[In Translation] “Conservatism for an Epoch of Instability: Self-awareness, Self-development, and Self-esteem” by Fyodor Lukyanov

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Note: The following text is an approximate translation of the first chapter of Conservatism in 21st Century Foreign Policy, an edited volume of essays published jointly by the Russian International Affair Council’s in-house analytical journal, Russia in Global Affairs, and the Moscow-based Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Research1 in May 2017. In this chapter, author Fyodor Lukyanov2 argues for the adoption of a “conservative” foreign policy informed both by Russia’s unique historical experience and by its identity as a distinct pole of civilization. Lukyanov suggests that “self-awareness” of its rich cultural inheritance is essential to Russia’s ability to successfully navigate the (reputed) breakdown of the “liberal” international order. However, Lukyanov maintains that Russia cannot effectively utilize these elements of its identity without first jettisoning its political fixation on the Western world.


The conservative worldview has been at the heart of Russian politics for many years. On numerous occasions, President Putin has deemed conservatism as his political credo, and this has been met with support from a significant portion of Russia’s intellectual and ruling class. It is the understanding of the current administration that conservative approaches correspond best to Russia’s national psychology. They are also well-suited to finding answers to large-scale challenges which loom over the nation and society as a result of changes in the global situation.

Discussion about a conservative political model began in Russia during a sharp upsurge of international activity. This activity did not always take place at Moscow’s will. Global tensions expanded distinctly from the mid-2000s onward. The crises in Ukraine and Syria have demonstrated that the erosion of the former international order had entered its final stages, while the construction of a new order will be accompanied by upheaval. And although Russia, of course, has struggled for the restoration and reinforcement of its own international positions, it has spent too much time and effort dealing with external factors.

Under such global conditions and against the backdrop of an epochal fracture, what role might conservatism play in foreign policy? If this concept is generally applicable to international affairs, then might one use it to interpret the experience of the past? We at Russia in Global Affairs have attempted to answer such questions by collaborating with the Institute of Political and Socioeconomic Research on a project concerning foreign policy conservatism in the 21st century. Within the framework of this project, we held a series of conversations in the form of roundtables, webinars, international conferences, ordered a series of articles and studies, and finally prepared a comprehensive report. The most significant results of our work are contained in the following pages.

Our work arrived at an unexpected conclusion. From the very beginning, we expected to isolate out of different periods of Russian political practice discrete instances from which to derive a certain set of tenets or core narrative. The history of Russian diplomacy from the time of Tsar Vladimir I up to the “new thinking” of the Gorbachev years3, of course, makes very interesting food for thought. But a foreign policy framework based on this historical framework is unlikely to succeed. In effect, no distinctly conservative form of foreign policy exists. This became apparent to us rather quickly.

There are, of course, general features of a nation’s foreign policy without which it is impossible to speak about a specifically conservative approach. Absent of ideology and messianism, the foremost task of foreign policy is to support national interests and reinforce sovereignty. These precepts are customarily associated with the school of political realism.

But the essence of conservatism is precisely that does not constitute a defined set of practices or postulates that can be brought to life in the international arena in order to attain a desired result. Conservatism is by definition grounded in the nation, with its attention being directly mainly towards one’s own state and society, the development of which constitutes the main task. Creating favorable conditions for carrying out this task is the principal aim of foreign policy.

Such a hierarchy of priorities conforms perfectly to the realities of the contemporary world, which is changing more and more quickly before our very eyes. Our reference points are changing. The epoch of global openness and the liberal world order that began in the West during the 1980s, and which spread across the whole world after the Cold War, is entering a new phase. The world is again fragmenting, and it is not yet possible to determine how far this fragmentation will go.

Whatever one thinks Donald Trump’s eccentric behavior and his attempts to introduce the customs of real estate development into the field of international relations, the slogan “America first” is not merely the whim of some odd billionaire, but a reflection of urgent sentiments. By no means have these sentiments appeared solely as a result of Trump and others of his anti-mainstream cohort elsewhere. Rather, liberal globalization has reached a limit beyond which it begins to be met with anxiety and rejection by the citizens of the world’s leading countries. Even if Trump were absent from the world stage, another more ordinary politician would be raising the banner of protectionism in keeping with the preferences of the electorate.

If America turns in on itself, this trend will spread everywhere. Yet whether we like it or not, for today and for the foreseeable future the United States will set the tone for global politics. This, in fact, has already happened with Europe, except that the crisis of expansionist policy there became apparent before it could even be put to use. Despite Xi Jinping’s appeals in defense of globalization, Beijing’s style of political practice depends on active protectionist measures to defend its domestic market and on an ideology which emphasizes the primacy of an original cultural tradition.

As early as several years ago – long before Brexit and Trump – Ivan Krastev4, who is one of the sharpest commentators on the West’s ideological and political tendencies, noted a change in the way existing political establishments around the world were defining their objectives. If before the leading world powers once mobilized their internal resources for the purpose of increasing their influence abroad, now the opposite holds true; they are trying to use external opportunities in order to deal with internal problems.

