Discussion about foreign policy reminds me a lot of the sports pages: lots of opinion, little resolution or depth. That’s one reason I’m more respectful of normative frameworks for decision making in international relations than I used to be. Almost no one seems to know anything, so what’s the point in being pragmatic and informed? It’s amusing to poke fun at neoconservatives who don’t know what Kurds are, but American liberal internationalists are just as pathetic when they’re befuddled at how the Arab Spring turned out so illiberally, or why gay rights is not a major priority in post-Maidan Ukraine. Many foreign policy positions seem to arise out of projections of oneself in others.
The American ignorance of the true texture of reality in foreign policy is front and center whenever I read attempts at analysis in The New York Times. A few years ago David Kirkpatrick, their Middle East correspondent, wrote a piece titled Hopes for a Qaddafi Exit, and Worries of What Comes Next. It wasn’t first person reportage, something Kirkpatrick can do with reasonable skill, as far as I can tell. Rather, it attempted to draw upon a superficial understanding of Middle Eastern history and ethnography, to tragicomic effect. For example, he stated “Even one religious leader associated with Sufism — a traditionally pacifist sect something like the Islamic equivalent of the Quakers.” This is totally inaccurate as a description of Sufism. The Naqshbandi order, to name one prominent Sufi sect, has been involved in political, social, and military affairs, across the Islamic world for hundreds of years. More relevantly in that specific case Libyan anti-colonial nationalism was in large part drawn from militarization of a Sufi order!
Now that Ukraine and the revived rivalry between Russia and the United States have come to the fore we’re treated to a similar level of analysis from the usual suspects, the American media and their associated pseudo-intelligentsia. To truly understand the dynamics of the issue at hand we need to actually look at it from the perspective of the players, and not just our own. To do this as an outsider history by necessity is important, because what the players may take as implicit givens, unstated and perhaps not accessible reflectively, we must comprehend rationally. The history lived by others is often part of the substrata of their culture. There are many things about race relations in the United States which are understood and taken for granted, but seem confusing and mystifying to outsiders. As part of my own personal attempt to understand what’s going on I’m reading some Russian history, something I’ve neglected over the years. At the center of the current debate is Ukraine, but to understand Ukraine one must understand the history of Poland-Lithuania and Russia. To Americans Lithuania is a small country on the shores of the Baltic, but during the late medieval period it was the core of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity, which eventually fused in personal union with the monarchy of Poland. Though Poland and Russia are the early modern antipodes of the cultural axis which divides the West Slav from the East Slav, I have found it useful to explore the history of the Lithuanians, because it can shed light from a different perspective outside of the one dominant dimension. Lithuania Ascending: A Pagan Empire within East-Central Europe details in passing just how much by the late medieval period Russia as we understand it had diverged in its self-conception, and the perception of others, from being a normal part of European Christendom (e.g., Orthodox Christians were little better than pagans to many Western Catholic Christians). Ultimately Lithuania’s choice was toward the West, but this was not foreordained.
Through all this it is critical to remember that Russia views itself differently in relation to Europe than simple geography or race might indicate. A few months ago I got into an argument on Twitter with Michael Anissimov on whether Russia is Western. In part I interposed myself in an exchange between a historian who also happens to be an ethnic Russian, though one who was born and raised in part in Russia, unlike Anissimov, who is the descendant of White Russian refugees. Anissimov’s contention was that of course Russians were Western, as they were white. This struck me as either stupid or ignorant. Ignorant because starting from the 19th century there has long been a debate among Russian intellectuals whether Russia is a Western or European nation. The very fact that this debate has occurred prominently among the Russian intelligentsia should suggest that simple assertions of Russian Western identity because of their whiteness are grounded on factually wobbly premises. And yet Anissimov’s instinct is not totally atypical. Whiteness and being Western are closely tied in the American mind. Consider how often multi-racial and multi-cultural are confounded, to the point where affluent white couples who adopt non-white babies term their families “multi-cultural,” as if the adopted babies carry a non-Western culture in their very genes. This is a very racialist perspective, but to my surprise it is espoused by many “liberal” white Americans. In any case, Anissimov is certainly correct about the genetics of Russians. The PCA I generated above from 300,000 SNPs illustrates that the West and East Slavs cluster close together. Though a minority of Russians have notable Tatar ancestry, it is still only a minority.
