The race for public enemy number one is currently a nail-biter. The infamous “Russia investigation” continues, President Trump and Kim Jong-Un continue to play verbal tennis, and Iran announces its test of a medium-range ballistic missile capable of hitting Israel. And although the latter turned out to be fake news from Iranian state media, it still prompted a twitter takedown of the Iran deal by the Commander in Chief. The international political system seems like a confusing, nuclear-armed circus accelerating into a soon-to-be deadly spiral. Why does Russia continuously act so belligerent towardsthe United States? And what does it mean when Kim Jong-Un calls Donald Trump a “dotard”? The former is explainable through international relations theory. The latter is uncharted territory, and is perhaps too confusing to begin to delve into.
Through the case of Russia, we can explain characteristics of the international system as well as reasonable assumptions about where Russia’s behavior will be heading in the near future. Reacting to international news is not enough; one must be proactive in defining methods of analysis to digest the constant flow information from news sources. Utilizing the analysis framework known as the “strategic perspective,” there are three essential assumptions to consider:
-A leader's top priority is to stay in power
-Domestic politics and foreign policy are inextricably linked
-Relations between nations and between leaders are driven by strategic considerations
Through the strategic perspective, we can understand seemingly basic, yet fundamental, ideas about how international relations works. However, there is one more assumption we need to understand before moving forward to analyzing real world problems. Simplifying the world into two types of governments, autocrats and democrats, highlights that these entities function in different ways. We will focus in on one main difference, however. In autocracies, the leader is beholden to a small group of people in order to retain power, called a “winning coalition”, while democratic leaders are beholden to a large winning coalition. Due to the sheer number of people in their winning coalitions, democrats typically win elections through offering public goods, like tax breaks or infrastructure spending. Autocrats keep their winning coalitions loyal through private goods, such as cash or houses. This is exactly why democracies have more rights, because freedoms are public goods, and democratic leaders will be incentivized to increase citizen freedoms in the hopes of being reelected. Likewise, autocracies will tend to have lesser rights because leaders do not need to appeal to the masses for reelection. Freedoms of the assembly and the like can lead to dissent, which is why these freedoms are not common in autocratic countries.
Through the strategic perspective’s three assumptions and understanding the different political realities in autocracies and democracies, Russia’s political actions can be thoroughly and properly analyzed.
Russian Analysis Overview
Analyzing Russia’s actions and the reasons for such actions allows us to investigate what is truly going on in Russia, and how they are likely to act in the near future. However, it is important to keep this analysis logic-based. When Senator John McCain stated that “Vladimir Putin is a thug, and a murderer, and a killer, and a KGB agent” he was merely playing good political theatre, not conducting a proper logical analysis. Putin may very well be all of those things; however, emotional statements like that should not concern us as we move forward in our analysis.
As we are looking to give a simple projection of Russia’s likely actions in the near future, we should analyze contemporary actions. In general, we will be covering 2014’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s involvement in Syria starting in 2015, and Russia’s alleged election hacking during the 2016 United States presidential election.
Noting that Vladimir Putin’s primary objective is to stay in power, it would behoove him to keep money-making ventures open for business. Revolution in Ukraine resulted in the ousting of the pro-Russian government in lieu of a pro-American government. This led to a strategic quandary: one of Russia’s only three warm-water ports in the world was, and continues to be, located in Crimea, and its existence could be in danger should the pro-American government close the port. Russia acted quickly and annexed Crimea to the chagrin of Western powers; however, it was a move that removed Western leverage over the Russian government. The port in Crimea holds great economic and military importance and ultimately, that is why Putin acted in Ukraine. Strategically speaking, this move also improves Russia’s control on their sphere of influence and allows Putin the ability to have an aggressive foreign policy. Victories on the foreign policy front are of utmost importance when politics becomes tough domestically.
Russia is heavily dependent on the oil market as it is a major exporter, which is why they’ve retained the port in Ukraine. As of 2016, Russia was the top crude oil producer and second largest exporter in the world. Russia’s economy is strongly correlated to crude oil prices, as is observed below.