This is the paradoxical consequence of globalization, with its ideology of ideological postmodernism, de facto erasure of the borders between the “external” and “internal”, and negation of sovereignty. But using external factors to resolve internal matters is fraught with a loss of control, insofar as external factors are far more powerful and variable than are any national government. All nations –  from the tiniest to the most important – have, without exception, encountered this phenomenon, though it has become a tremendous problem for larger nations especially. Small countries are naturally in the habit of acceding to different forms of external power, as they simply would be unable to survive otherwise; for great powers, however, the realization that there is a limit to what is possible within their own territory has come as a shock.

The pro-Brexit camp’s rallying cry of “Let’s take back our country” has become a political leitmotif for less inclined parties and movements as well. The ability of governments to inform their citizens about how they are in a position to determine the direction and quality of the development of their countries and nations has become a key to success. This indicates that the global political landscape will inevitably change, probably through a sequence of shocks and a surge in protest activity. However,  this change will take place sooner or later, and the political classes of those leading countries with a long traditional of state control will have to adapt themselves to the new condition.

This will happen quickly, for the “nation state” is being rehabilitated, with the left as well as the right converging around it while otherwise holding diametrical positions on other issues. The necessity of preserving sovereignty – not only in the political sense of the state but also from the point of view of identity –  is once more perceived as the norm. The liberal, cosmopolitan utopias of the late 20th century are retreating into the dark.

To reiterate, these tendencies are universal. They materialize, of course, in different parts of the world and in various cultures, as does too the desire for a distinct identity. And, it is true, sometimes the pendulum swings in the opposite direction: global development has always been cyclical in nature since the turn towards openness and universalization is inevitable sooner or later. And it may happen faster than did previous ‘great cycles’ – all the same, the rate of change has now greatly increased. Even so, it will not take place within the coming years, which promise to be quite full of events.

Russia has not yet adapted to these external changes. We, of course, are no strangers to change. However, the processes that await us are expected to be especially complex. In the quarter of a century since the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia has existed in a paradigm of recovery – recovery of the state, of the economy, of the political system, and of our international positions. This, of course, is a simplification, but one might say that Russian society and the state fell apart in the wake of the events of 1991. Everyone is free to evaluate the past for themselves – there were ups and downs, fatal errors and wondrous achievements. Even so, that epoch has ended; foremost of all, it ended in peace.

Not only Russia, but also the West and thus the rest of world in general, existed in a “post-Cold War” system. Yet whereas one (namely, Russia) harbored a sense of defeat and a desire to extract revenge, the other (namely, the West) experienced the sensation of euphoria and ardent self-admiration. During the period between 2008 and 2016 (i.e., from the onset of the global financial crisis to Brexit and Trump), that same sense of ecstasy in the West gradually gave way to one of alarm, as it became clear that the world was heading in a different direction than had been predicted at the close of the previous century. A good many things – not practically everything – need to be started anew proceeding from the basis of other perspectives and circumstances.

As Ivan Krastev correctly noted, an entire generation in the West has been raised in the belief that the Cold War constituted the main event of the second half of the 20th century. Now, however, it turns out that decolonization amounted to a much more significant development, given that its consequences in the form of instability and migratory flows from south to north affects the lives of Europeans and Americans much more than anything else. Yet migration not only presents a challenge to their socioeconomic systems but also to the cultural sustainability of the societies receiving these migrants.

For contemporary Russia, a conservative agenda presents the most effective means of responding to global change and the coming cycle of upheaval. What does this mean in practice?

The main thing is that Russia needs to learn to be itself: to search for reference points within itself; to direct its efforts toward its own capabilities; and to manage, as well as expand, those capabilities. This means that Russia needs to stop comparing itself with or imitating other countries; conversely, it could also violently disassociate itself from the example of others. This pertains first and foremost to the morbidly Western-centric fixation of Russian politics and political thought, which has often led to dead ends of one kind or another. With the East now taking on a leading role in the world, Russia’s inability to put aside its preoccupation with the West simply contradicts the trajectory of global development.

The world is once again regaining the diversity which, as it appeared at the end of the 20th century, would disappear and be replaced by averaged-out patterns of a “correct” arrangement. Demand for ideological clarity is returning, though interest in the civilizational approach – which liberal dogma has rejected as “reactionary” – is becoming more and more evident. This is an extremely substantive change for Russia, as following the collapse of the Soviet Union efforts to inscribe a new ideological framework along the lines of “empire, nation, and state” all failed.

The imperial age had come to an end, yet Russia, which developed into a supernational commonwealth over the centuries, cannot become a nation state without experiencing a total collapse. As such, discussion on the subject of civilization tends much more to be in keeping with the distinctive features of Russia and its interrelations with its neighbors to the West and to the East. The self-awareness which Russia needs in the near future rests in the formation of civilizational identity.