The stupid part of Anissimov’s assertion is also illustrated on the PCA. The Central Italian sample is from Abruzzo, east from Rome on the Adriatic. And yet it tends to cluster with the Turkish population more than the Northern Europeans. This makes sense, as the largest gradient of genetic variation in Europe is north-south, rather than west-east. Italians from Abruzzo are Western, while Turks generally are not considered as such, Ataturk’s ambitions notwithstanding. The reason is that cultural identity is strongly tied to culture, and Italians are part of Western Christian civilization, while Turks are not. The Russian ambivalence about being Western is in large part due to cultural and historical differences, outwardly manifest in the affiliation of East Slavs in general with the Eastern Orthodox identity. The term Western is really descended fundamentally from a set of European societies in the late medieval period which adhered to Western Christianity. What used to be Catholic Christendom. After 1500 Western Christianity was shattered by the Reformation, but the basic configuration crystallized during this period. England, Italy, Germany, and France, formed the core nations, with a halo around them for Western Christian nations part of what became the Westphalian system. Poland-Lithuania, which for most of its history included Ukraine proper, was undeniably the frontier of Western civilization. Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Croatians were also part of Western civilization, being Western Christians. In contrast, the people who adhered to Eastern Orthodoxy were not part of the Western Christian Commonwealth. It is this rather old division which has erupted recently, as Russia has taken to asserting its Otherness in relation to the West.
This division has not been eternal, nor was it inevitable. One has to also put aside the notion that deep theological issues are at the heart of the chasm, those details rather serve as surface markers for a drift in interests whose roots go back to the year 1000 A.D. Russia as we understand it begins with Kievan Rus. The origins of this state are somewhat murky and complex, though the most plausible scenario seems to suggest that a ruling class of Scandinavian warriors interposed themselves into the thinly populated world of the Slavic tribes of what became Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. By the 10th century the rulers of this domain were the Rurikids. Though there was one ruler when Russia accepted Christianity under Vladimir the Great, for many of the centuries after the vast domains of the Rus were administered by distinct Rurikid princes, rather than as a unitary polity. It was Vladimir who aligned the Rus to the Byzantine form of Christianity, what we would today term Eastern Orthodoxy. It is important to remember that at this time though the differences between Western and Eastern Christianity were already evident, consider their rivalry with Western missionaries in eastern Central Europe, a formal schism only occurred in the 11th century, and the true rupture may perhaps be traced to events such as the Western sack of Constantinople. Kiev maintained enough contact with the rest of Europe that a daughter of the Grand Prince could become a consort to the king of France in the 11th century (and Orthodox civilization more broadly was not totally isolated from the proto-West, e.g. Theophanu, the Byzantine noblewoman who became a German empress).
Though the division within Christianity is clearly a major variable for why Russia feels distinctive from the West, it is simplistic to reduce it to just this. Rather, it is critical to remember that even as Russia was part of an incipient “Eastern Orthodox international,” by the second half of the 15th century the Russian polity remained the only substantial state which adhered to Eastern Orthodox Christianity as its official religion. This is the period when the idea of the Third Rome reemerged, with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks. But even the hegemony over the Balkans by the Turks, and therefore the centuries’ long slumber of Orthodox peoples under Ottoman rule, is only part of the story. The other two threads include the conquest and encirclement of the Rurikid domains by Lithuania (allied with Poland) and the Tatars. The Tatars in this case means both the rise of the Mongols and the Golden Horde, and a greater coherency to the Turkic peoples who had long persisted to the south and east of the East Slavic domains. With the rise to leadership of the Mongols of the Golden Horde the Tatars were assembled into a force which wrought destruction on much of eastern and central Europe in the 13th century, including Kievan Rus. But perhaps just as important was the famous “Tatar yoke,” by which I mean the centuries long vassalage, of various degrees, of the Rurikid principalities to the Golden Horde. It was during this period that Muscovy came into preeminence as the new locus of Russian and Orthodox civilization, superseding Kiev. More contentiously this is when many cultural historians assert that Russian civilization took up an “Oriental” and “despotic” cast. I’m going to sidestep this issue, but focus on something less prominent in peoples’ mind: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was conquering and crushing the old heart of Russian civilization, the lands of western Ukraine.
