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Moscow makes surprise moves. Moscow says one thing and does another. Moscow invades neighboring countries and wrecks relationships with yesterday’s friends. There is something there that does not love quiet and sustainable development in Russia, neither economic nor political.

Conjecture about some meaningful driver of Russian behavior has been common among both foreign watchers of Russia and Russians themselves. Kremlin supporters (and “understanders”, or Russland versteher, for that matter) say whatever it is—a doctrine, a belief, or a set of values—it is a force that has to be reckoned with. Others say whatever it is—an idea of Russian ethnic supremacy, a political expansionist agenda, or corruption—it is a dark force that should be contained and neutralized. The problem is, it is hard to tell whether the Kremlin is being rational or ideological. 

It is neither strategic-minded, nor tactical; neither realist, nor ideological. It prefers to freeze any development rather than develop in any direction.

Realists vs. Ideologues

If coldblooded realists ruled Moscow, they would not annex a part of a neighboring country’s territory. Russia has one of the longest land borders in the world (second only to China’s), and there are some vagarious and rogue players—both state and non-state—sitting along those borders. Why create such a dangerous precedent in one’s own backyard?

If hotheaded ideologues ruled Moscow, they would have annexed more than just one peninsula. If the “Russian World” idea (conspicuously reminiscent of the German concept of Volk) was to be believed, Russia would have to go for Northern Kazakhstan, the Baltic countries and wherever else sizable Russian-speaking minorities are found. The Kremlin has not done this and talk of the Russian World is, by now, all but abandoned.

Admittedly, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council and a rumored big influence in the Kremlin, recently resurrected the notion that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people/Volk.” “It is one people that lives in the Russian Federation and Ukraine that has so far stayed divided [by a border],” he said. “The normal relationship between our countries will one day be re-established.” The “one people” phrase is not likely to cause much excitement among Ukrainians of any conviction. In fact, it has long become such an irritant that Patrushev’s pronouncements can only further alienate Ukrainians.

Other than repeating the “one people” phrase, the Kremlin is avoiding the use of the Russia World rhetoric. Moreover, it is actively fighting nationalist movements domestically. “While still shouting about the Russian World, the Kremlin has actually demolished the entire Russian nationalist (национальное) movement,” said Dmitry Demushkin, a well-known nationalist leader, in an interview in January.

Even if the Kremlin was just using a vision of ethnic solidarity as a tool to consolidate domestic support, its manipulative approach has already backfired. It has hurt another project that had been presented as strategic: a Eurasian union. Trust between Russia and Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and even Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, is said to have been fatally undermined. While the Eurasian integration project is a product of realistic thinking, ethnic solidarity is ideological. The two clearly contradict each other.

Strategists vs. Tacticians

For years, Turkey was Russia’s ally and a crucial partner in Moscow’s grand energy scheming. But once a Turkish missile hit a Russian warplane near the Syrian border, the relationship soured to the point of becoming destructive to both economies. The president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was portrayed as a friend and a counterbalance to a deceitful West, became himself “a liar” and a NATO helper, first and foremost.

A year ago, Turkey was Russia’s fifth largest trade partner. These days, Turkish business prospects in Russia are unclear because Moscow keeps toughening sanctions. Some sectors, like tourism and agricultural imports from Turkey, are off limits altogether, others are becoming difficult. The construction industry will soon be covered by sanctions as well. Turkish companies boasted a 35-percent share of the Russian construction market in 2014. It went down in 2015, but is now going to shrink to zero.

Once the balance tips too much toward either of those extremes, Moscow starts to feel insecure.

If the Turkey relationship was strategic, why scrap it as if no such strategy ever existed? The relationship was clearly a product of realist thinking. Is the fallout the product of ideological thinking? The two clearly stand in each other’s way. Again, is Moscow being rational or ideological?

The war with Ukraine and the broken relationship with Turkey are just two of the most recent and best-known examples of Russia’s inconsistencies. On numerous occasions, Moscow officials proclaimed the primacy of domestic economic development, but Russia’s corrupt security agencies, which are the main challenge to many businesses, have never been restrained. Domestic economic policies are good neither for the country’s development, nor for sustained personal enrichment.

The Russian Center

Again and again the question arises: are Russia’s policy decisions ultimately derived from irrational or rational motives? Does the Kremlin pursue a consistent ideology that has to be understood, or is it simply corrupt and, therefore, does not care about lofty ideas? The evidence is, as we have seen, contradictory.

My personal take on this perennial question is that the very contradiction between realism and ideology is inherent to Russia’s political system. Although there are many corrupt officials in Russia, corruption is not Moscow’s main driver. Although there are many convinced nationalists among Russia’s ruling groups, nationalism is not Moscow’s main driver either. The same goes for strategic and tactical thinking; for liberalizing and statist tendencies in domestic economic policy; for realism and expansionism in Russia’s foreign policy.

The reason for this deep-seated indecision is the fact that Moscow is apparently unable to make an ultimate choice in any of the dichotomies I mentioned. Once the balance tips too much toward either of those extremes, Moscow starts to feel insecure. It is scary to grant too much authority to corrupt officials despite the fact that they are all good friends of the leader. It is scary to grant too much authority to honest brokers because they are too few and would alienate all those corrupt officials who are all good friends of the leader.

It is scary to give too much sway to autonomous institutions, including electoral ones, because things might slip out of control. Getting rid of elections would be extreme, but allowing the incumbent to be voted down is extreme too. The system might become insecure, and keeping the system secure (or frozen, which is closer to the point) is the first commandment of the Kremlin’s credo.

Russia’s sense of insecurity, about which George Kennan once wrote, has led to the creation of a “political center,” of sorts. The extremes of the Russian political scene are not left-wing and right-wing parties; not even conservatives and liberals. At one extreme there are corrupt cynics, at the other there are Soviet-trained security specialists, economists and demagogues. The latter are the people that are considered “idealists” in today’s Kremlin. A center that is drawn between such extremes is inevitably indecisive and unproductive. It is neither strategic-minded, nor tactical; neither realist, nor ideological. It prefers to freeze any development rather than develop in any direction.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. 

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File,
Editor-at-Large, Vedomosti Daily

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more