The question is not one of “turning” in the direction of the West or the East, as is usually said for simplicity’s sake. Russia task is to strike a balance between the worlds and civilizations which adjoin it and which, of course, accord it influence. The Eastern vector is more important at the moment only because it is clearly underdeveloped, having previously been overshadowed by the Western-centric vector mentioned above. Russia does not need to adopt Eastern values, but it needs to understand them.

Russia does not need to adopt Eastern values, but it needs to understand them since cooperation with those countries who subscribe to these values will expand in the future. In this respect, efficacy must be an integral part of conservative policy: philosophical arguments and ideological slogans are not much perceived in the East, though actual achievements, the ability to do business, are well appreciated.

The Russian conservative model for the second decade of the 21st century is one of self-knowledge, self-development, and self-esteem. This model features domestic and foreign components, but rational self-interest and concentration on domestic policy objectives should take precedence over all else, including considerations of ambition and prestige. To be sure, the realist school of international relations against great importance to ambition and prestige; but rational sufficiency is the determining factor in everything.

The outside world clearly does not offer Russia peace of mind. Stolypin’s dream of twenty years without turmoil5 are just as unrealizable today as they were one-hundred years ago. But here we are, at least, in the same position as everyone else. Of course, in a world that is fundamentally changing, everyone is ultimately responsible for its finding its own way of surviving and attaining success. And this is an entirely conservative formulation of the issue at hand.

Footnotes

1. The Institute of Socioeconomic and Social Research (ISSR) is a Moscow-based think tank indirectly affiliated with the Kremlin. ISSR was established by a Decree of the Russian President in June 2012; it appears to be funded in part by the ruling United Russia party of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

2. Fyodor Alexandrovich Lukyanov serves as editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Politics. In addition to this role, Lukyanov heads the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and is Director of Research for the Valdai International Discussion Club.

3. The term ‘new thinking’ comes from a speech delivered by Mikheil Gorbachev before the United Nations General Assembly in December 1988. In this speech, Gorbachev announced his intention to reduce the number Soviet troops stationed in Eastern Europe. Many historians believe that this action opened the door to the wave of revolutions which swept the Soviet bloc that following year; for this reason, ‘new thinking’ is used by some in Russia as a derisive byword for the Gorbachev administration’s foreign policy.

4. Ivan Yotov Krastev is a Bulgarian political scientist known for his extensive writings on democracy and populism in Eastern Europe. A full bibliography of his work can be found here.

5. Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin served as prime minister of the Russia Empire from 1906 to 1911. During his time in office, Stolypin sought to implement an ambitious land reform program aimed (among other things) at dissolving traditional practices of communal ownership among Russia’s peasant class. Stolypin believed that the economic efficiency of the Russian Empire would increase as a result of such reforms, though he recognized that these could not be effectively implemented against the backdrop of social and political instability. Boasted Stolypin: “Give me twenty years of peace, both at home and abroad, and you will not recognize Russia.” Stolypin was shot dead by a leftist revolutionary in September 1911.

The Engine of Empire? Pavel Volkov on the Geopolitical Dimensions of the U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

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Last week, President Trump reaffirmed that his administration would move to withdraw the United States of America from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change pending the renegotiation of a “better deal” more amenable to American business interests. Though Trump’s announcement was generally met with dismay around the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reaction was, characteristically, hard to parse.

Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (PMEF) last Friday, Putin, citing unseasonable weather in Moscow, quipped that: “We [in Russia] should be grateful to President Trump. They say it has been snowing in Moscow, and it is raining here [in St. Petersburg], all around things are very cold. Now we can blame all of this on him [Trump] and American imperialism. But we won’t do that.”

Though likely intended as a cutting joke at Washington’s expense, Putin’s cheeky invocation of ‘imperialism’ in relation to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement nevertheless appears to have gained traction among some of the more serious-minded members of Russia’s media intelligentsia. A prime example is that of Vzglyad columnist Pavel Volkov, who last week penned an article regarding said withdrawal under the questioning headline, “Does a World of Coal and Steel Await Us?”

Published the same day as Putin’s jocular address to PMEF, Volkov’s article frames the Trump White House’s rejection of the Paris Agreement as a disavowal of the process of globalization embraced and promoted by previous administrations. On the face of it, this apparent retreat from ‘globalist politics’ on the part of the United States dovetails neatly with Putin’s putative ambition of restoring Russia to the status of a ‘great power’.

This ambition naturally hinges on Russia’s ability to pursue its national interests free of outside interference; as such, each failure of truly global, multilateral diplomacy (such as that which led to the Paris Agreement in the first place) ostensibly marks an opportunity whereby Russia may resume pursuing its own national interests free of external constraints imposed by groups of other, ‘lesser’ powers.