GDP is a metric that measures how the Russian economy is performing, which mostly affects Russia’s citizens not in Vladimir’s winning coalition. As Russia is more autocratic, the question becomes: “Why does the economy matter if Putin doesn’t truly need the common citizens’ votes?” It doesn’t matter what system of government is present if the people rebel, which is a reason why most autocratic countries do not have a free press. The key to being a successful autocratic leader is giving citizens just enough so they do not rebel, yet not taking too much away from the private goods given to the small winning coalition. However, when the vast majority of the citizens are experiencing economic difficulties, it can be a good strategy to distract and deflect from the crisis. Putin did just this.
In 2015, oil prices take a significant hit, and by association, so does Russia’s economy. As just noted, Putin knows that should the economic conditions deteriorate, he could be in risk of a revolution. His method of counteracting that was a foreign policy success, or the public good of patriotism. Seeing that President Obama did not hold his word when drawing the infamous red line, Putin saw Obama fail to back up his threats. As a result, Putin assumed correctly that there would not be a great threat from America while attempting to interject in America’s sphere of influence in the Middle East. Furthermore, there was also a Russian naval station in Syria, where Russia had the capabilities to maintain their Mediterranean fleet, thus improving their foreign policy power and their ability to maintain their economy through exports. Syria was not only a foreign policy victory that distracted from economic difficulties, it also assisted the Russian leader’s ability to stay in power through the ability to continue to repair ships outside of Russia in the Mediterranean.
In 2016, Crude Oil prices hit a new low and Russia’s GDP followed suit. The economy forced Russia to make choices between domestic living standards and defense spending. Of course, they chose defense spending, as most autocracies do. However, after getting involved in Syria and annexing Ukraine, more military action was most likely the last option. Luckily for Vladimir, a new opportunity arose: The 2016 American presidential elections. Through influencing the 2016 election Putin may not necessarily get the public good of a foreign policy victory, he could have a more Russia-friendly American leader while simultaneously eroding confidence in the American system, should he be caught. Through successfully influencing the American election, he could also get US sanctions on key individuals in Putin’s winning coalition lifted, thus improving his chances of staying in power.
Similar Actions By Other Nations
It is important to note that Russia’s actions are not specific to Russia; they are indicative of how international politics works. For example, President Bill Clinton likely utilized diversionary tactics during the Monica Lewinsky scandal by bombing the Al-Shifa Pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Furthermore, the United States has engaged in influencing elections by releasing damaging information on communist candidates during the 1990 Nicaraguan elections, which is one example of many. And most know of the United States and Britain overthrowing Iranian democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq via coup in 1953.
The goal in noting these events is not to obtain some moral equivalency between the two, but to illustrate that morals are not what drives international relations. Strategic interest for staying in power, protecting foreign interests, and finding a common enemy during times of domestic distress are common in today’s international system. In order to analyze international events, such as Russia annexing Crimea or inserting itself in the Syrian Civil War, it begins and ends with the strategic interests of the leader and his winning coalition. What Vladimir Putin wants is to stay in power, and his winning coalition wants to continue to be wealthy and live comfortable lives. This is the nature of the system, and highlights why the United States targets wealthy individuals when sanctioning Russia, as opposed to the economy at large.
In the end, once the strategic perspective framework is utilized, few pieces of additional information are needed. What type of political representation does country A have? How big is leader A’s winning coalition? How is the domestic economy performing, and what is the relation between country A the occupied country B? These are all questions that need to be answered before truly beginning to understand why something is presently happening. And once these questions are answered, the subsequent step is to look ahead. What’s next for country A, and in our case, Russia? Due to the strategic importance of Crimea to the economy and Russia’s ability to exert foreign policy power, Russia’s dropping of Crimea appears unlikely. Furthermore, Syria has a naval station that is quite important to Russia’s naval power, and I cannot see Russia letting the Assad government be defeated without a fight. The key variable lies in Russia’s GDP and Oil prices. Should the oil prices drop and further affect the domestic economy, expect to see more aggressive foreign policy in the form of diversionary tactics. And should the oil prices increase and improve the domestic economy, look for Russia to have a more calm foreign policy by only protecting its interests in Crimea and Syria. The only wild card here is Putin’s desire to bring Russia back to its cold war political heights. Is Putin simply a man who wants to just stay in power? Or does his pride for his country motivate him for something much more? One thing is for sure, only time will tell.