Professor Igor Istomin on the Drivers of Russian Foreign Policy

By Michael Mandelkorn, M.A. 2020 Candidate, Tufts University

The Crowe Room was packed on Wednesday afternoon as the Russia and Eurasia Program and Eurasia Club at The Fletcher School welcomed back Professor Igor Istomin, Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Political Analysis at Russia’s MGIMO University. After a few minutes of quiet conversation and thoughtful chewing, the room set down its lunch and leaned in to listen to Istomin’s brief talk, entitled “What Drives Russian Foreign Policy.”

“Why is the Russian soul so mystical,” he began. “Because no one has tried to study it.” This joke set the tone for the afternoon. In Istomin’s view, much of Western media coverage and policy analysis has missed the mark. Western media outlets and analysts, he believes, have largely become stuck believing in a few persistent myths surrounding the Russian foreign policy establishment. These myths, alluring and persistent, have been circulated so many times that even typically sharp analysts and journalists, along with numerous Russians, have had their judgements clouded by these myths. Istomin articulated three myths often associated with Russian foreign policy and walked the room through debunking them.

The first and largest issue plaguing Western perception of Russian foreign policy is the myth of the unitary actor. Istomin led with an observation: why is it that so many Western analyses of Russian state activity seem to read like analyses of the actions of a single individual. “We all know this specific individual,” said Istomin, with a mirthful smile. The implication is that nothing happens in Russia without a direct order from Putin, especially when it comes to foreign policy. This overpersonalized view of the Russian political system can be extremely problematic, if not dangerous. While Putin obviously plays a large role in Russian foreign policy, to lay the entirety of the Russian foreign policy establishment at his feet is grossly oversimplifying, if not derivative.

A corollary to this idea of Putin as the unitary actor suggests that the Russian state is not actually conducting Russian foreign policy but Putin’s foreign policy — that Russian foreign policy works not for Russia’s national interests, but for Putin’s own personal interests. This charge was levied frequently during Russia’s annexation of Crimea. At this claim, Istomin could not help but laugh, stating that, by any polling metric given, “the ‘reintegration’ of Crimea was by far the most popular thing Putin has done in his 18 years” of governing. Putin looms extremely large in Russian politics, but the Russian state likes to enact domestically popular policies. Hence, with so much Western attention given to answering the question ‘Who is Mr. Putin?’, much larger swathes of Russian foreign policy and its corresponding motivations have made been ignored. We need, Istomin asserts, to take a much more complex view of Russian politics at large.

Istomin’s second myth has to do with the question of Russian alliances and ally-making, while his third myth tackles the widespread perception that Russian foreign policy is based solely on a platform of realpolitik. These myths are, indeed, somewhat inter-related. Both of them are rooted in misconceptions of Soviet foreign policy and have clouded the minds of Western analysts since the 1970s. And at the heart of these misconceptions, according to Istomin, is a fundamental difference in how realpolitik is viewed in U.S. and contemporary Russian foreign policy circles.

How then can we fight these myths and keep them from clouding our own foreign policy and our analysis and understanding of Russian action on the international stage? Istomin ventured that the U.S. foreign policy establishment to have more area studies scholars — those explicitly focused on Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia — writing on Russian foreign policy, rather than more general international relations theorists and critics. It is a good thing, then, that Istomin was just the first in a busy Fall 2018 speaker series hosted by the Fletcher Russian and Eurasia Program.

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