But back to Volkov.

Volkov imputes a strategic dimension behind Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement. By returning to the model of unhindered industrial growth which fuelled American prosperity after World War 2, Volkov argues, Trump believes the United States can regain an edge over its principal economic and geopolitical rival – namely, China.

Whether Trump actually believes that easing restrictions on fossil fuels and other industrial pollutants will provide an advantage to the United States is, of course, a matter of debate. Whatever the case may be, Volkov construes Trump’s rejection of the global consensus on climate change in explicitly geopolitical terms.

Volkov opens his article by citing early 20th-century Marxist Karl Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism‘, which holds that competition amongst capitalist empires proceeds inevitably to the emergence of a single victor enjoying global hegemony. He suggests that this theory was vindicated briefly by the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Volkov contends that the emergence of China and the European Union as global powers at the turn of the 21st-century brought an abrupt end to America’s hegemony, and ushered in a new era of imperial competition. Faced with declining living standards and the prospect of civil unrest as a result of its inability to cope with these new geopolitical circumstances, he writes, the United States has found itself left with “nothing to turn to other to than the classics – in other words, to return to industrialization.”

At the same time, Volkov questions whether such a return is even possible, let alone desirable, in light of advances in smart technologies and the advent of service-oriented economies. Meanwhile, various regional powers are “already demanding to recut the pie”, with China, in particular, increasingly laying claim to America’s superpower legacy.

In this sense, Volkov appears to insinuate that the process of competition for ultra-imperialistic hegemony has begun anew. Nevertheless, the apparent fact of this process alone does not necessarily re-validate Krautsky’s theory of capitalist ‘ultra-imperialism’.

To demonstrate his point, Volkov cites Vladimir Lenin’s introduction to fellow Bolshevik Nikolai Bukharin’s 1914 work Imperialism and World Economy. Lenin maintained that although the European empires of his day were certainly developing “in the direction” of ultra-imperialism, such development took place with great conflict and upheaval, leading it to collapse under the weight of its own political, national, and economic contradictions.

With respect to this latter point, Volkov notes that the project of globalization has not been without its own share of “conflict and upheaval”. Yet far from perceiving an opportunity for socioeconomic revolution, he appears to see in this chaos an opening through which Russia might assert its own national interests. Just as China appears to be angling to supplant America’s position at the forefront of global leadership, so Russia seems to be eagerly carving out a niche for itself on the world stage. “Whether [Russia] will succeed in this effort is not clear,” Volkov writes, “though the process itself is obvious.”

There can be little doubt that the Trump White House’s renunciation of the Paris Agreement has struck a significant blow to America’s reputation as a reliable diplomatic partner. Insofar as he couches his assessment of this development in terms of the broader “collapse of the globalist project”, Volkov sees the one as complementing the other.

In this sense, America’s exit from the Paris Agreement certainly does not detract from the Kremlin’s long-term strategic interests. Indeed, with Washington out of the picture, Moscow is also under less pressure to fulfill its own obligations under the Paris Agreement, freeing it to focus on the extraction and export of fossil fuels – a mainstay of Russia’s economy, not to mention an essential component of its geopolitical strategy. As such while the fate of the Paris Agreement remains to be seen, for the time being, the geopolitical climate appears to be changing in Moscow’s favor.

Meet the Next Russian Ambassador to the United States

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Yesterday, the International Affairs Committee of the State Duma of the Russian Federation (i.e. the lower house of Russia’s parliament) reportedly endorsed the candidacy of career diplomat Anatoly Ivanovich Antonov for the post of Ambassador to the United States. Rumors of Antonov’s candidacy first emerged this past February through the Russian business newspaper Kommersant.

Earlier in the week Russian wire agency RIA Novosti also reported that the International Affairs Committee of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation (i.e., the upper house of Russia’s parliament) would review the Antonov’s candidacy for the post of Russian Ambassador to the United States on May 22nd. If approved – and there is little reason to suspect he will not be – Antonov will replace Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, the current Russian Ambassador to the United States and a central figure in the ongoing “Russiagate” scandal.

Rumor has it that the Kremlin is removing Kislyak because of his connection to the aforementioned imbroglio. The Russian Embassy in the United States has so far kept mostly quiet on the matter, save for resident press secretary Nikolay Lakhonin, who jibed that “fake news in the U.S. has zero influence on [the] decision-making process in Russia.” Nevertheless, certain aspects of Antonov’s professional background indicate that his candidacy may be intended to ‘reset’ Moscow’s relations with Washington – though strictly on Moscow’s terms.

Antonov appears to have been born on 15 May 1955 in the southwestern Siberian city of Omsk. He reportedly obtained the equivalents of a master’s degree in economics and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1983 and 1978, respectively. In 1978, he joined the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reportedly serving in various unspecified diplomatic and central administrative postings. Antonov stayed on with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) during and after its reorganization into an organ of the Russian Federation.

