“The Russian Strategy for Empire”

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9  [1]

Over the last few weeks the sections of the blogosphere which I frequent have been filled with predictions, advice, summaries of, and idle chatter about the situation in Ukraine and Crimea.  I have refrained from commenting on these events for a fairly simple reason: I am no expert in Russian or Eastern European affairs. Any expertise that my personal experiences or formal studies allow me to claim is on the opposite side of Eurasia. Thus I am generally content to let those who, in John Schindler’s words, “actually know something” take the lead in picking apart statements from the Kiev or the Kremlin. [2] My knowledge of the peoples and regions involved is limited to broad historical strokes.

But sometimes broad historical strokes breed their own special sort of insights.

I have before suggested that one of the benefits of studying history is that it allows a unique opportunity to understand reality from the “Long View.” From this perspective the daily headlines do not simply record the decisions of a day, the instant reactions of one statesmen to crises caused by another, but the outcome of hundreds of choices accumulated over centuries. It allows you to rip your gaze away from the eddies swirling on the top of the water to focus on the seismic changes happening deep below.

To keep the Long View in mind, I often stop and ask myself a simple question as I read the news:  “What will a historian say about this event in 60 years? How will it fit into the narrative that the historians of the future will share?”

With these questions are considered contemporary events take on an entirely new significance.

Expansion of Russia, 1533-1894.
Credit: Wikimedia.

As I have watched affairs in Crimea from afar, my thoughts turn to one such ‘Long View’ narrative written by historian S.C.M. Paine. In Dr. Paine’s peerless The Wars for Asia, 1911-1949 she spares a few paragraphs to explain the broad historical context in which Soviet statesmen made their decisions. She calls this traditional course of Russian statecraft the Russian “strategy for empire”:

The Communists not only held together all of the tsarist empire but greatly expanded it in World War II. They did so in part by relying on Russia’s traditional and highly successful strategy for empire, which sought security through creeping buffer zones combined with astutely coordinated diplomacy and military operations against weak neighbors to ingest their territory at opportune moments. Russia surrounded itself with buffer zones and failing states. During the tsarist period, the former were called governor-generalships, jurisdictions under military authority for a period of initial colonization and stabilization. Such areas generally contained non-Russian populations and bordered on foreign lands.

Russia repeatedly applied the Polish model to its neighbors. Under Catherine the Great, Russia had partitioned Poland three times in the late eighteenth century, crating a country ever less capable of administering its affairs as Russia in combination with Prussia and Austria gradually ate it alive. Great and even middling power on the borders were dangerous. So they must be divided, a fate shared by Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, and post World War II, Germany and Korea. It is no coincidence that so many divided states border on Russia. Nor is it coincidence that so many unstable states sit on its periphery” (emphasis added). [3]

It is difficult to read this description and not see parallels with what is happening in Ukraine now (or what happened in Georgia in 2008). Dr. Paine’s description of Russian foreign policy stretches from the 18th century to the middle of the 20th. Perhaps historians writing 60 years hence will use this same narrative–but extend it well into the 21st.


[1] Authorized Version.
[2] John Schindler. “Nobody Knows Anything.” XX Committee. 16 March 2014. 
[3] S.C.M. Paine. The Wars For Asia, 1911-1949. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 83-84.

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Good stuff.

Yet I must point out that Mr. Schindler was betting on Putin waging total war, yet it didn't happen. Momentum is dissipating so he's less likely to do so as time passes.

I take it you read Peter Lee's last on the parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan? Now that's interesting.


