Please, America, Be Realistic:

Idealism in American Foreign Policy and the Breakdown of Russo-American Relations

This paper was written in April of 2014. As such, it covers neither Russia's involvement in the Syrian Civil War, nor Russian interference in the 2016 US election of Donald Trump, both of which are symptoms of the relationship I outline herein. I plan, in the future, to update this essay/write an addendum. In the meantime, I hope this proves enlightening.

The formulation of foreign policy is a tricky business, and as such, the US often pursues blanket policies to make itself seem consistent and resolute. However, bureaucratic obstacles ought not force us to settle for policies that are second-best – great nations must pursue great policy, and tailor their approach to the situation at hand for the most effective results. In order to make the most of interstate communiqués and negotiations, policy makers must consider the specific history and stance of the actor on stage. Of late, heady with the power of world hegemon, the US has been guilty of attempting to force a one-size-fits-all hat onto the collective brow of neighboring nations, creating more headaches than peace-promoting policy. China is not Russia is not the United Kingdom is not India. The fellow great nations of the world deserve a more personalized approach. In the following paper, I will explore how the US can improve its foreign policy through a more nuanced understanding of its partners and rivals through a case study of Russia. In the first section, I delve into US foreign policy with regards to Russia to date; I argue that the fall of the Soviet Union allowed for a shift away from realism and towards a moral brand of liberalism in American diplomacy in the absence of a rival superpower; and I explain the current state of affairs in what I term the “post-Reset era”. In the second, I argue that in order to truly understand Russia and get inside Putin’s head, the US must garner a greater familiarity with the Russian War Myth; its maintenance of neo-realism; and its adherence to great power politics. Finally, I cross-apply all that has been discussed to the specific case of the Ukraine “crisis”. I explore the idea that US foreign policy in the region and in similar situations hinges on a liberal moral framework that makes the main criteria for policy formulation what ought to be done, whereas Russia operates on the premise of what needs to be done, resulting in a motive dissonance between the American moral case for policy and the Russian realist case for policy. I then suggest alternatives and caveats that will foster a more bespoke approach to Russia, with specific attention to the situation in Ukraine and similar conflicts that may arise in the near future, an approach which may then be generalized for use with other nations.

In order to understand the current state of affairs with regards to the breakdown in Russo-American diplomacy, one must first begin with a brief history of US foreign policy. I will approach this with a specific focus on Russian relations from the end of the Cold War in the 1980s to the present day.  Due to the fact the vast majority of power in American foreign policy lies in the executive branch, this period is best broken down by presidential administrations, beginning with Reagan.



Upon his entry into office, Reagan saw the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and urged the American people to involve themselves in the fight to bring about “their total elimination.” He cast the struggle between East and West not as one of geopolitics, but insisted that the “crisis” was “a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith” and that this was “a struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”[1] There was no compromise to be had with the Soviet Union – it was the destruction of communism or that of democracy. This translated directly to Reagan’s policies, like the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars”, the push for space-based nuclear defense capabilities, which was criticized for being too aggressive and dangerous, as it might upset the balance of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). However, SDI was not a one-off anomaly of aggression from Reagan – the “Reagan Doctrine” proved as much. During his second term in office, he moved completely away from détente and past containment. Instead of merely halting the spread of communism and keeping it “contained” to where it already existed, Reagan, taking a note from the pages of John Foster Dulles, pushed the US to support the active destabilization of communist regimes wherever he could, “perhaps best encapsulated in NSC National Security Decision Directive 75” which stated that the central priority for the US with regards to the Soviet Union would be “to contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism.”[2] It went on to state:

"The U.S. must rebuild the credibility of its commitment to resist Soviet encroachment on U.S. interests and those of its Allies and friends, and to support effectively those Third World states that are willing to resist Soviet pressures or oppose Soviet initiatives hostile to the United States, or are special targets of Soviet policy."[3]

Reagan was quite serious about this endeavor, which the world saw quite clearly in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, where Reagan supported the Contras and Mujahideen, respectively, in an effort to fulfill the goals of Directive 75. These proxy wars were part of Reagan’s realism at the time, which stepped in time with the Soviet mindset that if you weren’t winning, you were losing.

However, it was only a few years later during Reagan’s second term that this aggressive stance was relaxed.  The appointment of Gorbachev to chairman of the Soviet Politburo seemed to change Reagan’s calculus. According to Margaret Thatcher, Reagan’s personal friend and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, Gorbachev was a reasonable man. “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.”[4]  The feeling was apparently shared by Reagan, who turned from forceful realism to skillful diplomacy with Gorbachev. Reagan truly believed that simply exposing Soviets to the successes of a free market economy would bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union underneath weight of its own inadequacy.[5] Despite Moscow’s own disbelief that Gorbachev would actually try to scale back the Soviet military, Reagan took him at his word and the two worked towards a more cooperative relationship. When Reagan visited Moscow in 1988 for a summit with Gorbachev, a reporter asked him if he still viewed the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” to which he replied, “No, I was talking about another time, another era.”[6]

However, Reagan did not fully reverse his policy of realism. He maintained his support for SDI, which, despite slowing down negotiations between Gorbachev and himself, did keep Moscow on its toes, nervous that the US would actually build such a defensive shield to render their nuclear arsenal useless. Further, he continued to build up military infrastructure and power in order to maintain the upper hand in any diplomatic negotiations.[7] US defense spending rose from $134 billion in 1980 to $253 billion in 1989, an 88% increase over the course of the decade.[8]


Bush Sr.