Between 2002 and 2004, Antonov served as MFA’s diplomat-at-large, and from 2004 to 2011 headed MFA’s Department of Security and Disarmament Issues. During this latter period, Antonov led Russian delegations in negotiations aimed at halting the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and participated in negotiations with the United States for the third Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (“New START”).

In February 2011, Antonov was appointed by presidential decree to the post of Deputy Minister of Defense. In this capacity, Antonov liaisoned with diplomats and military attaches from such countries as ArgentinaBotswanaChina, GermanyItaly, JapanLaosThailand, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam, as well as represented Russia at gatherings of defense ministers from various Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SOC) member states. On 18 December 2016, Antonov was appointed by presidential decree to the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, wherein his responsibilities reportedly pertained to unspecified political and military matters.

Antonov’s nomination has been applauded inside Russia as a necessary corrective to Kislyak’s now-tainted brand. Professor Andrey Anatolyevich Sidorov of the Moscow State University Department of International Politics framed his praise of Antonov in strictly pragmatic terms: “With all due respect to Kislyak […] he is a very controversial and ambiguous person in eyes of the US establishment. As for Antonov […] he is a veteran diplomat whose relationship with US leadership will be made easier due to the absence of all the ideological ‘baggage’ associated with Kislyak.”

Indeed, Antonov himself spoke out on Thursday of the need to reset US-Russian relations: “A great task is ahead of us – namely, to rectify the current situation. No one is talking about abandoning their own positions. We need to convince our colleagues in the United States that good-neighborly, equal, and mutually respectful relations are in the best interests of the Russian and American peoples.” Building on this point, Antonov furthermore affirmed his belief that Moscow and Washington “are positively fated to positive cooperation” on such issues as counterterrorism and counterproliferation.

Amiable though these sentiments may seem, they are not without certain political calculations. For the past two decades, Russia has reached out to the United States time again and time again to cooperate on security issues, both to advance its own security interests and to secure recognition from one global power to another. And, time and time again, these overtures have been rebuffed for the simple reason that Washington and Moscow hold fundamentally divergent strategic objectives.

At one point, Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US Presidency perhaps may have indicated to Moscow that change was afoot. Indeed, on the campaign trail, Trump on more than one occasion suggested that he would be open to partnering with Russia to combat the Islamic State. These intimations no doubt piqued Moscow’s interest, and it is worth pondering whether the Kremlin singled out Antonov to help facilitate such an alliance.

Antonov in the past has voiced his willingness to partner with the United States and its partners on counterterrorism. Yet suffice it to say that such overtures have tended to overlook how such cooperation might end up working at cross-purposes with US interests. More often than not, Antonov has shown himself to be more interested in elevating Russia’s operational profile than in seeking practical avenues for cooperation.

In October 2016, for example, Antonov voiced disappointment in the United States for not responding to Russian requests to coordinate air strikes in Syria: “A hundred times we asked our American colleagues, ‘where should we bomb?’ or ‘where should we not bomb?’ And the answer was always silence.” Never mind that by providing such intelligence to Moscow, Washington would risk exposing its partners in Free Syrian Army to bombardment by Russian warplanes.

Likewise, in an April 2015 interview with RIA Novosti, Antonov bemoaned the “counterproductive” attitude adopted by the United States and NATO towards cooperation with Russia in Afghanistan – despite the fact that Russia itself had already backed out of said cooperation in reaction to Western criticism of its military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.

Antonov’s appeals for cooperation thus betoken an inequitable partnership at best. Moreover, for all his diplomatic bona fides, Antonov presents a profound reputational risk in and of himself. Most notably, in May 2015 he was subjected to sanctions by the Government of Ukraine in connection with Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. As such, by engaging Russia via Antonov, the United States is all but certain to incur the indignation of Ukraine’s pro-Western government – which may be by design.

How Antonov might conduct himself as ambassador, of course, remains to be seen. Given his professional résumé, Antonov could be just the person to help bring about a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. However, if Antonov intends to continue exhibiting bad faith in his overtures to Washington – as he has demonstrably done in the past – then he faces a very steep incline indeed. Watch this space.

Oleg Barabanov on Trump’s “Inner Circle” or, the Two-Way Street of Kremlinology

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One of the most popular narratives currently surrounding the Trump presidency is that it is an administration beset by internal power struggles. Virtually since the very day Trump was sworn into office, rumors have swirled of bitter conflict, especially between the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the reputed ‘grey eminence’ of Steve Bannon. Yet while this particular narrative has gained a great deal of traction in the American press, in Russia the purportedly fractious nature of Trump’s inner circle is understood quite differently.

