Keep Calm and Carry On
On February 28, 2018 the World Affairs Council welcomed Matthew Rojansky, Director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in WAshington, D.C. at Folio: The Seattle Athenaeum Library to discuss Putin, Russia, and why we should depoliticize our understandings of both. The conversation was moderated by former CNN Moscow Bureau Chief and Russia expert Jill Dougherty.
While the complicated relationship between the United States and Russia is often blamed on U.S. policymakers inability to properly gauge what Vladimir Putin’s intentions are, Rojansky’s approach to understanding Russia is to avoid “Putinology.” Focusing on Putin, he argues, comes at the expense of understanding the country on a deeper level.
Democracy, for example, in Russia is more of a stimulation than a true operating system. Rojansky explained that Putin holds elections as a test for his system of governance to pass in order to demonstrate legitimacy and uphold the narrative of Russia as a democracy. In addition, Putin brings in young people to help run the country, giving the government the appearance of rejuvenation when in fact not much is changing.
Rojansky noted that Putin’s strategy is not focused on the long-term, rather he, and Russia, are opportunistic and reactive. When the invasion of Ukraine became tiresome, Putin took the opportunity to jump into Syria and declare a “military victory.” These constant military engagements shake things up and in a sense, give Russians entertainment. Thus, Putin offers an idea of dynamism while skirting the need to develop a long-term plan.
Though Putin’s focus on the short-term may seem ill advised to the United States, we must remember that his and Russia’s worldview remains vastly different from our own. Rojansky explained that to Putin and Russia, the world is on fire and there is no fireman. Therefore, solving intractable conflicts and proxy wars across the world is a futile effort. Instead, Putin prefers to get rich off of whatever opportunity presents itself.
In addition, Russians see the country’s relationship with the United States differently than how Americans might understand it. To the Russians, sanctions are a declaration of war. Interfering in the 2016 Election was an adversarial move to a country that thinks we are already at war. While Russia doesn’t have a strategy for addressing the consequences of the interference, they have already achieved their goal of dividing the American people.
Rojansky emphasized that our understanding of Russia cannot be fully formed until we can see what is blocking our ability to do so. Americans, he said, don’t understand why Putin and the oligarchs don’t just step aside once they have amassed both wealth and privilege. In the United States, this sort of exit strategy is common and essentially acceptable. But in Russia, if Putin stops being in power, Putin will meet his end. This fundamental difference in culture and worldview must be accepted before forming an authentic understanding of the inner workings of Putin and Russia. Thus, the United States must keep calm and carry on in its relationship with Russia.