Russia's Behavior and What It Can Teach Us About the International System

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’s Economy

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.    

Russia Picture 1.png

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.

Election Hacking

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.  

-Omar Naguib




Omar Naguib

Omar is a junior in CAS majoring in International Relations with a concentration in the Middle East. In addition to international relations, his interests lie in diplomacy, economics, finance, and aviation. Having internship experience at the UNDP and Senator Gillibrand's office, he's become keenly aware at how finance and economics are inextricably linked to politics. In the near future he hopes to work in finance or diplomacy. When he isn't studying or writing for the journal, he's probably watching football, basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, Rick and Morty, Archer; or getting his pilot's license.

Trump's Electronics Ban

On March 21st, The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a factsheet unveiling an electronics ban affecting 8 predominantly-Muslim countries and 9 airlines with American-bound routes. Effective until October 14th, any US-bound flights from Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, must store all electronics larger than a smartphone in the cargo-hold. Subsequent DHS statements cited this policy was in response to new intelligence that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was making progress hiding bombs within computer batteries, along with previous incidents such as Russia’s Metrojet 9268’s explosion over Sinai (2015) and the attempted downing of Somali Daallo Airlines 159 with a laptop bomb (2016). Whether this policy will be effective in preventing such attacks in the United States remains to be seen. 

Bruce Schneier, security technologist and lecturer at Harvard University believes the electronics ban can help prevent attacks, such as the Daallo Airlines laptop explosion, noting “Forcing it (the bomb) in the plane’s hold would make it much harder to detonate, since the terrorist has to design an automatic mechanism rather than doing it manually.” However, the Metrojet explosion in Egypt is believed to have been taken down by a bomb in the cargo hold. And if this policy is truly designed to stop terrorists from detonating laptop bombs on US routes, then why is it so easy to circumvent? Terrorism is stateless, and with ISIS worth nearly $2 billion and Al-Qaeda worth $150 million, one would think these organizations could afford to fly their laptop bombs from countries not included in the ban, like war-torn Yemen. So if this policy doesn’t prevent terrorist attacks and is easily circumvented, then what exactly does it do? 

A Bit of Background:  Open Skies Dispute

The big three US carriers (American, Delta, and United) have taken issue with state-owned Gulf carriers Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad for receiving subsidies from their governments.  According to the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, the fact that Gulf carriers are receiving approximately $52 Billion in a variety of subsidies violates the Open Skies agreement that allows Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad to fly into American Airspace. The three American companies have lobbied both the Obama Administration and now the Trump Administration to take action to “level the playing field.” But why are American, Delta, and United targeting the Gulf Carriers in particular?  Italy’s Alitalia makes perennial losses, only surviving because of heavy subsidies from the Italian government. Delta partly owns China Eastern which received $865 million in subsidies, and United partners with Air China which received $162 million from the Chinese government.  Even Delta is lobbying to receive fuel subsidies from the taxpayers of Georgia. It appears that American carriers are pro-subsidization until it holds them back from more profit, and this is illustrated by looking at the ever-increasing market share of the Gulf airlines. 

Looking at the market shares on each of those routes, it becomes clear that a large portion of the Gulf carriers’ growth can be seen in international departures from America. As the Gulf three begin to capture a larger share of the international market, they’ve dramatically increased the number of seats flown into America, as shown below. And they continue to grow, as Emirates gained its 12th American stop earlier this year, and Qatar Airways will reach its 11th American stop in 2018 when they begin flying to Las Vegas. According to the American big three, this presents problems as the Gulf airlines are able to flood the American market drastically increasing supply and dropping prices as a result. Good for customers, bad for corporate profits.  

Moving back to the electronics ban, the Trump Administration’s roll out of an electronic ban was followed by the United Kingdom rolling out their own ban. A couple specifics about the UK ban were slightly different, however.  First, the United Kingdom’s ban affects UK airlines, while the American ban does not directly affect any American airlines. Secondly, and very interestingly, the United Kingdom ban doesn’t include Qatar or UAE, the epicenter of the airline subsidy debate. The two administrations shared intelligence and collaborated in crafting the policy, yet they still rolled out their bans to include different countries. The disconnect is very disconcerting because if these policies are truly based on security then it would behoove both administrations to be on the same page and communicate effectively about their reasoning for why each nation was on the list. The fact that allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom cannot agree on a single list either points to incompetency or different motives from each administration. As the UK ban affects UK based airlines, their ban is less likely to be an economic chess move and more likely to be a security policy. With the US ban, their nation choice with the background of the Open Skies dispute, the Trump administration’s ban is much more likely to be an economic move over the UK’s. So, if this is a chess move, what is it designed to do and how is it effective?   