Last week, the Valdai International Discussion Club – a Kremlin-organized policy forum – published an article touching on this very subject. Authored by Valdai Club program Director Oleg Nikoaleivch Barabanov, the article in question opens with a brief analysis of efforts by the US Republican Party to ‘normalize’, or rein in Trump. Displaying a keen understanding of the idiosyncratic political calculus guiding the GOP in the aforementioned endeavor, Barabanov writes:

“The urgency of this effort is rather obvious. Trump’s refusal to fall in line with the expectations of the majority of the US political and media establishment is steadily increasing. The scenario of Trump’s impeachment and removal from power is being discussed more openly. But it is also obvious that this is not only about Trump’s personal fate. The image of the Republican Party as a whole will be seriously damaged by Trump’s impeachment and by the continuation of his confrontational style of politics. This situation presents a real danger to the Republican Party ahead of next year’s midterm elections. Thus, in the opinion of influential Republican politicians and experts, it would be much better to avoid further exacerbations.”

That Trump has yet to acquiesce fully to the Republican Party goes without saying. Barabanov rightly points out that many within the GOP have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude to President Trump, with the result being that few if any Republicans have volunteered to serve in the current White House. Per Barabanov, this has resulted in a “professional vacuum” around President Trump. Yet he also contends that this vacuum has already begun to be filled – not by politicians, but by high-ranking military officers such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster.

Whereas some in the United States regard Mattis and McMaster as an “effective stabilizing force” capable of moderating Trump’s maverick foreign policy, Barabanov reasons that amidst the prevailing political confusion, “there now exists a rare window of opportunity for this same personnel to take decisive action.” In this sense, Barabanov maintains that the leadership of the US military has emerged as a distinct faction within Trump’s “inner circle.”

This notion may strike American audiences as rather odd, given that the military is generally regarded as being an apolitical institution. However, as with any government institution, the US military also has its interests of own – the most important being, according to no less an authority than the Department of Defense itself, to “provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of [the United States].”

Yet Barabanov warns that the US military’s disproportionate influence within the Trump White House betokens a broader “militarization” of US foreign policy, wherein all diplomacy – including with putative US rivals Russia and China – may be conducted from a position of force. Alluding to the positive reaction to the April 6 airstrike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield as proof, Barabanov maintains that this strategy has gained popular legitimacy, and as such predicts that Trump will continue to carry out “conspicuous demonstrations of force” in order to demonstrate his resolve to Moscow and Beijing.

Barabanov notes that the growing influence of the US military within the White House ironically threatens to undermine the very diplomatic channels through which Moscow and Washington have averted an armed confrontation in the past. Building on this point, he references rumors that Trump intends to slash the State Department’s budget by as much as a third and to pass the savings along to the Pentagon. From the Russian position, this would create an unstable and highly dangerous dynamic wherein the avenues for potential conflict vastly outnumber those for mediation and conflict resolution.

For Barabanov, this looming dynamic threatens nothing less than the disinterment of the Cold War’s worst, most unspeakable specter – namely, the scenario of nuclear war. Citing recent tensions on the Korean peninsula as an example, Barabanov suggests that the US military may be encouraging Trump to provoke the North Korean leadership into making good on its long-standing threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” with a tactical nuclear strike. In doing so, he contends, the taboo on using nuclear weapons would be lifted, thus enabling the United States to negotiate from the ultimate position of force.

The fire and brimstone in Barabanov’s hypothesis appear to stem from a very real anxiety on the part of the Russian political and national security elite. Despite the image of strength conveyed through its periodic flexes of military muscle, Russia’s conventional forces have long suffered from a surfeit of budgetary, personnel, and technical constraints. In the absence of a credible conventional deterrent such as that wielded by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the defense strategy of the Russian Federation has for many years centered on the Kremlin’s implicit willingness to introduce nuclear weapons into a conventional conflict so as to “de-escalate through escalation.” Yet such a strategy only has teeth insofar as Moscow is able to presume that the United States would not respond in kind.

Thus, if the White House were to fall under they sway of a supposedly trigger-happy “military entourage,” Russia would very likely find itself unable to assert and defend its strategic interests through the threat of a “limited” nuclear strike, as it had in the past. All of which begs the question: what is there to prevent this very same “military entourage” from influencing Trump?

According to Barabanov, the most effective counterweight may consist of that other key faction in Trump’s inner circle – namely, his own family. Barabanov notes that Trump’s kith and kin have already displaced non-systemic radicals such as Steve Bannon from the decision-making process, and implies these same family members might also serve to check the influence of the above-mentioned “military entourage”. Barabanov freely admits that Trump’s family has attracted its own share of negative media coverage, and as such would likely be unable to present an effective alternative to the US military in terms of “normalizing” Trump. Even so, he avows that these two “factions” of Trump’s inner circle are set on a collision course with each other, with potential ramifications far beyond the Oval Office:

In any case, it is plain to see that around Trump there has emerged two teams which seriously influence his strategic decision-making – namely, a clique of high-ranking military generals, and his own family. The extreme instability of the current political system could make relations between these two groups extremely conflictual and even explosive. Their battle for influence over the coming months will determine the internal dynamic of Washington’s policy.