For several centuries up to 1387 the Lithuanians had demurred in converting to Christianity. They arose as a power between Poland and the principalities of the Rurikids to the east. Both Lithuania and Poland were also fighting, initially for their survival, against the German Teutonic Knights (who arrived in the Baltic to convert the pagans in that region of Europe). Up until the point of converting to Catholicism the Lithuanians had been rulers of a predominantly Orthodox Slavic population across most of their domains, and some of their leading noble families had converted to that religion. Jogailla, the Grand Duke who converted to Christianity and brought Poland and Lithuania into personal union, had an Orthodox mother who was a Russian princess. With the conversion Lithuania no longer occupied a neutral ground between the Western Catholic world to the West, and the Eastern Orthodox world of the Russians. It became the marchland of Western expansion, and over the centuries evolved into an appanage of Poland, initially culturally, but eventually politically. The great hostile expanse of the Poland-Lithuanian empire, which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, sealed the incipient Russian state off from the broader streams of Western civilization.
With the rapid expansion of Muscovy, and the later decline of Poland-Lithuania, this isolation abated. But though Kievan Rus is rightly thought of as having laid down the foundation of Russian culture, the Russian state, and its self-conception, was certainly forged during the late medieval period when Muscovy was surrounded on all sides by enemies, and it was the singular light of state Orthodoxy in the world. If Byzantium had managed to hold onto Anatolia from the Seljuks in the 11th century it may have remained the hinge of Europe, serving as a conduit of ideas and identity from west to east. Kievan Rus, situated on the western margins of the lands of the eastern Slavic tribes, was situated in a position where it could have looked West to Europe. But Muscovy was geographically in a far different situation, isolated behind a vast landmass, and politically shut out of intercourse with other European states by a belligerent Poland-Lithuania.
I am not saying that the average Russian knows this sort of historical detail. I wouldn’t even assert that the typical Russian political leader is aware of all these facets of history. But, I do suggest that these surface facts reflect the isolation and involution of late medieval Muscovy-Russia which explains its estrangement and difference from Western societies. Rather than Russian civilization being “behind” the West in a Marxist model, it can be thought of as an alternative path, not unlike Chinese or Indian civilizations, albeit far closer to Western civilization with which it shares roots.
A similar deep analysis of Ukrainian history might also explain the fissures which we see in that state. The Russian perspective is that Ukraine is not divisible from Russia, that it is not a real state. To a great extent there is truth in this sentiment, in that for nearly one thousand years Ukraine was divided between powers who were situated elsewhere. And for the greatest period of time Ukraine, and Kiev, were under the rule of Poland-Lithuania. Aside from individuals who rose to power during the Cossack Hetmanate, Ukraine was a de facto ethnic caste society, with Polish Catholic nobles ruling over Ukranian peasants, many of whom were Orthodox Christians. Though Ukrainian churchmen made great contributions to the development of thought in Muscovy, in their own homeland they were culturally marginalized. With the Union of Brest many of the Orthodox populations of greater Ukraine were brought into union with Rome, though in the “Eastern Rite.” Today a minority of Ukranians, mostly in the far west, remain Uniates. But some scholars assert that the impact and demographic heft of the Uniate Church was far more expansive two centuries ago, before the reversal of affiliation enforced by the conquering Russian Empire. The shadow of the cultural influence of Poland-Lithuania may therefore lay over much of western Ukraine, even outside of the far western Uniate heartland.
