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In 1939, Winston Churchill uttered the now-famous adage, “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He was not alone in being bewildered by Russia’s conduct. For centuries, Russia has been regarded as a mysterious land. In 1839, the French aristocrat and writer the Marquis de Custine traveled to Russia and wrote a popular “exposé” on the backwardness of Russian society and the appalling conduct of its aristocracy at the time of Emperor Nicholas I. Even Russians have struggled to define themselves and their country. The words of the 19th century Russian poet and statesman Fyodor Tyutchev perhaps best described this conundrum in a short poem, the essence of which is that Russia cannot be grasped by the mind; it can only be appreciated by faith.

Churchill’s words expressing his puzzlement about Russia have been repeated endlessly by statesmen, politicians, scholars, and journalists to explain and justify their frustration with Russia and its behavior in both the domestic and international arenas. But how true is Churchill’s remark? Does Russia, indeed, operate in mysterious ways that confuse and confound us in the West? Or can our failure to understand Russia be also attributed to our own shortcomings, ignorance, and propensity for mirror-imaging?

Any student in a basic political science course learns that countries pursue international policy objectives based largely on their national interests. Although governments change and strategies come and go, national interests remain fundamentally the same. This was just as true for Great Britain under Churchill as it was for the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. The same can be said today for the United States and Russia.

The pursuit of national interests is the major motivating force of any country’s foreign policy. As Hans Morgenthau, a leading political scientist of the 20th century, describes it, “The meaning of national interest is survival—the protection of physical, political and cultural identity against encroachments by other nation-states.” These basic interests are fundamental even as specific interests and goals vary from country to country.

Russia under Vladimir Putin, like any other country, has clearly defined national interests and identifiable factors that influence the pursuit of those interests. The number one priority for Putin and his regime is survival and retention of power—a particularly vital priority for any authoritarian regimes. The survival of the Russian state and protecting it from domestic and foreign threats also rank among the highest priorities. Another critically important priority is the preservation and expansion of Russia’s influence in the international arena. This is manifested in Russia’s drive to regain status as a world power and maintain influence over its neighbors after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lower on the scale of priorities, but still of great importance, are the preservation and expansion of Russia’s economy and its economic interests and the maintenance of the domestic social order.

Numerous factors influence the ability of Russia’s leaders to pursue these national interests and determine how they do so. Among them are geography, history, cultural heritage, religion, ideology, the power and role of the individual leader and his power structure, societal dynamics and pressures, and the impact of opposing forces—both internal and external.

In this series. I examine Russia’s primary national interests and how the Putin regime pursues them in order to provide insight into the riddle, mystery, and enigma that so troubled Churchill and others.

Washington, DC
September 2018

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