Here it is worth pausing to reflect on this pivot in Barabanov’s analysis. In presenting the image of a White House divided between military officers and relatives of the head of state, Barabanov makes a pretense of having pulled back the curtains on the inner workings of the Trump administration. In truth, however, Barabanov shows himself to be engaging in the kind of inspired divination which has characterized so many analyses of the Trump presidency both in and out of English-language media.

As English writer and essayist Sam Kriss observed in a February 2017 article for Politico, many analyses of the Trump administration amount to a kind of “Kremlinology.” This latter term technically refers to the study of Russian politics and leadership, though it often also carries a pejorative connotation as the political science equivalent of tea leaf reading. In straining to derive meaning about an inscrutable political administration, the kremlinogist seeks out “meaningful” data in the hope that they might yield some pristine and profound peek under the proverbial hood to reveal the actual workings of power. Yet as Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations Prague noted back in August 2016, such efforts often yield “little more than a Rorschach inkblot test, telling us more about ourselves than anything else.”

In claiming that it is “plain to see” the nature of Trump’s inner circle, Barabanov does appear to be engaging in a kind of Kremlinology himself. Building on Galeotti’s Rorschach analogy, what then does Barabanov’s analysis say about his own worldview? His overarching concern with the potential influence of the Pentagon on US foreign policy, as manifested through the presence of cabinet members Mattis and McMaster, may speak to an underlying anxiety regarding Trump’s capacity to act independently of the US military and the rest of the “Washington establishment” – a byword for those inside the Beltway who assert an assertive US policy towards Russia.

More than that, however, Barabanov’s analysis evidences a sincere wish to make sense of the Trump White House. In this respect, he is not alone. But the conclusion he draws from his own assessment – that the Oval Battle is set to become a battleground between military elites and the president’s family – speaks also to a firm belief in the ability of political entourages to shape the attitudes and actions of their principals.

Bearing in this in mind, one wonders whether Barabanov and others like him in the Russian policy studies community might premise their own understanding of foreign leadership on the workings of their own political elite. Putin, after all, is also said to have a hawkish posse of his own – would it not make perfect sense for Donald Trump have one as well? Barabanov seems to concede as much, and advocates pragmatically for increased dialogue between the US and Russian militaries through official channels and informal working groups so as to “preserve bilateral relations between the US and Russia, at least at the minimum acceptable level.”

Insofar as it presents a coherent strategy for engaging the Trump White House, Barabanov’s analysis thus makes for extremely insightful reading. His vision of an Oval Office split between military officers and Trump’s family members comes so close to reflecting domestic coverage of internal White House feuds that it merits serious consideration in its own right. Yet by that same token, it deviates from these established narratives just slightly enough as to invite the possibility that Barabanov is projecting certain facets of the Kremlin’s own political culture onto the Trump White House. In this sense, Galeotti may well be vindicated in his assertion that our efforts to come to an understanding of “the other side” ultimately reveal more about ourselves than they do about the subject of inquiry.

Keep watching this space.

Translation: “Do Not Look in the Eyes” – «Не Смотри в Глаза» by Fyodor Lukyanov

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Note: The following text is an approximate translation of a 17 April 2017 op-ed in Kommersant by Chairman of the Presidium of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (Sovyet po Vneshney i Oboronnoy Politikye) Fyodor Lukyanov. In the interest of context, the translator has taken the liberty of inserting clarificatory notes offset in italics into the main body of text. The views expressed below belong solely to their original author, and do not, necessarily, reflect the personal opinions of the translator.

In an interview with the German newspaper Bild earlier this month, Mikhail Gorbachev warned of the Cold War’s return. So much is evidenced by the increasingly bellicose rhetoric used by politicians and servicemen. The term “cold war” is a term that commentators can apply to any conflict. Where the notion of “cold war” once conveyed an actual military and political threat however, overuse of the term has reduced it to a banality, not unlike cries of “Wolf! Wolf!” But Gorbachev is right – for the first time since the late 1980s, the current atmosphere has started to resemble that of the actual Cold War, though with a considerably weakened system of formal and informal security mechanisms.

Since Gorbachev changed the character of global politics with his “new political thinking”, such mechanisms have ceased to function. They have not quite been systematically rejected – indeed, despite their failings, both George W. Bush and Obama spoke of “selective engagement” and cooperation with Russia. To be sure, the path to such cooperation repeatedly ended up at a dead-end due to irreconcilable differences on certain key issues. But this does not constitute a repeat of the Cold War.

Yet by fixating on a past where “America was great”, Donald Trump has drawn closer to the spirit of the Cold War than any of his predecessors. Trump, a businessman, talks endlessly about “deals.” But his understanding of deals consists of demonstrating force (or the imitation thereof) in order to compel partners to enter into dialogue on the terms of the United States. Trump does not hide this fact. In this respect, he differs from Obama, who deployed force with reluctance and ineptitude, as well as from Bush, who loved power but grounded it nevertheless in a firm ideology.

