The Foreign Service Journal, March 2020

36 MARCH 2020 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL The Primacy of the State American diplomats intent on understanding Russia would probably appreciate the primacy of the state in Russian collec- tive experience and thinking. They might even gain the insight that while foreign invasions—Napoleon’s in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941 immediately come to mind—were disasters on a scale unimaginable by most Americans (the war to push back and defeat the Nazis alone cost 26-28 million lives of a total Russian population of about 200 million), domestic chaos on account of the failure of the rulers of the day to control the vast country and manage popular discontent was far worse, leading to the collapse of the state, the economy, international standing and public morals at least three times: in the early 17th century, in 1917 and, most recently, in 1991. An uncanny capacity for self-destruction has brought Russia over the precipice several times in the course of the country’s history. Yet each time Russia was able to make a comeback—in a somewhat different form and shape, usually repudiating its previous incarnation, but soon proving to be its former self’s rightful heir in more ways than one. There is a continuum of Rus- sian history from ancient Rus of Novgorod and Kiev to the grand duchy and later czardom of Muscovy, to the Russian empire of St. Petersburg, and on to the Soviet Union and the present-day Russian Federation. A resurgent Russia is not unusual; it is a time-tested historical phenomenon. Keeping this in mind, Americans dealing with Russia would not be surprised by the near-absolute priority of domestic stabil- ity and external security considerations in successive Russian governments’ policies. Understanding that the Russian people spent 250 years under the yoke of Mongol rule, these American diplomats would not be surprised by the stubborn prevalence of Asian political culture in contemporary Russia. Nor would they be surprised—looking at the plains to the west of Moscow stretching all the way to Berlin and Paris, and the steppes popu- lated by nomadic warriors all the way to the Caspian and Central Asia to the southeast—by the profound sense of insecurity shared by all Russian leaders or by their need for rapid mobiliza- tion of available resources. Students of Russian politics and history would probably have to conclude that the roots of Russian autocracy run very deep, and that replacing them with a democratic model cannot be an easy task. The task is not made any easier by the extent to which sheer survival has been the country’s top concern histori- cally and, in light of that, the relatively secondary importance attached to economic and trade issues and even the population’s living standards. This does not close the path to representative government accountable to the people, but it does suggest that a successful model can only arise indigenously rather than be imported. The Roots of Russian Realpolitik Those looking at Russia’s foreign relations would soon dis- cover that the country is essentially a loner. It is not part of any international large family, whether Europe, the Atlantic commu- nity or the West. Asians do not recognize Russia as Asian, either. Its identity is distinct and unique. At bottom, it is ethnically mainly Eastern Slavic, but culturally most profoundly affected by Christian orthodoxy. For centuries after the fall of Constan- tinople, Russia was the only independent Eastern Orthodox nation in the world, standing between the Catholic and Muslim- dominated worlds. Another highly relevant layer was added by Russia’s imperial experience. Its contiguous empire stretched at some point from Finland’s Aland Islands just off Stockholm to Alaska, and from northern Persia to northeastern China. As it expanded, Russia incorporated vast areas populated by Turkic, Finno-Ugric and Mongol peoples, as well as a plethora of ethnic communities in the Caucasus and elsewhere, to create a highly diverse impe- rial polity, where religious and cultural diversity was usually preserved. While deeply involved in European power politics, Russia was also playing a “Great Game” against the British empire in Asia. The Soviet period added a revolutionary fervor that set Russia apart from the rest of the world. This was followed by superpower rivalry, which brought both true globalism and an Iron Curtain. Now, with the Soviet Union and superpower status gone, Moscow is back on its feet, globally active again, but also virtually alone in the world. This proud but precarious stance makes it imperative that Russia handle itself—and be seen by others—as a great power. This is particularly important because Russia has often been coming from behind, and was looked down on by the more Ukraine’s movement away from Russia represents a most difficult and painful divorce within the core of the historical Russian state. As such, it is only partly a foreign policy matter.