In 1989, President George Herbert Walker Bush was elected to office. Just two short years later, on Christmas Eve, 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved. Bush Sr. embodied neither the aggression of Reagan’s early years nor the friendly cooperation and active diplomacy of those that followed in the mid to late eighties, despite his fairly warm and close personal relationship with Gorbachev. However, even this was a strategically realist and reactive approach to the situation before him – a more publicly hands-off policy allowed Gorbachev to make concessions without fearing that Bush would revel in Gorbachev’s weakness, making the USSR feel a little less insecure about its move away from such hardline communism as years past.[9]

With the disintegration of the USSR, a new era dawned – both in the rhetoric of world leaders, and realistically in the global structure of power that dictated how the world was run geopolitically. Without the Soviet Union to counter-balance, the US became the sole remaining superpower, and thus the world hegemon. Bush Sr. would term this “a new world order”[10]. This did not simply change who was in charge, though – according to Bush, this changed the very goals the nations of the world were able to pursue as a global community:

“What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea: a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind -- peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.” – George H.W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 1991

This is the first time since at least before the start of World War II that the security goals and policies of the US were directed not at a specific adversary or group of adversaries, but at a set of abstract concepts and ideas. While such rhetoric as the above was certainly used in speeches condemning evil and promoting peace and democracy before the fall of the USSR, this was the first time that it was not a thinly veiled attack on a rival nation, as it had been during Roosevelt’s tenure, against Nazism and fascism, or during the Cold War against the “Reds”. Without a clear rival to take the place of communism, the US no longer had the impetus to be reactive in its policy. With no real peer or threat to its security, the US took on the role of world leader and set its own goals for “peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law”.

In 2004, a comedy/drama/action movie entitled “Team America: World Police” was released[11]. Although clearly a comedic portrayal of the CIA’s supposed efforts to (de)stabilize various regions abroad, as with all parody, it has a certain amount of truth behind it. Without someone to face off against in outright war, the American army became something of a global police force, and the world entered into the Age of Interventionism.

Before the USSR had even breathed its death rattle, the US was involved in the First Gulf War, a war against Iraq in which the US led a coalition of 34 nations.[12]  Considered mostly successful in rolling back the Iraqi Army’s invasion of Kuwait, this was first of many exercises in military intervention and leadership for the US. Although members of the UN Security Council enacted sanctions against Iraq in response to the invasion, it was Bush’s placement of troops and urging of fellow UNSC members to do the same that made it a true war. Considered by the US Department of State to be its “first full-scale post-Cold War international crisis”[13] the Gulf War was an apparently addictive first taste of global leadership for the US. Russia, despite having been a long-time partner of Iraq, joined the US in condemning the invasion of Kuwait, one of several clear foreign policy indicators that the US had gained the upper hand in the Russo-American relationship.



Many other campaigns of intervention (and, often, non-intervention) would follow: Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo, which would define American interventionism in the 90s and for years to come as the US struggled with defining what was and was not relevant to ‘national interest’. No example of genocide would ever again be as clear as the Holocaust during World War II, and even in that case, the world was slow to react. The disastrous Somalian campaign seemed to, for a time, deter American interventionism, resulting in a delayed and ultimately inadequate response in Rwanda just a year later. As the US Department of State puts it (and, perhaps, oversimplifies),

“The administrations of President William J. Clinton during the 1990s were shaped by attempts by American foreign policymakers to redefine what constituted a "threat" and what foreign policy would serve the "national interest" in the post-Cold War era. Some experts argued that the United States should work toward preventing ethnic conflict and genocide in places such as Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Others maintained that U.S. foreign policy should focus instead on preserving U.S. economic and trade interests.”

When Clinton came to office in 1993 to replace Bush Sr. he had no great war, no cosmic ideological struggle through which to lead his nation. Perhaps more terrifying and difficult, he was charged with charting America’s path through previously untrodden grounds. No country in the age of globalization had ever commanded such unilateral power as the US did during the immediate post-Cold War era. The US did not have enemies – freedom had enemies; democracy had enemies; justice had enemies – and the US was there to fight them, like a playground vigilante that was a full foot taller than any bully around.   

As leader of the United States, Clinton was also the de facto leader of NATO. Born of a desire to reassure European nations of American commitment to opposing the spread of communism and the machinations of the “evil empire”, NATO was the international coalition equivalent of Big Bertha after World War I: made for a very specific purpose for which it was no longer needed, now that the war that had made it necessary was over. In the period after the Cold War, NATO’s purpose had to be redefined. It could no longer be an assurance against the USSR, and so it became the world’s premiere intervention force, with the United States at the helm. The US made a concerted effort to foster cooperation between NATO and Russia, first by getting Russia to join the Partnership for Peace program in 1994[14], and later, in 2002, when the Russia-NATO Council was created. In 1997, both NATO members and Russia signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security[15], setting a precedent of cooperation for years to come between the two countries.