How Does This Hurt Gulf Carriers?


It remains to be seen as to how large the economic impact will be on the Gulf carriers. However, this could consolidate the losses that the Gulf airlines sustained after the Muslim travel ban. Although the previous ban is being held up in American courts, Emirates alone experienced a 35% drop in American-bound bookings. This electronic ban does more than just consolidate those losses, however. Costs could rise because of added security measures and possible delays in the event that passengers mistakenly take their electronics to the cabin.  More substantially, the Gulf three are likely see a drop in business passengers who would typically travel through the Gulf to reach their American destinations. A key component of the Gulf big three’s growth is their central location, long range aircraft, and luxurious business and first class cabins, which can earn loyal business travelers. But these flights can often be too long for business travelers to be offline and unproductive. Furthermore, business travelers with sensitive information on their electronic devices fear checking laptops into cargo-holds could lead to stolen information. In fact, some corporations have policies prohibiting the checking of electronics, and as such, they are changing to unaffected carriers, which can be less direct, but much more safe and productive. And although this policy won’t unflood the US aviation market with seats, it hits the Gulf three right with their key constituency of business flyers. 

American Protectionism

The electronics ban is clearly ineffective in fighting terrorism, but quite effective at targeting the pockets of Gulf airlines. From top to bottom, this seems like a protectionist policy that was designed with the consultation of big airline industry leaders when they met with Trump just a month prior to the ban’s rollout. Although this may not create lasting financial uncertainty, it is hitting at the Gulf airlines’ highest paying passengers while increasing security costs for them in Qatar and the UAE. As the rollout was scrutinized by security personnel, it was a popular narrative to think the administration missed their target. However when we look into alternative options for the administration to protect United, Delta, and American, none are an improvement on this policy. Blocking the Gulf big three from American airspace would cause a rise in prices on the American consumer and it’s unlikely that UAE and Qatar would stop subsidizing their airlines. This policy is as discreet as it gets for an administration seeking protection for their airlines. So even when the Trump administration cites security when questioned about their policy, it’s useful to investigate what its policy truly accomplishes, because more so than most administrations, its actions speak much louder than its words.    

-Omar Naguib



Omar Naguib

Omar is a junior in CAS majoring in International Relations with a concentration in the Middle East. In addition to international relations, his interests lie in diplomacy, economics, finance, and aviation. Having internship experience at the UNDP and Senator Gillibrand's office, he's become keenly aware at how finance and economics are inextricably linked to politics. In the near future he hopes to work in finance or diplomacy. When he isn't studying or writing for the journal, he's probably watching football, basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, Rick and Morty, Archer; or getting his pilot's license.

Arab Spring Progress Check

On March 2nd, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was acquitted on charges of killing protesters during the 18-day uprising that ended his rule, during which estimates claim nearly 900 people were killed and around 6,000 were injured. The decision was made in the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest court of criminal litigation, and as such, their decision is final. Egypt’s former dictator of 30 years is free to go, however, its most recently deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, had his sentence for killing protesters finalized to 20 years by the Court of Cassation in the middle of 2016. Although there may be distinct differences in Mubarak’s and Morsi’s cases, the disparity in sentences poses the question: After all the political turmoil and uprisings, did the Arab Spring bring any positive change to the affected Arab countries? Or are corruption and restrictions even more common place today than they were in December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set the Middle East ablaze with his self-immolation?

To decipher whether the Arab Spring has progressed the region forward or pulled it backward, it will be important to take a closer look at five countries where regime change has occurred or has been attempted. As economic restrictions ignited the Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria will be taken into account, utilizing the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom to investigate if the uprisings have met their goals. The pre-revolution rankings are included in the chart above, while the 2017 rankings can be found here.      

Egypt has endured much instability since the revolution against Mubarak’s rule in 2011.  On June 17th, 2012 Mohammed Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president, however, he rarely acted very democratically. Less than half a year into his presidency, he granted himself sweeping authority and judicial immunity for his actions. The Egyptian people weren’t ready for another Mubarak and revolted against his power-grab and broken promises.  On June 3rd, 2013, the military, commanded by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, removed President Morsi from power and placed him under house arrest. Al-Sisi left the Egyptian military to run for the presidency and was elected on May 28th, 2014. Since then, there has been a bevy of human rights abuses and restrictions of freedoms. Journalists that criticize the government are jailed, anti-government protests are banned, and detainees are typically tortured. Egypt’s economic freedom score has dropped significantly from the 85th most free to the 144th most free.  In response to criticism of its human rights record, the Sisi administration frequently refers to the mantra: “Security before perfection”.  Protection from terrorism is understandably a priority, but an administration dedicated to human rights wouldn’t be utilizing such a phrase.