1. I rarely agree with Dr. Schindler on anything. I did not think I would ever endorse anything he has to say actually. But I do agree with this:

"A related factor here surely is that the United States has groomed a whole generation of foreign policy wonks-in-training who lack any real understanding of how the world actually works. These impressive-on-paper people – let it be noted they are legion in both parties – the under-45′s who are always graduates of the right schools and first-rate players of The Game in Washington, DC (which really comes down to cultivating the right mentors who will guide you to the proper think-tank until your party returns to power), are no match for the stone-cold killers of the Kremlin, led by the Chekist-in-Chief Putin. They have grown up in a world where unipolar American power has never been challenged, and while they can utter pleasant, Davos-ready platitudes about the whole range of bien pensant issues – global warming, emerging trends in micro-finance, gender matters on the Subcontinent, et al – they have quite literally nothing to say when old-school conventional threats emerge and enemies – yes, enemies: not rivals or merely misunderstood would-be partners – emerge from the darkness with conquest and killing on their minds….

Second, most of these smart young people really don’t know anything. Oh, don’t get me wrong, they had great SATs and went to top schools and have mastered the art of sounding smart, attaining admirable fluency in that unnatural dialect known as Beltway-speak, but as for any deep knowledge about any particular subject relating to how the world really works, that’s about as rare in this crowd as unicorns and Bigfoot. There should be no surprise that Chekists are winning handily these days.

That said, it’s important to note that the ignorance of reality found among our Bright Young Things in DC is hardly their own fault. It can be attributed to their deformed education, especially among those who have studied International Relations, memorizing Game Theory and related unreality when what they needed to be doing was studying languages and history and getting out of the Beltway more. I won’t beat up on IR more than this, since everybody who has encountered IR lately, between zombies and related silliness, already knows how ridiculous it is.

There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English. If you want to understand Putin’s Russia, you will need to seriously look at the history and culture of that place, and Ukraine too, and learn their languages to boot. If this is too hard for you, then don’t try. If you want to predict what Russians and Ukrainians will likely do next with any degree of accuracy, learn about Russians and Ukrainians. For Putin and his system, you will need to learn about Chekists too, since their worldview is unique and powerful to the initiated."

This is critique of our foreign policy talking heads is right on target.

Very little else Mr. Schindler says is. Were I in his shoes I do not think I would have made the same predictions of war as he did–but then again, I don't make predictions.

I try not to fault experts for faulty predictions, for there is not an expert on this planet who can make accurate predictions anyway.

2. I did read Peter Lee's essay. I found the second half – the part on Taiwan – pretty interesting, because I had similar musings. The student occupation of the legislature has been the rage on more than a few Taiwanese friend's feeds; I was surprised to read one sympathizer compare the protestors aims to Maidan and the rest of the Ukrainian protestors last month. Given what has happened to Ukraine in the mean time, the comparison is not a promising one.

Even putting aside the historical legacy of the Russian empire…

it's difficult for me to understand why Washington might suppose that Moscow would concede a NATO that includes Ukraine.

When Hilary was Sec. of State she openly ridiculed any Eurasian Union.

In other words, she opposed Russia in any endeavour at regional cooperation.

Why wouldn't we expect Russia to oppose U.S. policy in that case?

I hadn't noticed Schindler's rant vs. IR since I don't read his blog (tho I have been there once or twice, i think).

Of course he's right about the importance of languages and history, but IR is not just game theory, and any IR theorist of any seriousness knows that history is important. How IR theorists use history might not always be to historians' taste, but that's a separate issue.

It amuses to me to see a (presumably) tenured professor dumping on other tenured professors in a cognate (whether he likes to admit it or not) field.

The question is why he feels the need to fling broad-brush insults and denounce an entire academic field with which he seems not all that familiar.

It is a serious mischaracterization to say that he is criticizing think-tank denizens etc and no one else. He explicitly blames their perceived or alleged vacuity on the fact that some of them studied Int'l Relations. But if they're vacuous it's because they're vacuous people, not primarily because of their 'deformed' education. That said, more emphasis on history and languages in certain corners of pol sci wd be a healthy development (not that I'm holding my breath).


Schindler could no more write a kind sentence kind sentence about someone he disagrees with than a mouse could catch a cat. He is combative to a degree that is both illogical and unchristian. This 'rant' is on his less extreme side.

