Leon Aron recently penned an article for Foreign Affairs in which he attempted to diagnose the "Putin doctrine” and distinguish it from the foreign policy calculus that operated under Yeltsin. It’s not exactly shocking that Aron and I see many of the issues differently, but I found the article particularly interesting because unlike many conservative attempts to analyze Putin or Putinism, it started off with an extremely smart and accurate interpretation of the realities of Russian foreign policy. Even more interestingly, Aron ends up advocating a position, a strategic "pause” with the Russians, that I find perfectly appropriate and defensible.
But if I agree with most of Aron’s framing and also with his conclusion, then what can I possibly hope to add? Well I think Aron’s article is important primarily because it highlights a sort of Washington Consensus in RussianPolicy: the idea that we oppose certain aspects of Russian foreign policy because of "democracy” and "values.” I want to push back against this idea because I think it’s incredibly self-serving and, more importantly than that, inaccurate. But I want to do this not by getting all wee wee’d up and antagonistic but by citing Aron’s own analysis and drawing some logical conclusions.
At the beginning of the article, Aron says the following (emphasis added):
Much in Russian foreign policy today is based on a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse, this consensus ranges across the political spectrum — from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: that Russia must remain a nuclear superpower, a great power in all facets of international activity, and the hegemon — the political, military, and economic leader — of its region. This consensus marks a line in the sand, beyond which Russia cannot retreat without losing its sense of pride or even national identity. It has proven remarkably resilient, surviving post-revolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin.
This is extremely well-said and its overall point, that counties tend to set their foreign policies not based on the political values that happen to be in vogue at a given point in time but by enduring calculations of national interests that often survive even the most extreme political turbulence, is clearly an accurate one. Daniel Larison makes the argument better than most, but the simple fact is that very few countries, even supposedly ideological and irrational actors such as Iran, pursue "values based” foreign policies. And as I have noted previously, many of Putin’s supposedly most reprehensible foreign policy decisions, such as his decision to block any attempted Western intervention in Syria, are actually quite popular among ordinary Russians.
But what is most fascinating to me is that Aron precisely diagnoses why the United States and Russia are fated to have such tense relations and why they will always be at loggerheads when it comes to foreign policy regardless of how democratic or authoritarian the Russian government is: Russia wants to be the hegemon of its region.* This is something that the United States, at least with its current foreign policy consensus, can never allow. In case we forget, Russia is now bordered by several countries that the United States is treaty-bound to defend, countries that, from a military standpoint, are just as dear to us as American soil. If Russia wants to try to dominate the Baltics, and Aron accurately notes that the desire to control the "near abroad” is one that spans the Russian political spectrum, this automatically puts the United States and Russia in conflict. After all, if a security alliance with the United States means anything it certainly means that a member state is free from the sort of hegemonic muscle-flexing that the Russians are so keen on. "Russian regional hegemony” and "NATO” are two things that just don’t sit very well together.
Aron spends a lot of time diagnosing the supposedly unique ills of Putinism and describing the Russian regime’s by now all too familiar litany of crimes. But he never answers, or even attempts to answer, the question that most obviously arises from his analysis: how would the United States make peace with with a deliberately hegemonic Russian foreign policy? I think the answer is very clear: it can’t. There is simply no way to square the circle of an American foreign policy designed around "global leadership” and a Russian foreign policy premised on "regional hegemony.” These two things just don’t fit together, something that is true completely independent of the Russian regime’s democratic or autocratic credentials. The two ideas are, unfortunately in a zero-sum conflict. Either the United States allows the Russians a sort of "Monroe doctrine” for the near abroad, or the Russians give up on the attempt to exert hegemony throughout the post-Soviet space. But if neither side changes its approach, if the United States continues to view any attempt by a non-aligned power to exert regional influence as a threat to be countered and if Russia continues to believe that it has the final say on the economic and political trajectory of its neighbors, then conflict is inevitable.
So while he intended to shine a spotlight on the unique ills of Putinism, Aron actually did a very fine job of highlighting precisely why the United States and Russia are fated to be at loggerheads: because the Russians, and not just Putin and his silovik cronies but a broad swathe of the political elite, still think that they are entitled to a privileged position of regional leadership. Perhaps the Russians will eventually lose enthusiasm for acting as a regional hegemon, but until they do Russia and the United States will find themselves in conflict. Certain policies, such as the reset, might be able to ameliorate this conflict and bring it within more reasonable bounds, but nothing will "fix” or "end” it.
* I don’t want to spend too much time on it, but I confess that I found myself shaking my head when Aron said that Putin’s "innovation” was to try to recover all of the Soviet Union’s former strategic assets. If Russia wants to be the hegemon of its region, and Aron accurately notes that this desire predates Putin’s arrival in the presidency and represents a broad consensus among Russians, how could it possibly hope to accomplish this without recovering many of the Soviet Union’s former assets? Doesn’t one (wanting to be a hegemon) necessarily lead to the other? What would a hegemonic policy that simultaneously refrained from dealing with the Soviet interference even look like?