One thing you may notice about the above map is that the Donbas, the far east of modern Ukraine, is outside of the domain of Poland-Lithuania. In fact much of southern and eastern Ukraine was not inhabited by Slavs before the expansion of the Russian Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the various Turkic polities were conquered and assimilated, and the limes of Slavic settlement spread south and east. To understand why Crimea and eastern Ukraine can exhibit less affinity to a “Ukrainian” identity I think it is important to remember that many of the people of this region are not from a cultural tradition which developed independently from Russian Orthodox civilization under Polish hegemony. These regions were not even part of the world of Slavs until the Russian Empire opened them up for settlement and acquisition. The fact that they are part of Ukraine is more geopolitical happenstance than the product of organically developed history.
Where does this leave us? I don’t think that these facts entail any specific set of policy prescriptions. Rather, they should inform us. The pro-Western bias of western Ukraine should be entirely expected. The anti-Western bias of eastern Ukraine (at least relatively) should also not be surprising. From what I can tell many Western observers assume that if western Ukrainians are pro-Western, they must be on the side of liberal democracy. Often treatments of the corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych elide the fact that he won a democratic election. Though Yanukovych and his regime were undeniably illiberal, it is natural that people from the eastern regions of Ukraine view what happened at Maidan as a popular coup. This, after the events of 2004, when pro-Western elements managed to force a re-run of disputed results, and win an election with Western backing. Note that the past two elections have both been rather close, indicating that there is no overwhelming majority in modern Ukraine. Additionally, being pro-Western does not mean being liberal. This was something that was obvious during the Cold War, when pro-Western autocrats were numerous. Today the monarchies of the Arab world are illustrations of this tendency. As Peter Turchin has emphasized the politicians who are filling the vacuum of the collapsed old order of Yanukovych are the oligarchs of yore. The affinity of western Ukrainians with the West is as much about historical resonances as it is about values. The rural culture of this region probably has more in common with conservative Poland than it does with genuine Western European countries. Ultimately it seems rational for Western nations to align with western Ukrainians because these are the Ukrainians who are emotionally attached to the idea of the West, but this is more a matter of tribalism than these people being the “Good Guys” when judged by a objective lens weighing liberal values.
As for Russia, its ambiguous and ambivalent relationship to Europe to its West, and the United States, the most powerful child of Europe, is a deep rooted phenomenon, not an outcome of Vladimir Putin’s paranoia. From the 17th century down until the 19th and 20th a substantial preponderance of the Russian intelligensia, and many of the rulers (mostly famously the Westernized Peter the Great), believed that their nation’s destiny was to the West. But it is important to remember that many of the elites of this period were cosmopolitan, and often not ethnic Russians. The modern Russian state is multi-ethnic, but not nearly as much so, and, it exists in the era of mass politics.
Additionally, what NATO is doing does resemble the encirclement which the Russian state has experienced in the past. During these occasions the Russian state and society has managed to stave off being dismembered or colonized, as other empires have been in the past. A result of persistence in the face of these pressures naturally has to be a robust, even irrational, paranoia. Though Russia in the 1990s was pro-Western, I believe it is hard to deny that it also was a power in decline, marginalized in the shadow of the United States, and dominated by oligarchs. Putin has brought back some level of pride, so it is no surprise that he has the support of the majority of Russians today, even if his regime is authoritarian. And in any case it should be remembered that Boris Yeltsin himself engaged in some anti-democratic actions when it suited him, but since he was our reliable ally we turned a blind eye. To understand how Russia understands itself is not to cede to Russia a claim of legitimacy in any specific case. But, it might perhaps illuminate to Americans how righteous self-interest can bleed into a narrow vision of being the anointed among the nations. Russia too is an exceptional nation, and it seems too much to assume that it will easily subsume itself into a place subordinate to the United States in the great chain of being of Western nations, as Britain (willingly) and France (begrudgingly) have.
At the end of all this I hope not to convince anyone about a specific theory of foreign policy and international relations. I have no particular ideas which are original in that domain. Rather, it is important to populate one’s understanding of the present and past with a thick set of data so as to make the most judicious inferences in light of one’s values. Understand the players in the game, and understand the nature of the game. Aiming to win is still acceptable, and certainly one might improve one’s odds if one understands more.