With Russia tentatively on NATO’s (and, thus, the United States’) side, the question transformed from “What to do about Russia?” to “What to do?” With the infrastructure of NATO and the US military at his disposal, Clinton became a tyro champion of human rights, using the power at his disposal to try to create peace out of anarchy. But, as seen in Mogadishu in 1993, this was easier said than done, and just a year later Rwanda showed the world that there was no consistency in US foreign policy. Clinton, despite his best efforts, failed to answer the query posed by the Department of State: “what [constitutes] a "threat" and what foreign policy [serves] the "national interest" in the post-Cold War era”?


Bush Jr.

It was not until the administration of George W. Bush that the US had a simple, succinct answer. Despite widespread criticism that his answer was the wrong one, Bush Jr. had an answer for the State Department. However, the logic was not new. Taking pages from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Immanuel Kant, Bush predicated US foreign policy on two concepts:

  1. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”[16] and
  2. Democracies don’t go to war with each other.

It is from these two platitudes that one gets a true sense of America was a moral world police force – and it is this that is the crux of my argument. Before America in the post-Cold War world, few, if any, nations ever went to war except when it was in their national interest, narrowly defined. The end of the Soviet-American rivalry, though, meant that the US no longer needed a defensive approach to national interest – it was not protecting its citizens from any external force that sought the end of its way of life. In 1994, during the Rwandan genocide, “President Clinton did not want to know”[17] what was going on. The US, reeling from its involvement in Somalia in 1993, stayed far away from Rwanda in terms of intervention. Instead, “the White House was focused more on getting Americans and the U.N. out of Rwanda than coming to the aid of Rwanda’s victims.”[18] The US has since been criticized heavily for not doing more: for not sending more troops to Rwanda, for not recognizing that this was clearly genocide in the making, for not saving lives when they had the ability to do so. However, as Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Prudence Bushnell said, “I do not apologize for that. The first obligation of a government is to its citizens.” She went on to explain:

“We were terrified of what was going to happen to our citizenry and so indeed we went into action,” she said. “We had no concept that we would not be going back and not helping. I regret my government’s actions with regards to the citizens of Rwanda. I do not regret my government’s actions with regards to the citizens of the United States.”[19]

In today’s world, it is easy to criticize the Clinton administration for its inaction because that is how the world, and specifically, America, functions today: if you can help, then you are obligated to help. At the time, that was a fine idea, and a moral way of living one’s life, but not an international political norm. Today, there is a doctrine that outlines this very idea: Responsibility to Protect, or ‘R2P’, an idea created by the UN that states that if a state is incapable of protecting its citizens or is itself the perpetrator of crimes against its own citizens, then other nations have a responsibility to protect those people. It is the right thing to do.

Prior to the late nineties, this was not the case. National interest was based on national security and the interests of the citizens of one’s nation. However, when you have virtually no threats knocking on your door and the world’s largest and best-equipped fighting force at your beck and call, along with a coalition involving the majority of the rest of the free world, you seem rather dressed up with nowhere to go, and so “national interest” was redefined to include the rest of the world. This was the Truman Doctrine 2.0: a challenge to democracy and freedom anywhere, to follow Dr. King’s logic, was a threat to democracy and freedom everywhere, including at home in the US.

Why democracy and freedom? Besides the fact that these are the basic tenets upon which the US is predicated, everyone wants world peace, and according to the Democratic Peace Theory world peace is indeed achievable. As Bush was later quoted as saying (as was Margaret Thatcher and countless other politicians who oversimplified Kant’s work to a single sentence), “Democracies don’t go to war with each other.” Of course, taken at face value, this seems ludicrous – and it is. Hitler was technically democratically elected, as was Roosevelt, and the US and Germany certainly went to war with each other. However, there is real logic behind Democratic Peace Theory that far predates Bush:

  • Democratic leaders are forced to accept culpability for war losses to a voting public;
  • Publicly accountable statesmen are more inclined to establish diplomatic institutions for resolving international tensions;
  • Democracies are less inclined to view countries with adjacent policy and governing doctrine as hostile;
  • Democracies tend to possess greater public wealth than other states, and therefore eschew war to preserve infrastructure and resources.[20]

Therefore, it was very plausible that the Bush administration might redefine national interest quite a bit more broadly. A more peaceful world is certainly in the national interest of the United States, and of that of virtually all nations for that matter. Thus, US foreign policy became more proactive. By 1992 in Somalia, the beginnings of this policy were already in the works, and by 1998 in Kosovo, the precedent for military humanitarian intervention was already there, as were the mechanisms to enact such policy (i.e. the use of NATO as an intervention force).

