Ignorance and Caricatures Mar Our Understanding of Russian Foreign Policy

And why it's harming our national interests.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

All it took to transform Vladimir Putin from a candidate for a foreign policy “reset” into a global villain was a change in presidents. 

In 2012 Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for his 1980s view that Russia under Putin was our most serious global rival. Obama earlier had sent his Secretary of State to offer a cartoonish “reset button” to the Russians, and followed up a few years later by offering Putin “flexibility” after his reelection. After Hillary’s defeat and Trump’s campaign suggestions of outreach to Russia, Putin suddenly became a villain straight out of Joe McCarthy’s central casting, the Svengali who seduced Republicans into “collusion” with “fake news” and “hacks” in order to put into power a president beholden to him. At least Senator John McCain has been consistent, holding fast to his reductive view of Putin as a dead-eyed KGB thug with whom it is impossible to do geopolitical business.

Once again, our foreign policy lacks continuity and coherence because we ignore history and rely instead on gratifying caricatures that serve partisan interests or moral preening rather than our country’s security and interests.

As a result of this bad habit, we find it impossible to look beyond the media cartoons, received wisdom, and partisan trimming, and instead learn the full context of a nation’s motives and beliefs. We need to understand all the springs of a geopolitical rival’s actions, not to forgive or rationalize them, but to follow Sun Tzu’s advice to know your enemy so you can properly counter his designs. It may make us feel better and more righteous to reduce Putin to an autocratic illiberal “gangster” or “murderer” or “kleptocrat,” but that won’t help us manage our relations with a nuclear-armed geopolitical rival seeking to expand its reach and influence.

One important dimension of Russian culture that we slight is religious faith. We in the West have been undergoing secularization for two centuries, and now have reached the point where religion is either an archaic superstition impeding human progress, or a quaint life-style choice with holiday traditions, tolerated as long they stay out of the public square. But Orthodox Christianity has retained a place in Russia that Christianity has lost in the West. And faith remains one of the foundations of Russian national sovereignty and patriotic pride to an extent that our elites, committed to a transnational globalism and secular technocracy, find retrograde. Despite the historical truth that our own political order recognized faith as its foundation, today we find taking religion seriously to be naïve or sinister, a sign of nefarious plots to restrict personal freedom by evoking religious authority. Hence the “evangelical fundamentalist” bogey that for nearly half a century progressives have brandished in order to delegitimize conservatives and their “bitter clinging” to patriotism and religion.

Nationalism and Orthodox Christianity, in contrast, long ago melded in Russian history, and was strong enough to survive the seven decades of atheist communism. Thus ignoring the role of history and religion in Russian foreign policy compromises our understanding of events. Take Putin’s annexation of Crimea a few years ago. In the standard Western narrative, Putin subverted a democratically elected government in Ukraine to protect its puppet oligarchy useful to the Russian plutocrats and their selfish interests. But from Russia’s point of view, it was the West that interfered in Ukraine’s politics and subverted democracy in order to advance a larger design: Basing NATO forces deeper into Russia’s sphere of influence, including Crimea, the historical home of an important Russian naval base. 

These two views are not mutually exclusive. As Christopher Caldwell writes, “Both of these accounts are perfectly correct. It is just that one word [democracy] can mean something different to Americans than it does to Russians.” This is not to endorse postmodern radical relativism, the view that, as Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The point is we are handicapping ourselves if we don’t understand that other point of view and take it into account in our calculations. If we had done so in the 1990s, we might not have been so hasty in enlarging NATO to include countries in Russia’s historical sphere of interest, both humiliating Russian national pride, and committing ourselves to protecting those countries against their only possible aggressor, Russia.