With that said, I actually do not think it is the think-tank crowd on the side lines that set him off. Had I to peg any one demographic as the source of his venom, I'd wager it on these fellas:

"Domestically, the situation is equally worrisome. Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. “Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed,” a former senior official who worked with Obama’s appointees at State told me. “These positions,” she added, “are handed out based on party connections and loyalty.” In the hands of these decision-makers, all major foreign policy issues are viewed through an “ideological prism as opposed to an eye toward the long-term interests of the United States,” she said. The White House’s National Security Council staff, furthermore, has ballooned from about four dozen three decades ago to more than twice that today, a shift that has had the effect of concentrating power in the White House, and infusing key decisions with political calculations.

By contrast, the Russian Foreign Ministry is staffed top to bottom with career diplomats."

That quotation is from James Bruno's recent Politico piece, "Russian Diplomats are Eating America's Lunch." Its a pretty harrowing read. It also led to be better appreciate the central point of Schindler's rant, worth repeating:

"There is no substitute for actually knowing something about a country and a region and how its people think and what they say; this cannot be learned entirely in books – though you will have to read a lot of books to build a foundation of understanding – and it cannot be done entirely in English."

Schindler's comments about IR theory are perhaps a bit immature. But I can understand his frustration; I feel it often myself. Interestingly, he seems to reserve his ridicule for "IR lately," as if there was a hallowed moment in America's past when IR PhDs imparted 'deep knowledge' that they have now some how lost. I am curious when exactly he believes this mystical to have been.

A quick pt on the Bruno piece, which i glanced at. The situation he describes is not new: political appointees have dominated important US ambassadorships for at least the last several decades, i wd say, if not longer. Ditto, probably, for top layer of positions in State Dept.

The fact that John Emerson, US amb to Germany, is an entertainment lawyer who speaks no German matters not so much if he has a #2 or #3 in the embassy who is a career diplomat and does speak German, and I wd bet a sizable amt of money that he does. This kind of set-up has existed for a long time, as i say. Is it ideal? No. But i doubt it's quite as crippling as Bruno thinks.

IR PhDs don't run US foreign policy, and they never have. Foreign policy making has been and is quite heavily a preserve of people w law degrees (JQ Adams, Elihu Root, Dean Acheson, John Kerry, Samantha Power, just to name a few from a long list). Condoleezza Rice has a PhD but she was/is an area specialist in the (former) USSR — just the kind of person w regional and language knowledge that Bruno rightly admires, btw. (Of course her regional expertise was ill-matched to her job in the Bush admin and the result, coupled w some other obvious factors, was complete disaster.) Obama's current natl sec adviser, Susan Rice, has a PhD, presumably in pol sci/IR, but i don't think her reputation rests on work in IR theory (if she has done any, i'm unaware of it).

In short, IR scholars and theorists, w a few exceptions (such as Kissinger) generally don't make foreign policy. A few express policy views regularly (e.g. Mearsheimer, or at a somewhat less visible level the people who blog e.g. at Duck of Minerva), but for the most part they write academic or quasi-academic tomes. There is a subset of IR scholars who write about US 'grand strategy' (see Perry Anderson's long piece on them in the New Left Review, Sept/Oct 2013), but again, they don't make policy, as a rule.

I'm no great defender of IR theory (a not insignificant portion of which is prob of dubious value). But the people who produce it are mostly in the academy, not in policy-making jobs. Some of them wd like to interact w and influence policymakers more, and in fact there are organized efforts to bring policymakers and academicians closer together. But the divide remains pretty sharp.

It's true there is a group of people who rotate in and out of high-level policy and academic positions — J. Nye prob being the best-known exemplar, or Anne-Marie Slaughter — but it's a smallish group. There's also a somewhat larger group that rotates in and out of govt and think tanks, but the think tank milieu is to some extent its own thing.

To conclude this rambling comment, I agree career diplomats w language and country knowledge shd have more of the important ambassadorships. But that's not going to happen, unfortunately, given the way the US finances its elections and the need for Presidents to reward big 'bundlers'. And the US Sup Ct's decisions in Citizens United and the more recent one (whose name is escaping me) have only made this situation worse.