With a bit more time and practice, this could have become a very successful policy for the US. As the nineties progressed, US interventionism became more and more effective. While the American intervention in Kosovo might not be deemed an outright success, when compared to Somalia and Rwanda, improvement was certainly visible. However, as the US quickly learned on September 11th, 2001, time was up.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 caused an unprecedented shift in American foreign policy. Suddenly, the US once again had a mortal enemy that sought the destruction of the American way of life: Al-Qaeda. However, this was a challenge for which the US was ill prepared. Al-Qaeda was not a nation with a differing ideology from that of the US. It was a religiously motivated violent nonstate actor that relied on terror tactics to get what it wanted.

All the tools that had been left behind as vestiges of the Cold War now had use. On September 12th, 2001, for the first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stated:

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” – Article 5 of the Washington Treaty[21]

However, Bush all but ignored NATO. This was America’s fight, and no one else’s. According to Doug Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, the Bush administration “was so busy developing its [Afghanistan] war plans that it did not have time to focus on coordinating Europe's military role.”[22]

What followed was a pair of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that lasted far longer than intended and became Bush’s Vietnam, a search for two men thought to be responsible which ended ten years later, and a wild goose chase for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

Bush had the great war, the cosmic ideological struggle that Clinton never had. However, instead of take the golden opportunity given to him in the form of Article 5’s invocation to unite the world against a terrorist group in a era of foreign policy that had had no common enemy for a decade, Bush took America to war in the Middle East and virtually did so alone. The US campaign in the Middle East did not quite suffer the same setbacks and utter disillusionment that accompanied the American “police action” in Vietnam – at least not immediately.

9/11 did not entirely change the course of US foreign policy the way Pearl Harbor did; it was not a 180-degree flip from isolationism to interventionism and involvement in a world war. Rather, it altered the course of US foreign policy formulation. It forced Bush to take what he had started – democracy promotion and the spread of American ideals to encourage peace among the nations of the world – and adapt it to this new adversary. Afghanistan and Iraq were not simple humanitarian interventions (as simple as they can be) but full-on wars followed by extensive nation building, an exercise in which the US had had virtually no experience, and one which, it would soon find out, was far easier said than done. In simple Socratic logic: If democracies do not go to war with each other, and Al-Qaeda wishes to go to war with us, then the solution is to destroy Al-Qaeda and replace it with a democracy.

The lesson quickly learned was that democracies are difficult to build, and that even when you are successful, young democracies are unstable and will sometimes go to war even more often than they might have otherwise. Distilled to an axiom: the devil you know is better than the one you do not.

Bush’s foreign policy, then, with regards to Russia, became quite a simple one: nothing. Russia was no longer a concern. The Bush administration had little time for proactive foreign policy anymore, and even less time for what it saw as a decrepit has-been nation with a broken, commodity-based economy and little political weight to throw in the international arena. It was not until the election of President Barack Obama that the world saw anything close to a US foreign policy with regards to Russia.



Obama had several challenges on his plate. Besides an attempt to end the wars in the Middle East, Russia had left the Russia-NATO Council and abandoned the Partnership for Peace framework in 2008 after US/NATO condemnation of Russia’s war with Georgia and conflict with President Saakashvili over Abkhazia and the South Ossetian Republic, both of which Putin had supported in their bid for independence, something the US saw as a territorial act of aggression against Georgia. Putin cited Kosovo as a precedent, saying that the US had no moral high ground on which to stand, and diplomatic ties were severed.

Obama came to office with a plan: a “reset” in relations with Russia. This was seemed promising, contrasted with the utter lack of policy of the Bush administration. This, coupled with the fact that there was a change in leadership on both sides, seemed to spell success for Obama’s optimism. Vladimir Putin had decided to allow his prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev, take office in his place. From the outside, to the uninformed viewer, this looked like democracy at work. The world would later learn that this was actually just Putin “castling”, and that Medvedev was merely his puppet, and as president, wielded far less power than Putin ever did.

Obama’s policy of a “reset” was predicated on the idea that the US had acted arrogantly and aggressively. In a visit to the New Economic School of Moscow in 2009, Obama said,

“There is the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries."[23]

The reset was intended to act as a sort of apology, or “doctrine of mea culpa”[24], to show that the US knew it was at least partially at fault for the breakdown in relations with Moscow. Obama hoped, despite tensions over Georgia, Iran, Syria, and nuclear non-proliferation, to engage with Russia and make Putin a partner in peace, and to move forward into an age of renewed cooperation between the two former superpowers. However, Putin took this as a sign of weakness, and took advantage of the situation. Despite some gains made during Medvedev’s tenure, everything was soon to fall apart.

In the 2012 election cycle, Russia became a hot topic during debates between Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. When asked about the greatest threats to US national security, Obama cited violent nonstate actors in the Middle East, while Romney, almost prophetically, pointed to Russia. Obama ridiculed him, calling Russia an ally, saying that this was no longer the Cold War, and holding on to outdated sensibilities about great power politics was a dangerous way to play the game of foreign policy.

