Joining the faculty, students, and guests of IWP, Professor Nikolas Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College presented his interpretation of the challenges the Trump Administration faces in formulating policy toward the Russian Federation.
At the heart of Russian foreign policy rests the concept of a great power (derzhava). In particular, a great power “is not open to veto from any international body or criticism,” possesses “a privileged zone of influence in its economic neighborhood,” and “has a seat at the table in determining what happens in world affairs.” Ever since Yeltsin’s second term, the Kremlin has drawn this concept into an ever firmer embrace and sought a revival of the nineteenth century Congress system, “where small powers petition, but live with what the great powers have decided.” Even as tactics morph and short term strategies shift, the Kremlin prizes great power status above all.
As the years advanced, the Kremlin quest to build and maintain itself as a great power forged two camps in the American policy establishment: the Russia engagers and the Russia skeptics. By Gvosdev’s definition, the engagers are willing to negotiate with Kremlin demands, assessing that “Russia can help in things that matter more to the US.” In contrast, the skeptics retort that any demand the Kremlin makes “is inimical to American interests.” Instead, US policy should focus on ways to force Russian demands to change, rather than select certain demands for negotiation.
The engagers and skeptics have existed since Bush (‘41) and have continued the debate through the present, with each faction facing its own setbacks. For the engagers, rapprochement with the Kremlin entails “a price in political capital.” In affirming Kremlin demands, the engagers “say no to others”-whether resisting Georgian desire for NATO membership or avoiding calls to condemn human rights violations. Meanwhile, the skeptics struggle to justify Russia “as an existential threat to the US” as was the Soviet Union. The skeptics will declare their conviction and show signs of solidarity, but struggle to move from the realm of declaration to the domain of action.
As the conflict between the engagers and skeptics rages, Gvosdev noted a final, critical problem: the lack of recognition of Russia as an independent center of geopolitical gravity. With the decay and collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian policy became an appendage of European policy. However, Gvosdev perceives this as a gross miscalculation. In reducing Russia to the European theater of foreign policy, American policy-makers and past presidential administrations have failed to understand the great power concept in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Firmly ensconced in the great power mindset, the Kremlin will exert influence from the European continent to the Pacific Ocean; from the Artic glaciers to the Middle-Eastern deserts. If the Trump Administration ignores the Kremlin’s great power aspirations and fails to navigate the conflict between Russia engagers and skeptics, the Kremlin may fully realize its gambit of great power restoration.