The West has long been trying to decipher the "genome" of the Kremlin's policy. Many of these attempts are interesting and original. However, I see in them at least one systemic problem. It consists of an attempt to find a universal scheme or explanatory model of Russia's policy, which would make it possible to understand it in its entirety, that is, to generalise many separate events in one scheme. A similar style of thinking is generally characteristic of the enlightenment model of cognition - to find a rational scheme or pattern and use it to explain a lot of events. We have absorbed the ideals of the Enlightenment for several centuries. But they are not free from flaws. The main problem is that often fundamentally different events are linked into a single canvas. From the point of view of this model, it looks quite logical and harmonious. But in reality, such events can have completely different reasons. For example, there is temptation to link the five-day war with Georgia in 2008 and the events in Ukraine in 2014 to a single rationale. In fact, each of these episodes had its own reasons and motives. They can be generalised about in theoretical terms, under the heading of "Moscow's aggressive policy". And in fact, it provides a clear picture for perception, gives the scientist a certain intellectual comfort - here it is the key to understanding what's going on. In practice, however, this is unlikely to explain Russia's behaviour on a case-by-case basis. A lot of detail remains in the shadows. Another example of such a model is the notion of “the Putin regime”. A similar model is found in scientific works and in political texts. Through the conditional regime or personality, different events are linked. One involuntarily develops a feeling that certain individual figures or institutions are omnipotent, which is difficult to perceive without scepticism. No doubt, leaders and institutions matter. But can we put them at the centre of the whole model? This is a big question.
Ironically, Russia's perception of the West follows similar patterns. We also build our models, and using the same logic, we try to rationalise them, combining events that are weakly related to each other into one canvas. "Colour revolutions" are seen as part of a single, insidious plan. Publications that are critical of Russia are seen to signify a common front in the information war. Washington’s involvement in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria are seen a manifestation of US hegemony. Migrants, LGBT minorities, populism and protests are all seen as signs of the imminent decline of the West. Both Russia and the West continue to rely upon clichéd models of thinking when observing one another.
Obviously, we find it difficult to live without such models. This is how our thinking works. And our capacity for rationalisation also creates the illusion of the correctness of the model. Assured of the veracity of our beliefs, we earnestly spread our convictions, and this reflection of reality begins to resemble a sermon. We ourselves should treat the products of our thinking with a healthy dose of scepticism and self-criticism.
What exactly does this mean if we seek to understand the motives behind the policies of Russia and Germany?
In “decoding” Russian politics, it seems to me that it’s important to take into account the character of Russia as a player in the international arena. It is a great power, and its security interests play an essential role in determining the motives which determine its behaviour. Feelings of vulnerability and defensiveness are an important driving factor in Russian politics. In its own way, this also leads to a distorted view of reality. But many of Russia's actions are typical of the behaviour of large and small powers pursuing their own interests. The ‘blame game’ is usually unproductive in diplomacy. But from the moral point of view, Russia's operation in Syria is hardly better or worse than the US operation. The poisoning of the Skripals was just as disgusting (no matter who committed it or why), as the dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The murder of ‘Tornike’ Khangoshvili, from the standpoint of morality, was no better or worse than the hit on General Qasem Soleimani. The alleged Russian attack on the Bundestag servers and the scandal involving the US wiretapping of the German Chancellor should be seen as similar offenses. This list can be long, and it is unpleasant; some of the worst foreign policy decisions seem to come from the same bag of tricks, regardless of their instigator.
Does it mean that such events should be ignored? No. Morality requires the condemnation of any such action, regardless of its origin. And real policy requires concrete measures of containment. The problem is that in politics, both condemnation and deterrence are selective. We condemn one thing, but close our eyes to another. We restrain some, but avoid contacting others. Russia has been and will be an inconvenient partner for many. For Russia itself, some allies will be perceived as inconvenient. The question is: how exactly can such “inconveniences” be managed? I think there is no general outline here. Each challenging episode will require its own separately tailored, ad hoc approach.