Just two years later, after Obama had won reelection, Russia decided that the support of separatist rebels in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was indeed a good idea, and Russia invaded and annexed Crimea and began supporting rebels in Eastern Ukraine. An aggressive move that was almost unanimously denounced in the international community, Russia’s land grab was a throwback to the territorial nature of Westphalian foreign policy, unprecedented in the 21st century among what were considered to be the world’s developed nations.

Obama’s reset was a bold strategy, and was heading in the right direction: letting go of the mentality of “my way or the highway” that had characterized American foreign policy since the fall of the Soviet Union and tending towards a more personalized style of diplomacy. However, the failing in Obama’s policy was an acute lack of understanding of Russia itself. To truly tailor policy to the statesman sitting across the table from you and the nation he represents, you must first understand the country itself, and how it sees you, sitting on your throne of world hegemony with a ‘reset’ button in hand. It is thus that we turn to Russia.



Russia, the nation, is quite complex. Considering the long list of iterations it has gone through in its long and storied past, it seems that not even Russia knows exactly what it is or what it wants. From Kievan Rus to the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation, to understand Russia is to be intimately familiar with some 1500-plus years of history. However, for the purposes of foreign policy formulation from a specifically American point of view, I will explore three aspects that are key to understanding Russia as a political actor on the world stage that I believe to be absent from the current American conception of Russia, the nation: the maintenance of the Russian war myth, as presented by Professor Gregory Carleton; a full-fledged and whole-hearted belief in the neo-realist school of thought and the mechanics of great power politics; and cultural traditionalism in the context of Putin’s new ideological war.  

War is to Russia, the nation, as vodka is to the Russian man: utterly destructive, and at times blinding, yet addictive and inextricably linked to the culture that defines his identity. Russia requires war, or at least the threat of war, to feed its never-ending narrative of just cause and persecution. Tufts Professor Greg Carleton explores this concept in the manuscript for his upcoming book, “Russia: The Story of War”. “War saturates Russia,” he writes, “leaving its imprint on essentially any subject that arises.”[25] War in Russia, though, takes on a specific purpose in the narrative of Russian nationalism. Despite the fact that not every war in which Russia has been engaged has been a defensive war, military conflict is almost always cast as defensive. Either the motherland claims it is defending its own borders (what most would consider a ‘defensive war’), as in the case of the invasions of the Mongols, French, or Germans; or it is defending its people and its way of life, as in the cases of Crimea in 1853, Chechnya in the 90s, Georgia in 2008, and Ukraine today.

Of course, while a long-standing use of propaganda to promote Russian nationalism almost guarantees domestic support of such rhetoric (look to Putin’s popularity spike in 1999 following his campaign in Chechnya, from a mere 31% approval rating in August to a whopping 80% just four months later in November[26]) this is a more difficult sell abroad, and in the information age, widespread international condemnation of a nation’s actions can have a countervailing effect on the opinions of Russian nationals. In order to counteract this, Russia has depended not merely on the belief of its citizens in Russian exceptionalism, but on religion.

In this context, however, I define religion not in the traditional sense of “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”[27] but in the sense of a commonly held system of beliefs and values. For the majority of Russia’s history, it has been a Christian nation – specifically, an Eastern Orthodox Christian nation. In 1853, despite the fact that the campaign in Crimea was clearly an attempt to gain access to a warm water port on the Black Sea which Tzar Nicholas I saw as vitally strategic to Black Sea security and economic ties with the rest of Europe, religion was used as the primary reason for the invasion. Instead of an offensive invasion meant to advance Russia’s national security and standing as a great power, the Crimean War was cast as a defense of Orthodox Christians living in the region, oppressed by the bloodthirsty Muslim Ottomans. While it was true that the Ottomans were oppressing Orthodox Christians in the area, the Crimean peninsula was a long-coveted prize for the Russian empire. Britain and France recognized this, and also took note of the fact that a Russia with access to the Black Sea might become too powerful to outweigh on the scales of the balance of power that ruled international politics in the 19th century.

Russia knew it needed to advance its national interest and security, and with oppressed fellow Christians in the area, Crimea became the perfect opportunity to cloak self-improvement and military aggression in the disguise of religious freedom. This was, above all else, a defense of Russia’s religion.

Eastern Orthodoxy, though, would not enjoy an unlimited reign as chief excuse for war. The communist revolution in 1917 and the subsequent rise of the atheist Soviet Union cast out Orthodoxy from state politics, and replaced it with communism. Dedication to one’s fellow comrades and unwavering belief in socialism became the new state religion, and the spread of communism worldwide meant that defense of the Soviet way of life gave the USSR a justification to intervene on behalf of socialists everywhere, which was later codified in the Brezhnev Doctrine.

The Russian war myth is essential to the continued existence of that very nation it portrays as constantly under attack. Without an enemy, it has no purpose, no way to sustain life. Russia must always be on the “right” side of history. Even the rape and sack and pillage of German towns during World War II was the result of defense of the motherland. The incredible loss of life during WWII was in defense of the motherland. It was terrible, but it was necessary to survive.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, communism was, for the most part, wiped out. Communist states that had previously been propped up by the USSR no longer had the ability to stand on their own, and despite Gorbachev’s hope that socialism might survive in Russia as an economic policy separate from the larger package of communism, Russia privatized rapidly and opportunistic elites like Mikhail Khodorkovsky (once the richest man in Russia) took advantage of the lack of regulation in the aftermath of the Cold War, killing any semblance of unified belief in communism.