Libya is venturing into the dangerous waters of failed-statehood. Muammar Gaddafi ruled by exacerbating rivalries and with an iron fist. After the Libyan leader’s death, a power vacuum emerged, intensifying tensions between the rivalries he cultivated and resulting in multiple entities claiming to be the rightful government. As such, a country who led all African nations in GDP per capita and produced 1.6 million barrels of oil per day in 2009 has fallen into a civil war with three different governments and ISIS all vying for power. Libya was ranked 154th in the world in the Index of Economic Freedom prior to Gaddafi’s assassination, and is now unranked because of the governmental uncertainty and raging civil war.

Tunisia is considered the success story of the Arab Spring, but even they have had their challenges. After the Arab Spring began here in late 2010, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011, leading to a tumultuous year until elections were held in October of 2011. Though it has become largely democratic, problems persist.  Mohamed Bouazizi protested through self-immolation due to lack of economic freedoms, yet Tunisia’s economic freedom ranking has dropped from 84th in the world to 123rd, university graduates constitute nearly a third of the unemployment rate, and terrorism continues to hurt the country’s main industry of tourism. While the government has made a transition to a democratic system, lack of security and bleak employment prospects have led to Tunisia becoming a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS. In October of 2015, the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet won the Nobel Peace Prize for its “decisive contribution to building a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia, in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011”, and progress has been made towards the goal of becoming a democratic state. However, unemployment and lack of security continue to hold the nation back.    

Yemen is struggling through a civil war and divided country similar to that of the Libyan situation. After President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned and transferred power to Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the Yemeni regime has struggled with dissent from Houthi rebels, Al-Qaeda, and small pockets of ISIS. Yemeni territory is essentially divided into three parts between the Yemeni government, Al-Qaeda, and the Houthis. Making the conflict even more complex, the Yemeni Civil War has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia supporting the Sunni government and Iran supporting the Shia Houthi rebels. In addition, the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis of malnutrition and lack of drinkable water.  Unfortunately, this is another example of a country that is trending backwards. Prior to the Arab Spring, Yemen ranked 125th in the world in economic freedom and is now unranked as a failed state. 

Syria is in the middle of a civil war that dwarfs the Lebanese Civil War in both casualties and intricacies.  In 2011, after President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces violently repressed protests, the protests grew in ferocity and soldiers defected from his army to bring about the main opposition force: The Free Syrian Army.  However, the Free Syrian Army was joined by other groups, like Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front), ISIS, and American-backed Kurdish forces. These anti-regime forces are all fighting against Assad, but he has held his ground and fought for six years.  The Syrian conflict has become a proxy war with the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia supporting anti-regime rebels, while Iran and Russia support the Assad regime. With so many political actors in this conflict, should the Assad regime fall, Syria will be in for a dangerous power vacuum. Needless to say, economic freedoms are not of priority right now in Syria, and, as such, the country fell from 144th in the world to an unranked failed state in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedoms.

Looking back on each of these nations, it is difficult to be optimistic about where the Middle East is heading. Prior to the Arab Spring, each of the nations analyzed were ranked in Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. Six years of turmoil later, only two of the five nations are still ranked, in the index with Egypt dropping a dramatic 29 ranking spots and Tunisia dropping 14 spots respective of their 2011 economic freedom rankings.  Tunisia has reached its democratic goal but has dipped in security, Egypt has increased its security while dropping the ball on human rights and democracy, and Libya, Yemen, and Syria are all engulfed in civil wars. It is possible these countries’ respective progresses are being analyzed too soon. Libya, Yemen, and Syria could be envisioned as failed states, or envisioned as territories in progress of the democratic goals their citizens fought so hard for. Whichever perspective is taken, it is undeniable that the Middle East is a region in disarray. We are six years into the Arab Spring experiment and so far it doesn’t look promising.   

- Omar Naguib


Omar Naguib

Omar is a junior in CAS majoring in International Relations with a concentration in the Middle East. In addition to international relations, his interests lie in diplomacy, economics, finance, and aviation. Having internship experience at the UNDP and Senator Gillibrand's office, he's become keenly aware at how finance and economics are inextricably linked to politics. In the near future he hopes to work in finance or diplomacy. When he isn't studying or writing for the journal, he's probably watching football, basketball, soccer, baseball, tennis, Rick and Morty, Archer; or getting his pilot's license.