The present inhabitant of the White House is devoid of ideologies. He possesses an instinct for battle over power and prestige (or, as he puts it, “respect”). Though such preoccupations are characteristic of international relations, in Trump’s case they are manifested in an acutely primordial form, devoid of political or diplomatic content. In this respect, Trump is similar to Nikita Khrushchev in that he intuitively grasps the essence of confrontation, yet is unencumbered by any knowledge or subtlety whatsoever.

Khrushchev was involved in the most dangerous episode of the Cold War – the Cuban Missile Crisis. That incident ended up serving as the benchmark for the establishment of institutions for civilized deterrence. Perhaps Trump will not require an analogue of this crisis. Be that as it may, the role of diplomacy under Trump has increasingly come to resemble that of an “shock absorber” for his instincts. If US politicians are unable to mitigate the commotion resulting from Trump’s behavior, then US diplomats should act as safety fuses.

The ridiculous invective earlier this month by the deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations – in which which he commanded his British counterpart, Matthew Rycroft, to “look [him] in the eyes” after the latter condemned Russia for its continued support of Damascus in the wake of the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack – was said to be wrong not only in terms of form, but also in terms of essence. The task of diplomacy is not to adapt to the irresponsible tone of politicians, but to resist it. “Look me in the eyes!” – this is no more than an invitation to a staring contest, where the first to blink, loses. More and more politicians are being drawn into this game. For diplomats, it is more important to deal with one another, to focus on avoiding collision rather than staring one another down – failing which, diplomacy loses all meaning, since heads of states are generally better at playing such games than are their foreign ministers.

А Foreward – Предисловие

Welcome to the Hall of Mirrors, a weekly digest of recent developments in US-Russia relations as depicted through the lens of Russian-language media and analysis. The name of this blog is a reference to the concept of “mirror imaging,” a subtle form of cognitive bias wherein one draws upon personal experiences and preconceived notions in order to analyze an unfamiliar subject. Mirror imaging often emerges against a backdrop of incomplete data, as the human mind tends to fill in the gaps with preconceptions and personal prejudices when otherwise starved of credible information.

The current state of US-Russia relations – or rather, the public discourse surrounding it – presents an excellent case study of mirror imaging in action. The belief that Washington and Moscow are today engaged in a “new cold war” has gained a great deal of traction in recent years as the Kremlin has embraced an increasingly assertive foreign policy, which has frequently placed it at cross-purpose with the Euro-Atlantic community. Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election has further strengthened this notion, giving credence to the belief that the Kremlin seeks to undermine the US at home as well as abroad.

Yet while all available evidence indicates that a geopolitical confrontation of some kind is indeed underway between Washington and Moscow, relatively few English-language analysts have attempted to understand the deterioration in US-Russia relations from the Russian perspective. This situation is made all the more dire by the concurrent decline in funding for Russian studies at universities across the US; indeed, as one US academician recently confided to noted political scientist and Kremlinologist Andrew Kuchins, today “Russians know more about us than we know about them.”

This lack of comparative analysis is unfortunate, since anyone seeking to make sense of Russian foreign policy towards the U.S. must first appreciate the various ideas and preconceived notions that inform how Kremlin policymakers interpret U.S. actions and declarations. As Ellen Mickiewicz notes in the introduction to her 2014 book No Illusions: The Voices of Russia’s Young Leaders,

“In the international arena what comes from America is split – just the way light is split through a prism – into all kinds of directions and colors. […] Foreign policy moves and statements go out to other countries, but they are bent upon reception in their own ways. It is just a fact of trying to communicate; what gets to the receiver is subject to all of the receiver’s ways of looking at things and the deep, deep roots of history and culture”

Building on Mickiewicz’s optical metaphor, the Hall of Mirrors aims to serve as a resource for those who are interested in studying the combined historical and cultural lens through which contemporary Russians both in and out of government perceive the US and its various foreign polices. To that end, this blog will draw extensively upon news and analysis from a variety of Russian-language sources, regardless of their particular ideological affiliation. As such, even purveyors of so-called “fake news,” like RT (formerly Russia Today), will be subject to interpretation; after all, when recognized and assessed rationally, propaganda can provide tremendous insight into the attitudes and intentions of its political patrons.

As the author and curator of this blog, I will seek to provide challenging analyses grounded in well-cited research, and will do my utmost to suspend personal opinions in favor of more nuanced discussion. Yet while complete objectivity is a noble academic aspiration, it is seldom attained by individual quality control alone, and requires a meeting of minds. For this reason, I encourage readers of this blog to relay their feedback (along with other, more general questions and comments) to zalzerkal@gmail.com.