Moreover, the Russian connection to Crimea is bound up with the historical Russian view of itself as the bulwark and protector of Christianity against Muslim encroachment. Orlando Figes’ history of the Crimean War (1853-56) is invaluable in recovering for us how much religious faith factored into that conflict. Britain and France may have been playing the great game of Near Eastern geopolitics, but Russia and Tsar Nicholas I were profoundly moved by the plight of their Balkan Slavic Orthodox “brothers” who had lived for centuries under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Land pilgrims whose faith was restricted by the Ottoman occupiers of a historically Christian region. Thus Nicholas believed “he was fighting a religious war, a crusade, to fulfill Russia’s mission to defend the Christians of the Ottoman Empire,” as Figes writes. The immense sacrifices the Russians suffered during the brutal year-long siege of Sevastopol, in which over 100,000 Russians died, turned that Crimean port into a shrine honoring Russia’s national and religious identity. 

Thus for Russians, the recovery of Crimea from Ukraine, which gained it only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, transcends pragmatic geopolitics or authoritarian greed cloaked in patriotism. Russians believed that Crimea, won by decades of hard fighting from the Ottoman invaders, had now returned to its rightful peoples.

This conception of their national identity results from the fact that Russia had fought defensive and offensive wars against Muslims for centuries, and had first-hand experience of Islam’s expansionary imperative and its “bloody borders,” as Samuel Huntington put it. England and France, on the other hand, had already begun to lose their religious ties to the region, which they saw mostly in geopolitical and commercial terms. The resentment against France and England for allying with the Ottoman occupiers of eastern Christendom, and fighting against a fellow Christian power remains today. As the West has appeased and apologized for jihadist violence, Russia has fought it brutally, and successfully, in Chechnya. With 20 million Muslims living in Russia and a long history of conflict with Islam, Russians have first-hand knowledge of Islam and recognize its religious solidarity and doctrines as prime motivations of modern jihadism. 

But as Caldwell writes, we lack such experience and so tend to ignore its impact on Russian foreign policy:

One theme runs through Russian foreign policy, and has for much of its history. There is no country, with the exception of Israel, that has a more dangerous frontier with the Islamic world. You would think that this would be the primary lens through which to view Russian conduct—a good place for the West to begin in trying to explain Russian behavior that, at first glance, does not have an obvious rationale. Yet agitation against Putin in the West has not focused on that at all. 

That in a nutshell is the flaw in our understanding of Putin’s behavior. As the leader of the “international system,” one based on questionable assumptions about a universal human identity that transcends cultural differences, we have a blind spot when it comes to understanding religious motives, a failure obvious in our stubborn refusal to believe jihadists when they cite the Islamic dogmas that drive their violence. We can’t see how our own religious decline and decadence reinforce the sense of some Russians that they are still the “third Rome,” the champion of Christianity against its most lethal historical enemy. Nor can we understand why Eastern European countries admire Putin and resist the E.U.’s attempt to force them to let in tens of thousands of unvetted Muslim migrants. To us, they’re just backward Islamophobes.

Finally, the reduction of Putin to a villainous autocrat and America’s irredeemable enemy is a caricature of foreign policy realism, “principled” or otherwise. The U.S. has for decades allied itself, cooperated with, and offered détente to two of history’s greatest mass murdering regimes, China and the Soviet Union. So it must be for the world’s most consequential power. If we cooperated only with the virtuous, we’d have to stand alone, for moral purity is a rare luxury for the those, like our NATO colleagues, who are defended by somebody else. In the real world, the only litmus test for our foreign policy should be how it advances our interests and protects our national security. In recent years we have seen the bloody proof that moralizing idealism is as dangerous as selfish isolationism.

Vladimir Putin very likely is a ruthless autocrat, and we should acknowledge those flaws, not whitewash them. But if we’re not willing to do anything meaningful to prevent his depredations, if we won’t put our military might where our self-righteous mouths are, then we should be thinking about how we can deal with Putin and Russia in ways that advance our national interests and security. One place to start is to understand all the historical experiences and religious ideals that go into Russia’s thinking, and figure out how we can best profit from that understanding. 

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