The dysphoria that followed caused spikes in alcoholism and depression as Russia tried to figure out what exactly its purpose was in the world. The existential early-life crisis that seems to affect so many young people worldwide as they begin to question their purpose and the meaning of life struck the whole of the Russian populace at once. [28] Where the government had once told Russians exactly what their purpose was – service to the state and their fellow comrades – there was now nothing. Russia needed a new religion to fulfill its war myth. With the United States having “won” the Cold War, the narrative of Russian exceptionalism was dangerously close to falling to pieces.

Ex-KGB henchman and Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was groomed to be Yeltsin’s successor. A strong enough leader to save Russia with enough loyalty to refrain from destroying the corrupt elites that had ruined the system in the first place, Putin was the answer to Russia’s problems.[29] He reinstated Orthodoxy as the state religion, and brought Russian nationalism back in style.

Russia’s identity, though, had changed. Not all Russians were Orthodox any longer. In fact, while up to 75% of Russians identify as Orthodox[30], some estimates put practicing Orthodox Christians at a mere 15-20%[31]. Further, about 5% of Russians profess to be Muslim.[32] While this seems to be a miniscule percentage of the population, it is a vocal minority, often in the spotlight courtesy of the heavy-handed rule of Ramzan Kadyrov, Putin’s puppet in Chechnya.

Putin is a master of spin. He has the Orthodox Church in his pocket, proclaiming Russia to be the defender of the ‘one true faith’, while simultaneously claiming, “Islam is a vital part of Russia’s cultural makeup.”[33] In a telegram published on the Kremlin’s website, Putin wrote, “Traditions of Islam are based on eternal values of kindness, mercifulness and justice. Millions of people in our country practice this ancient religion.” He was later quoted as saying, “Islam is a vital part of Russia’s cultural makeup.”[34] Contrasted with the violence of the campaign in Chechnya, and claims that in response to Islamist terrorists, he would “waste them in their outhouses”[35], Mr. Putin seems to be indecisive.

The reality is, Putin is Russia’s new religion. The cult of personality that he has built around himself has given Russia new life. It was Putin that won the war in Chechnya that Yeltsin had so miserably failed to do; Putin that had revitalized the economy; and Putin that gave Russians new purpose. Putin is the new basis of the Russian war myth. It is Putin that Russia will follow, and so as long as he remains in charge of Russia, it is into his understanding of foreign politics that we must delve.



Putin is a neo-realist. He believes in the cynical view that the world is an anarchic place with no explicit global power structure, populated by rational states that will act in their own self-interest, and that all diplomatic relations are a zero-sum game: If my enemies win, I lose. There is no win-win in Putin’s calculus.

Obama is more difficult to pin down, but a look at his foreign policy shows that he is not so cynical – at least outwardly. The ‘reset’ strove to foster a positive, cooperative relationship between Russia and the US, despite differences in national interest, like Iran. This is the marking of a liberal[36] policy maker. Putin cannot capitulate on Iran, because to allow the US to make gains would be to sell his own country short, even if he believed that slowing Iran’s production of nuclear material was the right thing to do, whereas Obama sees a win-win situation where the region ultimately becomes more peaceful and thus more conducive to Russian business. Obama’s ‘red line’ in Syria, where he said that the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad would “change his calculus” was nothing short of a threat of retaliation should chemical weapons be used, from a realist point of view. However, Obama’s lack of action once again spells liberal. Finally, and most directly relevant, Obama’s threat of retaliation should Putin annex Crimea was ultimately proven to be mostly hot air, as Putin not only took Crimea (and later outright took credit for the action) but moved his troops into Eastern Ukraine on the pretense of ‘protecting ethnic Russians’ and faced only mild sanctions in return.

Criticism has been lobbed at Obama for indecisiveness and a propensity for not following through on his claims. This is no longer the United States of Credible Threats. Rather, this is an age of American liberalism, and the lofty idea that states can cooperate to create a more peaceful world without resorting to violence. Critics claim that Obama’s foreign policy is ineffective. However, this is not absolutely true. Obama’s foreign policy is not an effective realist approach. However, the success of sanctions against Russia (tempered by European reluctance) and the production of a framework for a nuclear deal with Iran is proof that a liberal foreign policy can work – in some cases.

