Russia’s Animal House Foreign Policy

Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, was in Ukraine on Wednesday this week, where she met with President Viktor Yanukovych. Speaking to the press afterwards, Nuland said:

 I made it absolutely clear to him that what happened last night, what has been happening in security terms here, is absolutely impermissible in a European state, in a democratic state. But we also made clear that we believe there is a way out for Ukraine, that it is still possible to save Ukraine’s European future and that is what we want to see the President lead. But that is going to require immediate security steps and getting back into a conversation with Europe and with the International Monetary Fund, and bringing justice and dignity to the people of Ukraine. I have no doubt after our meeting that President Yanukovych knows what he needs to do.

Following these comments, she mingled with the Euromaidan protesters and passed out snacks to them and riot police alike. I think this is fabulous, and America at its best.* To be sure, the United States is not a purely disinterested party; an EU-linked and Western-aligned Ukraine is a better geopolitical result than the current alternatives. But fundamentally the protests are about perpetuating an opaque, corrupt, sclerotic oligarchy on the one hand, or seizing the opportunity to entrench democratic norms offered by deeper EU integration, on the other. American support for the protesters and the latter choice is unabashedly positive.

But imagine how all of this looks from the Kremlin’s perspective. The behavior must represent unacceptable “meddling” in other countries’ affairs.** Not only is she offering rhetorical support, she’s feeding them; the United States has now physically supported the overthrow of a sovereign nation’s government in Russia’s very own backyard.*** The suggestion seems ludicrous to American sensibilities, but unfortunately less so if you’re, say, advising Vladimir Putin. And it illustrates the Animal House character of Russian foreign policy; it’s a giant episode of, “only we can do that to our pledges“.

I’m hardly the first person to make the point that Russia considers Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence, which is the justification for roundly rejecting any sign of “Western interference” while simultaneously insisting on a right to impose whatever outcomes it wants without foreign objection. But I think policymakers err in believing this to be (solely) an example of cool-headed realpolitik or rational realism in the vein of John Mearsheimer. As some of the rhetoric surrounding the Euromaidan protests suggests, there’s a deeply Slavic civilizational element at play when it comes to Ukraine. American realism has to-date been unable to entirely escape the influence of the country’s founding ideals and Russia’s realism is no less devoid of a similarly quixotic background.

*And something I am willing to believe we should do more of
**It should go without saying that this is enormously hypocritical; it’s not like threatening to bankrupt a country if they sign a trade deal you don’t like is not meddlesome
***Lest you think I’m making up a mindset that doesn’t exist, see this RFERL article. And yes, it’s amusing that I’m using RFERL to source this claim