Russia Overestimates American Strategic Ingenuity

The Russians never fail to attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, meets with American defense officials at the Pentagon in Washington DC, May 21, 2013
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, meets with American defense officials at the Pentagon in Washington DC, May 21, 2013 (USMC/Sergeant Aaron Hostutler)

In an interview with the state newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that was translated by Russia Insider, former spy chief Nikolai Patrushev, who is now President Vladimir Putin’s top security advisor, blames the United States for instigating “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and engineering the overthrow of the relatively pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine in February.

Such claims are hardly surprising. Two years ago, Putin himself said the West was using pro-democracy organizations as a lever of “soft power” in the former Soviet sphere in order to “reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence.”

Russia later expelled international nongovernmental organizations that worked to promote democracy and transparency in the country.

But Patrushev goes further. After attempting to rewrite history by claiming that NATO was formed against the Soviet Union rather than in response to its de facto annexation of Eastern Europe and saying the United States manipulated oil prices in the 1980s to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, the old KGB man insists American policy toward Russia hasn’t changed. Patrushev believes the aim of American strategy is to maintain its preponderance in world affairs “by means of the strategic containment of the growing influence of the Russian Federation and other centers of power.”

Putin hasn’t quite made such outrageous claims although he came close in a March statement to parliament, following Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. He complained at the time that Western powers had “lied to [Russia] many times” and made decisions behind its back. He said, “we have every reason to assume that the infamous policy of containment, led in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, continues today.”

Patrushev and Putin read far too much into Western policy, however.

To the extent that the United States worry about the rise of an alternative world order (and both America and Russia are courting China to subscribe to their respective notions of what that order should be), Patrushev doesn’t seem to have noticed that the Americans spent much of the last twenty years trying to enlist Russia in its world order.

Certainly American policy hasn’t always been clever in bringing that about. The United States and their European allies underestimated Russia’s insecurity complex, formed especially by its devastating experience in World War II, and unwisely expanded NATO without involving Russia in a genuine pan-European security arrangement that it said it wanted.

But the Russian error is to attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity. If Patrushev and Putin believe NATO’s post-Cold War expansion was part of an effort to forestall Russia’s reemergence as a global challenger to American hegemony, they not only overestimate their own country’s power (and altogether ignore the agency of former Soviet republics and satellite states that still feared Russia); they underestimate Americans’ capacity for shortsightedness and the extent to which their desire to “do the right thing” informs their relations with other countries.

Or as Edward P. Joseph, a senior fellow and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, put it in The National Interest earlier this year, “To insist otherwise, as NATO expansion critics do, is to impute a masterful clairvoyance and Machiavellian duplicity on the part of American and European leaders in the early 1990s, which they simply did not possess.”

Patrushev is right about one thing. “The Americans are convinced that people must be thinking in similar terms in many other states, particularly those neighboring on Russia,” he says, referring to the American tendency to interpret anti-government protests everywhere as a call for democracy and freedom.

But Patrushev is guilty of the very thing he accuses his imagined adversaries of. He assumes that because he doesn’t care about anything but great-power politics, neither must they. He assumes that when he obsesses over grand strategy and balance of power, so must the Americans. Most of what America does suggests the very opposite. American foreign policy largely lacks the realist dimension that altogether consumes Russian foreign policy. Failing to recognize as much is surely a huge strategic blunder — perhaps for both sides.

Comments

  • Stupidity is not an excuse. There is saying in Russian:” The fools is more dangerous then an enemy” It applies in either case either malice or stupidity it is still dangerous.

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