Putin, the realist, sees this liberal approach, and takes Obama for a naïve chump, a second-rate leader of whom he can take advantage. The precedent set by the ‘reset’ and Syria showed Putin who he was dealing with. Putin does not see the world quite the same way. As stated above, national interest, in the US, has been more broadly defined than ever before – a result of this recent tendency towards liberal foreign politics. Putin simply does not see the world the same way. He adheres to a Westphalian model of the world, where “Every nation has an inalienable sovereign right to determine its own development path, choose allies and political regimes, create an economy and ensure its security”[37], not the American model of ‘R2P’ that allows for the violation of sovereignty whenever an interventionist actor sees fit. Putin condemns such disregard for international sovereignty – at least when he sees fit. In his “Valdai speech” on October 24th of 2014, he stated:

“If for some European countries national pride is a long-forgotten concept and sovereignty is too much of a luxury, true sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival. Primarily, we should realize this as a nation. I would like to emphasize this: either we remain a sovereign nation, or we dissolve without a trace and lose our identity. Of course, other countries need to understand this, too. All participants in international life should be aware of this. And they should use this understanding to strengthen the role and the importance of international law, which we’ve talked about so much lately, rather than bend its standards to suit someone’s strategic interests contrary to its fundamental principles and common sense.”

For Putin, national interest is national security. The safety of his nation is first and foremost in his list of priorities when it comes to the formulation of foreign policy, whereas he seems to believe, not entirely inaccurately, that the US takes national security as a given, and has moved past that most basic need to interfere in the security of others for personal gain.

Coupled with Putin’s realism is an adherence to the idea of ‘great power politics’ – the idea that the great powers of the world balance each other out and determine the fate of the world, and whether or not you get your way is based entirely on how powerful you are. This idea seems outdated, and perhaps useless in a world where the US retains so much more power (militarily, economically, and, arguably, culturally) than any other state. However, it is exactly this line of thinking that puts the US at risk. When you have western leaders and thinkers like: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying, “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine”[38]; like Garry Kasparov saying, “I never saw Russia as a part of the G8 – it was always the G7+1”[39]; like US President Barack Obama saying, “[Putin’s] got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom”[40] and outright referring to Russia as a “regional power” that was acting in Ukraine “not out of strength, but out of weakness”[41] you ignore the power that Russia wields.

Putin sees Russia as a great power – and not without good reason. Yes, it is necessary in order to perpetuate the Russian war myth and the idea of Russian exceptionalism, but it is not a baseless claim. Russia is one of the BRICS countries, states deemed to be rising economic powers. Despite a year of tough sanctions and an incredibly poor performance by the ruble, Russia is still ranked the world’s ninth largest economy[42] and the ruble, despite hitting a record low of trading at 69 to the dollar in February of 2015, has already recovered to 52 to the dollar as of May 4th, 2015.[43]

Then of course, there is the elephant in the room to consider: nuclear arsenal. While it seems ludicrous that any modern nation would seriously consider the use of a nuclear weapon, until the world is rid of them they are a factor in all diplomacy with any country that possesses these weapons of mass destruction, as evidenced by American insistence on preventing Iran from acquiring ‘the bomb’. Russia remains the only country in the world with a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the United States. In fact, Russia outstrips the US with about 8,000 nukes to the United States’ 7300, while the next nuclear-weapon-richest nation is France with a mere 300.[44] While it seems like an antiquated measure of power, to disregard nuclear weapons would be foolhardy –and in ridiculing and dismissing Russia, that is exactly what the US has done.

Putin (and thus, Russia itself) sees Russia as a great power, and so he acts like it, whether the western world chooses to respect that or not. Self-image is as important to policy as perception, and if the US continues to view the world through a liberal lens without acknowledging how Russia views itself and others, playing a game with a different rulebook, then crises like Ukraine are only the beginning.

Putin’s quote at Valdai about the sovereignty to which “every nation has an inalienable right”, cited above, takes on a particularly contradictory glare when put in its full context:

 “It is well known that Russia not only supported Ukraine and other brotherly republics of the former Soviet Union in their aspirations to sovereignty, but also facilitated this process greatly in the 1990s. Since then, our position has remained unchanged. Every nation has an inalienable sovereign right to determine its own development path, choose allies and political regimes, create an economy and ensure its security. Russia has always respected these rights and always will. This fully applies to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.”

Putin may believe that this does indeed apply to Ukraine – with the corollary being that he does not believe Crimea, Donetsk, or Luhansk to be a part of Ukraine in the first place. When fighting broke out in Eastern Ukraine, and continued for months on end, even after an attempt at a ceasefire in the form of the Minsk Protocol, suddenly, the US became very serious about credible threats to Russia. Despite lack of initial response when Crimea was annexed, the military invasion of one country by another was unprecedented and required a response.

Just after the annexation of Crimea, fellow neo-realist John J. Mearsheimer justified Putin’s actions in an article entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault”. He argued that the West had dismissed Russia time and time again, and encroached on its territory through the expansion of NATO, which Mikhail Gorbachev had supposedly been promised would never move an inch eastward of its position at the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whether or not this was actually promised to the Russians (it was, only it was never formally agreed upon[45]), the Russians believe that it was, and act as such, and to argue about it now is petty and useless. As a realist, Mearsheimer thought it clear as day that Putin would react adversely to the encroachment of NATO, an organization specifically created to counterbalance Russian influence and military power in Europe, towards his borders.[46] This single event, and Mearsheimer’s argument in regards to it, encapsulates the shortcomings of American foreign policy: an inability or refusal to see US actions through any other lens than the one used to create the foreign policy in the first place.

