Robert Legvold is a Marshall D Shulman Professor Emeritus at the Columbia University political science department. He is one of the world’s leading experts on the foreign policy of post-Soviet states, and a book reviewer for Foreign Affairs magazine. Previously, he served as the director of Soviet studies on the Council of Foreign Relations from 1978-1984, and as the director of the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace from 2009-2012. Legvold agreed to sit down for an interview with me in Moscow on September 24, 2015. The transcript of the portion of our interview covering his insights on Kremlin decision-making is below:
You have described Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine as event-driven. Do you believe that Putin’s foreign policy decisions in general are founded on a grand strategy or are they tactical reactive responses to events on the ground?
Robert Legvold: It is important to note that just because Russian behavior is based on strategic calculations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia’s responses were based on rational strategy. Russian behavior today is without strategy and effectively tactically driven. Critics of the Obama administration see the US, NATO and Germany as being outmaneuvered at a tactical level. I think this is wrong and I don’t think the tactical response is taking Russia far in a useful way. In Ukraine like in Syria, all the outsiders are stuck, so that sometimes confuses people’s perceptions.
I recently wrote an article for the Washington Post arguing that Russia is pursuing a frozen conflict strategy in Ukraine and a number of analysts I have spoken agree with this assessment. Do you think the Donbas region will end up like Transnistria or Nagorno-Karabakh? What do you think is Putin’s end game in Ukraine?
Robert Legvold: As I mentioned earlier, Putin’s actions in Ukraine are tactical. I think the end game is evolving into a frozen conflict but not because it was Putin’s intent. At this point, it might be the best-case scenario. From my point of view, a frozen conflict is a reality. That is what is happening in Ukraine. The West was opposed to this idea a year ago but now they might see it as the best case. They can hope to pull Ukraine out of the dumps, and to ensure that the war does not devastate it economically. But I don’t think a frozen conflict was Russia’s game plan by any means. Its what they have got now, as the Novorossiya project failed and Russia can no longer control Ukraine’s domestic politics or foreign policy to the extent that they hoped. They turned Ukraine into an enemy not a malleable piece of putty they can manipulate. Putin’s attention is now turning to other things. His UN speech in New York is focused on the Middle East and Syria.
Though I think the ultimate end game is a frozen conflict, there are other scenarios that should be considered. If Putin becomes antsy, and sees US and NATO posturing as threatening as he says it is, then any instability in Central Europe, or in Belarus or Moldova has the basis of conflict. Maybe violent conflict could occur. No side would want it, but events in Ukraine were undesirable to all actors involved as well, so therefore, in the future, Russia’s conduct depends on where events take us.
Many analysts have speculated that Russia’s Syria and Ukraine strategies have become closely intertwined. One theory is that the West will trade Donbas for Russian cooperation against ISIS. How do you regard these theories?
Robert Legvold: This was broached in Novaya Gazeta recently when Russia was increasing its military involvement in Syria. The article discussed why Russia was heading towards a new hybrid war in Syria. The outcome of the article’s argument was that Putin would go to Ukraine, and offer a trade. He would help the West fight ISIS and the West would back down on Ukraine and accept the Crimea annexation. I disagree with this view strongly. Even if Putin is thinking that way, and I very strongly doubt that he is, Washington or Berlin would never accept these terms.
To what extent do you believe that Russian foreign policy decision-making is driven by Putin’s regime security fears? Has Russia’s weakening economic performance encouraged a more aggressive foreign policy abroad as a deflection strategy?
Robert Legvold: There is a bastardized version of this theory, popular in the West, in the United States, especially. The narrative basically is as follows. Russian policymakers are concerned primarily about their own regime security. They fear democracy spreading near its borders and had deep solidarity with Yanukovych, as Russia’s regime is kleptocratic and was in need of keeping its many clans and factions together. There is an element of truth to this but it is an oversimplification to solely base explanations on internal factors. It is also important to realize that Western countries also make decisions based on domestic politics. As for economic conditions, the idea that Russia might want to distract its people has some valid logic to it. But we are at a critical point now. Russia’s economic prospects over the next 2-3 years are dire, with no viable chance of a swift V-shaped 2008-09 style recovery. The Russian media is preoccupied with budget deficits and how the economy can recover. This will have major political consequences so deflecting this is definitely on the Kremlin policymaker’s eyes.
Russia might end up retrenching, as economic conditions get worse. It needs to reduce external tensions and cut defense spending. Lifting the sanctions and reopening the capital markets to the West could be a good strategy as Russia is not getting what it wanted from China and the Asia-Pacific on this score. Hard times will produce more flexible and constructive foreign policies according to this logic. The alternative is that Russia will become reckless to create a national emergency and a rally around the flag phenomenon. The Russian annexation of Crimea is a precedent for this. At the moment, my view is that the Russian economic decline will not have as drastic or immediate effect on its foreign policy as Western observers think. Russia can still stagger on for a long time. At what point might that change and produce discontinuity, I do not know.
It is even unclear what this discontinuity will look like flashing forward. Will it be Détente or further aggression? In the end, it will depend not so much on what happens in the outside world but what happens in Russia. Who eventually replaces Putin and this generation of Kremlin elites will define Russia’s future. I very much doubt a Gorbachev, or Yeltsin-style normalization will occur immediately. If Putin’s successor is worse than what is here today, I would not be optimistic about the foreign policy scenario. If it is a more moderate official in the Russian regime, like Medvedev, Kudrin or even Shoygu, and this successor can manage the clan battles in the Kremlin, it could lead to a foreign policy of retrenchment.
The idea that Russia strongly prefers authoritarian countries on its borders has been cited as a reason for Putin’s anti-Western foreign policy. To what extent do you believe that Putin and elites in the Kremlin are fearful of democratic diffusion?
Robert Legvold: I think that Russia was very concerned by the Georgia 2003 revolution, in particular, and other colored revolutions. Concern was heightened again by the Arab Spring, which Putin misinterpreted as being relevant to the post-Soviet era and Russia. Then in a dramatic way, Putin was afraid of Maidan. I have often been told that Putin and Patrushev have colored revolutions very much in their minds. I would regard it, given the state of politics and society in Russia as an exaggerated fear. But as Henry Kissinger said, even paranoids can have enemies. I don’t know whether this fear is merited or not, but I quite convinced that this is the Kremlin’s outlook.
Finally, It has been often speculated that Russia is aiming to be an ideological counter-weight to the United States. It has been promoting its own authoritarian model of governance and socially conservative values. Leading Russia foreign policy scholars like Roy Allison have given significant attention to the normative dimension of Putin’s decision-making. To what extent do you believe that Russian foreign policy is driven by norms and values?
Robert Legvold: Roy Allison wrote a very interesting book on Russia, the West and Military Intervention that discussed norm element in Russian foreign policy. Its content predates the war in Syria. Up to a point, I think Allison is right. In my recent speech at Carnegie, I discussed how there is an ideological dimension to the new Cold War, but I think it contrasts with the old Cold War. In some ways, it does reflect a conflict of systems. Sergey Karaganov described the leading contest in world politics today as being within capitalism: authoritarian capitalism represented by Russia and China; and liberal capitalism of the OECD countries. Russia must align itself with the rising authoritarian capitalist trend according to these theories. Nothing in Russia has a clear outline though, so you can pick out elements and traces of something, but caution must be taken if one is to conduct a normative explanation of Russian foreign policy.
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