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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Foreign policy wonks in the United States often talk about 'grand strategy'. At simplest, a grand strategy specifies the overarching, guiding goals of a state's foreign policy and specifies the best means to achieve those goals. Strategy is about connecting means to ends, as I've said before.

For the US during much of the cold war, one might label its grand strategy as 'containment' of the Soviet Union. In the decades since the cold war, there has been a debate about US grand strategy. Should the US do everything in its power to retain its position as the preeminent power? Should it do so by acting alone or through multilateralism? Or should it recognise that retaining pre–eminence is unrealistic, retrench, and let other states contest power among themselves with the US maintaining distance and intervening only as a last resort to prevent any one from upsetting the balance of power (a strategy known as 'offshore balancing')?

Different US administrations have answered these questions differently. They have also reached different conclusions about rivals' grand strategies.

Right understandings, ethical agnosticism

In this context, Thomas Graham's short book Getting Russia Right makes an important contribution. It is a rather brave title because Graham's critics, and there will be a great many of them, won't resist saying he gets Russia wrong.

But the author has a pedigree most of his critics won't: he spent more than two decades in US government service, stationed both in Moscow and Washington DC. It is perhaps stemming from this that he recognises an important point overlooked by many scholars: 'Policymakers need to simplify reality to a manageable degree, and they necessarily operate on the basis of what they consider to be a few essential truths about world affairs, the country they serve, and the foreign lands they deal with' (p.xi). This is why, he jibes, scholars make bad policymakers.

He argues, rightly in my opinion, that Russian policymakers by consensus view the world through the lens of realism. This does not mean that 'realism' – a school of thought where might makes right, where 'the strong do as they choose and the weak suffer as they must' – is right in any ethical sense or even right in actuality. The problems of realism are well known. Many argue that focusing on the major powers, and neglecting the agency of other actors, misses the mark. Others point to the severe limitations of what such an approach can explain even about relations between the major powers.

Still, as another realist, Robert Legvold, wrote in a 2016 book: getting Vladimir Putin right does not mean thinking that he is right. That seems to have resonated with Graham and provided him with the title (though Graham doesn't, unless I've missed it, attribute the title, which had also earlier been used for texts by Dmitry Trenin and Michael McFaul).

One of the key goals of Russian foreign policy in the Putin era has been regaining its great power status. 'Russia was and will remain a great country,' insisted Putin in 1999, before becoming president (cited on p.93). Yet he inherited a state greatly weakened since the cold war and, once in power, he set about centralising power. Putin said Russia risked falling into the 'second, and even the third rank of world states' (p.94).

Graham is on the money when he says that successive post–cold war US administrations have refused to bestow upon Russia the status of a great power. Barack Obama, most famously, explicitly labelled Russia a 'regional power' in 2014, which almost certainly rankled with the Russians. Yet, as was clear immediately after 24 February 2022, many analysts had still overestimated Russia's military capabilities.

This book's chapter on the 'paradox' of Russian power is a good assessment of the reality. It is well known that Russian power rests on natural resources and nuclear weaponry, which have served as commercial leverage and geopolitical menace respectively. The idea that Russia remains 'Upper Volta with nukes' (a cold–war era phrase) has, according to Graham, influenced US policy for three decades (p.67).

Russia's not–so–grand strategy

The crux of the argument comes later. 'One will look in vain for a single document that fully articulates Russia's global strategy at any point since the Cold War,' Graham says, before adding: 'nevertheless, a strategic logic can be distilled from the analysis of [the relevant] documents.' He writes:

The details of Russia's strategy have changed radically during the Putin era. In retrospect, 2012... marks a transition between two diverging orientations – between a Western/European–centric policy and a pivot to the East, between restoring Russia as a great power and undermining the US–led global order, between constraining the United States through partnership to countering it through strategic alignment with American rivals. (p.106)

The claim that Russia has shifted from a focus on Europe and the US to Asia and the global south is agreeable, as are the other claims. What is less convincing, to this reader, is that there is any grand strategy in this. Graham never really specifies what goals Russia has beyond trying to restore its great power status. To believe that there is a strategy needs more evidence; he talks of how Russian foreign policy has 'hedged' various interests but that sounds like a tactic at best rather than a strategy.

Russia recognises that China has its own vision of the future, says Graham, and one different from Russia's vision. The Kremlin, aware it is the lesser power, therefore tries to hedge against relations with China causing problems in the future by building ties with other states in Asia and the global south and by enmeshing China in multilateral institutions proclaiming to be alternatives to US–dominated ones. But realism would assume that China simply comes to dominate those institutions.

It often seems that Putin as leader is an opportunist. A good example would be how Russia stepped in when Syria, by using chemical weapons, crossed 'a red line' that Obama had said would not go unpunished. Putin saw an opportunity to help Obama to save face by offering to oversee the removal of Syria's chemical weapons. Opportunism is hardly a pre–thought strategy.

What is to be done?

Understanding Russians' thinking can inform an astute US strategy. Russia will outlast Putin, almost certainly, and US policymakers must assess how far the decision to invade Ukraine is attributable to Putin's vision alone or a wider Russian mindset. For Graham, until February 2022, Putin 'operated well within the parameters of Russia's foreign policy tradition' (p.130). But 'profound personal reasons' (p.145), combined with a 'messianic fervor' that his grand strategy amounted to 'saving the world' (p.147), contributed to the decision to invade Ukraine. Putin broke with the demands of realpolitik, Graham asserts (p.174, p.206).

Those with the most dismal expectations about Putin's imperial ambitions need to understand his mindset to assess where he might strike next. And they should be aware of his grievances; the 'concessions' Russians think went unreciprocated by the US, such as support after 9/11.

Graham, well–versed in Russian history, provides an accessible and engrossing interpretation of how history infuses Russian foreign policy. Along the way, he gives readers well–judged insights into US policy making and does not shy away from criticism of American exceptionalism (in Chapter 1) or America's Russia policy (Chapter 6).

The book concludes by setting out a series of policy recommendations. They follow from the book's 'core claims' (p.5) that the US must treat Russia as a great power and that it is in Washington's strategic interest to do so despite Russians' inflated sense of their own strength. Among the recommendations, the book calls on US officials to 'accommodate Russia's legitimate interests... especially with regard to its neighbors' (p.214). It seems a bit late for that in the case of Ukraine. And there is the perennial problem of who gets to decide what constitutes a legitimate interest.

Graham's recommendations, with caveats, are otherwise sensible ones for improving American relations with Russia (if that is accepted as the goal) – but a massive ethical question looms large in them. The Ukrainians and others in Russia's shadow only ever feel like an afterthought.

Thomas Graham, Getting Russia Right (Polity Press: Cambridge; November 2023). ISBN–978–1509556892.

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