Russian analyst: Moscow believes Washington is gripped by ‘strategic insanity’

March 19, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

I'm skeptical that anyone outside of the Kremlin could diagnose its view of American foreign policy with real certainty, but Fyodor Lukyanov is probably about as close as an outside observer can get. He's the editor of a journal called Russia in Global Affairs, which is published in partnership with Foreign Affairs, and he sits on all sorts of foreign policy councils in Russia. So, while his estimation of Moscow's viewpoint is drawn in part from imperfect inference, it's probably still got some truth so it.

According to Lukyanov's latest article in Al-Monitor, an assessment of the lessons that he believes Russia drew from the Iraq war that began 10 years ago, President Vladimir Putin and his government are convinced that U.S. foreign policy is basically running on madness at this point. Here's a snip, with my emphasis added, from Lukyanov's article:

The conclusions drawn by Putin from the situation surrounding Iraq were concerned less with Russian-American relations, and more with general idea of how the world works in the twenty-first century. The strong do what they want: they don't contemplate international law, global reality or the costs incurred by themselves and others. ...

In the 10 years since the Iraq war, Putin's worldview has only strengthened and expanded. Now he believes that the strong not only do what they want, but also fail to understand what they do. From Russian leadership's point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that's happened since — including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, U.S. policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria — serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

Russia’s persistence on the Syrian issue is the product of this perception. The issue is not sympathy for Syria's dictator, nor commercial interests, nor naval bases in Tartus. Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy,” it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. It's therefore necessary for Russia to resist, especially as the West and the United States themselves experience increasing doubts.

There's a certain logic to this conclusion. If Putin believes in the "might makes right" school of hyper-realist foreign policy; and particularly if he starts from the assumption (as global leaders so often do) that all countries make big decisions like his does, which in Russia's case means top-down dictates, then it would make sense to assume that the United States invaded Iraq and then intervened in Libya because Washington uniformly agreed that this would provide immediate dividends for America.

But, by this metric, the decisions don't make much sense at all. If the United States invaded Iraq to secure its oil, then why did it put that oil on the global market? Why try to prop up a democratic system that is much more likely to empower groups that aren't friendly to American interests? Why did the United States make such a big, costly push in Iraq and then, a few years later, work so hard to pull out and leave the country more or less to its devices? Why, years later, did the United States intervene in Libya, toppling a reliably subservient dictatorship, allowing Islamists, who are not necessarily so friendly to the West, so much more power?

If you're in Washington, then you can answer these questions, even if you don't necessarily agree with those answers, because you understand that different actors within the decision-making bodies hold not just different ideas but different ideologies, that there are realists somewhat like Putin (though they're more akin to Henry Kissinger, of course) as well as idealists, also known as liberals, who look at the world very differently. And you'd understand how and why Washington-as-institution would commit so overwhelmingly in 2003 to a war that, by 2009, it was working hard to dismantle.

From the outside, maybe it's understandable why that might look like "strategic insanity." Of course, American foreign policy analysts might say the same thing about Russian foreign policy. Moscow, after all, is working hard to aid the Syrian regime, which is killing so many of its own people in an increasingly brutal civil war that may well be precipitating the country's disastrous collapse, which could help empower exactly the sort of militant extremism that Moscow appears to be so worried about. One country's carefully calculated foreign policy, the lesson seems to be, is another's "strategic insanity."

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Max Fisher | March 19, 2013