Russia proved it understands American politics through its successful election interference campaign in 2016. Russia also proved it has a sophisticated knowledge of U.S. public opinion through its carefully disguised, yet effective, social media posts that have both Facebook and Google scrambling for solutions to fake news. However, Russia has also made moves suggesting it’s clueless to American interests and motives. Kimberly Marten, director of the Program on U.S.-Russia Relations at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, visited the SMU Tower Center Nov. 28 to explain why Russia is so inconsistent. She has four theories.
To help understand the theories, Marten laid out Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two goals. To maintain power for as long as possible, and to go down in history for making Russia great again.
Theory one: Putin has psychological biases and makes all of the decisions.
Marten argues that Putin’s background in the KGB enforces his view of the U.S. as an adversary, and fuels his fear of internal revolt. As a judo black belt and hockey player his style of fighting is tactical rather than strategic. This means he wants immediate success and doesn’t necessarily consider the long view. In this theory, Putin’s spontaneity is what leads to some of Russia’s spot-on decisions, as well as to others, as Marten said, that appear utterly “bone-headed.”
Theory two: Nobody dares contradict Putin.
For this theory, Marten referenced Saddam Hussein’s leadership in Iraq leading up to the U.S. invasion in 2003. It is now clear that Hussein’s advisers warned him to give up the rouse of possessing weapons of mass destruction. They told him the U.S. would invade, but he refused to listen. She argues the same situation could now be true of Putin and his advisers. While Putin isn’t known to murder dissidents as Hussein was, he does have the ability to exclude them from the patron-client system he controls. This power could leader to a culture of non-dissent.
Theory three: There are internal rivalries in Putin’s network.
This theory suggests Putin is influenced by those in his inner circle. Groups such as those responsible for arms sales, like Rostec CEO Sergey Chemezov, stand to benefit from foreign conflict. Chemezov has financial interest in supplying weapons to Syria, Iran and Turkey. These arms deals have increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia. Conflict also gives the siloviki (high-ranking politicians who were KGB men or military officers) an expanded mission and keeps the Russian military distracted from domestic politics. However, on the other side, the finance and commerce sectors benefit from international cooperation. These conflicting interests result in a push-pull effect that could be causing Russia’s fluctuating actions.
Theory four: Russian intelligence officers have gone rogue.
There is a blurred line between Russia’s intelligence and politics, unlike in the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, money was in short supply from the government. Russia’s intelligence merged with private commerce in order to make up the difference, and the merging never went away. This suggests, Russian intelligence officers could be working to please the highest bidder rather than serving the nation’s interest.
An upsetting conclusion
Marten left the audience with an upsetting conclusion: U.S. policies have no effect on Russia’s actions. She argued everything in Russia happens internally, behind closed doors, without consideration of research or expert analysis.
For further reading, take a look at Marten’s latest article in New Republic.