has built up over 400 years. While this concern is particularly acute when Russian leaders look south, it also contributes to Russia's inability to shake free from its image of a malevolent NATO, and to the readiness with which it views NATO enlargement and military deployments in the new NATO member states as imperiling Russian security, he said.

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. Today this applies to Russia's discomfort with the liberalizing imperatives of globalization, which, historically, Russia's leaders have sought to contain, as Celeste Wallander stresses in her chapter of the edited volume. This has often led Russia to forfeit the benefits it could have realized from greater economic integration, Legvold noted.

Third, the legacy and heritage of empire have led to a profound insecurity over Russian national identity. Citing Ronald Suny's contribution to the book, Legvold explained that the conquest of various lands by the Russian Empire resulted in a fragile and fragmented national identity. Legvold endorsed Dmitri Trenin's characterization of Russia as "post-imperial," meaning that Russia has accepted the independence of the other countries once part of the Soviet Union, but still cannot bring itself to treat them as such.

Fourth, Russia has long felt culturally alienated from both Europe and Asia. At the same time, Europeans and Asians alike tend to doubt that Russia belongs to either. As a result, 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. Today Russia's vexed relationship with the West encompasses far more than Russia and Europe, Legvold said, noting that the deteriorated condition of current U.S.-Russian relations is increasingly becoming part of a larger set of frictions with the entire Euro-Atlantic world. As a consequence, he pointed out, Russia and the West are farther away than ever from addressing the core conceptual challenge: how to integrate Russia with the West when it cannot be integrated into Western institutional structures, such as NATO and the European Union.

Legvold argued that Russia is now at a critical point in its history, and it could move in one of several directions, none dictated or foreclosed by the patterns of the past. Contemporary Russia starts from the raw and harsh reality of its geopolitical retreat. For four hundred years, he said, Russia had been moving from the periphery to the center of international affairs, culminating in its position as a global superpower in the 20th century. In the last 20 years, on the other hand, it has steadily moved from the center to the periphery. Whatever the assertiveness of Putin's Russia, most within the political elite recognize that the hierarchy of major powers in the coming decades will be dominated by the United States, China, and possibly India, with the EU and Japan playing a secondary role. For the first time in two hundred years, Russia will be consigned to the back tier, and perhaps even, as some Russians worry, to the role of a vassal or "junior partner" of an Asian power.

Yet, at the same time, the international scene is now very different from what it has been historically. Not only has globalization had an increasing impact on international relations, but for the first time in centuries, the international system is characterized by the absence of strategic rivalry among the major powers, Legvold stated. No major power, for the moment, identifies another major power or set of powers as the main strategic threat and builds defense systems in anticipation of the possibility of war with it or them, he said. This is unique in the last 300 years of international history, a state of affairs Legvold labeled "the blessing." He argued that a weakened but proud and aspiring Russia should embrace and strive to reinforce this blessing, even though Russia's insecurities make this difficult.

Still, there are signs that Russia's elite is beginning to change its thinking. Putin's Russia, according to David MacDonald's contribution to the edited volume, seems to be forming policies with a much more nuanced understanding of power as a combination of economic power and popular political support. Russia's course is still unresolved, and the historical patterns of Russian policy are not set in stone. Legvold stressed that a crucial positive aspect of contemporary Russia that distinguishes this period from earlier centuries is that much of the change is coming from below.

Currently, in Legvold's opinion, the Russian leadership is characterized by its inability to make fundamental strategic choices. It wants to pursue a multi-vector policy in relation to China, the United States, Europe, and India, but it has no long-term vision of how to succeed in balancing these critical but diverse relationships. Putin has succeeded in consolidating the tactics Russia has employed in its foreign policy but not in deciding on a durable long-term foreign policy strategy, he said. As a result, it privileges short-term interests more than usual. In the process, it remains open to relations with the United States, Europe, and China, but is reluctant to pay the price needed to become deeply engaged with any of them. For now it is increasingly inclined to leave itself to its own resources, and let others decide how much and on what issues they want to cooperate, Legvold explained. But this is surely a transitory condition and subject to fundamental change in the coming years. The one thing history does predict is that where this Russia will be 20 years from now will be heavily shaped by what this Russia becomes, he concluded.