Smith introduced by saying that what characterises the Western notion of Russia is the West’s failure to predict a number of significant events and policies - Russia’s actions for some reason keep taking us by surprise. Examples of such events that were unpredicted and surprising to the West are the fall of the Soviet Union itself, the bombing of the Russian White House in 1993, the Chechnya war, the actions taken by Russian forces in Kosovo, the wars in Georgia and Ukraine and the subsequent recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and annexation of Crimea. In order to try and understand these events, and why we failed to predict them, we should look to Russian strategic thinking.
Russian strategic thinking is influenced by a number of different cultural factor and norms, many of which differ from those that inform Western strategic thinking. The fact that the Russian state is still under formation, influences the way in which Russia thinks and plans strategically; Russian strategic culture is still a dynamic concept. This, in turn, means that the norms and rules that Russian policymakers adhere to are not yet set in stone – their boundaries can still be pushed. This, again, results in unpredictable Russian policy outcomes.
Smith presented a model for explaining the formation of Russian policy – in which three sets of factors (domestic, external and individual) affects the “black box of Russian decision making”, in turn resulting in policies that are either traditionalist, modernist, or a combination of the two. Domestic factors that influence decision making are for example elite interaction (Kremlinology), regional differences, discourses of national identity and other concepts, as well as formal institutions. External factors are Russia’s great power status and importance in global affairs, their image, the importance of geography, and the notion that Russia has few if any allies or friends. On the individual level, factors such as people’s background, education, and religion impact decision making – as well as the process of “negotiating a reality” among the elite – based on common references (such as Russian literature). Religion is also a factor that is playing an increasing role in Russian politics.
The Western understanding of Russia tends to, Smith emphasised, focus on these sets of factors separately, focusing either on domestic politics, or on the Russian perception of the external environment, or on the individual level. Smith underlined the importance of examining all three sets of factors in combination, in order to better explain Russian policy outcomes. Nevertheless, the power battles that go on within the political elite in Russia often results in policy outcomes that are difficult to predict in advance.
Summary by Kristin Ven Bruusgaard