Michael McFaul, in response, wrote an article called “Faulty Powers”[47], laying the blame squarely at Putin’s feet. He pointed out that NATO expansion had been going on for decades – why was 2014 any different? To which one might respond by pointing out that firstly, the overthrow of Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and election of the pro-Western Petro Poroshenko put Ukrainian NATO membership, which had previously been tabled, back up in the air, and secondly, the Russian war myth only functions in situations where there is a viable justification of defense of the motherland – as there was in Crimea in the form of a population with a majority of ethnic Russians (as determined by native spoken language). McFaul then explains that while Mearsheimer might think the world would be better off if US policymakers simply “embraced his brand of realpolitik” McFaul believes the opposite: that the world would be better off if Russia embraced progressive liberalism in policymaking. However, the Russia is not the nation trying to get Putin out of Ukraine – the US is. Putin’s policy was clear and in action, while the US still had yet to formulate a real response. Of course, sanctions soon followed, but apparently did not have the intended effect. In making policy it is the responsibility of the state attempting to change the behavior of another state to adjust its policy accordingly. Clearly, the American strategy in place at the time was insufficient to deter Putin from taking Crimea. A policy proven to be ineffective by history (however recent) is unlikely to suddenly begin working without adjusting accordingly, and so it falls on the shoulders of the US to react.

Crimea, though, has already been annexed. Unless Putin capitulates in some negotiation and decides to give Crimea back (highly unlikely) or the US, either alone or with a coalition of other states, decides to take Crimea back by force (extremely unlikely, given the American public’s current distaste for interventions) there is nothing anyone can do. However, should Minsk II fail and fighting break out once again in Eastern Ukraine, there remains one question that is not so black and white: should the US arm Ukraine?

Ash Carter, American Secretary of Defense, along with several others in the US policymaking clubhouse, seem to think that this may be the best move for the US. Ash Carter was quoted as saying that he was “very much inclined”[48] to provide lethal arms to Ukraine, despite the White House’s resistance to do so. Arming Ukraine would mean supporting a fellow democratic nation in its efforts to throw off the cowl of Russian pressure to conform to the Russian sphere of influence. The US should encourage, not abandon, those countries that choose to redefine their future and pursue democracy and freedom instead of giving in to a heavy-handed authoritarian ruler with a penchant for riding bears. It is the right thing to do. Ukraine should have the ability to align itself with the West and join NATO and the EU if it so chooses.

This is a very compelling argument – but at its heart, a largely emotional one. This is an appeal to morals, and to doing the right thing. America, the land of the free and home of the brave, cannot turn away a country that wishes to come to the light of freedom and democracy. This is precisely the kind of reasoning that began to drive American foreign policy under Reagan, and later, under Clinton and Bush Jr. This is not a geopolitical fight, but one between “good and evil”, as Reagan put it. The difference, though, is that when Reagan said it, it was rhetoric intended to garner support at home and inspire the American people – today, it has become the basis for policy. The US cannot have its cake and eat it too; saying that Ukraine has an absolute right to self-determination without recognizing Russia’s concerns about its national security is hypocritical, and foolish when one considers the weight that Russia has behind its decisions, in the form of the world’s ninth largest economy, second most powerful military[49], and largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The decision to arm Ukraine, as based on the reasoning above, considers front-end logic, but ignores back-end consequences. Those consequences, apparently unconsidered by Ash Carter et. al,  would be dire, as outlined in two articles: “Don’t Arm Ukraine” by John J. Mearsheimer[50], and “Why Arming Kiev is a Really, Really Bad Idea” by Stephen Walt[51].

Mearsheimer begins by explaining the logical flipside of the emotional appeal often cited by pro-armers. Ukraine, and specifically Crimea, is of vital geostrategic interest to Russia. Crimea is home to Russia’s only warm water port, and its most important naval base, which is crucial in terms of Black Sea security and power projection in the region. Ukraine borders directly on Russia. It remains one of the few countries left that have the potential for joining the Eurasian Economic Union, Putin’s answer to the EU, and next to Russia, its largest potential member. On the other hand, the US has literally no strategic interest in Russia. The only potential for geostrategic use for Ukraine is to deny it to Russia – a zero-sum way of viewing the situation, and as discussed, far beyond the limits of Obama’s realism.

Walt follows this up with an idea of what a Russian response to arming Ukraine would look like. Russia, as led by Putin, could hardly be expected to sit by and allow the US, its biggest rival, to arm a country on its border without responding in kind – and respond Putin would, with more arms, personnel, vehicles, and resources to his “little green men”. The result would be an escalation of the war and inevitable arms race, resulting in more violence and more deaths, not a peaceful Russian withdrawal from Ukraine. Those who respond by pointing to arguments against appeasement, citing Hitler in the 1930s as an example of what happens when you give a dictator a piece of land, ignore the fact that this is spiral, not deterrence, model of aggression. Simply put, Germany was a rising country that was getting greedy, and every time the Allies appeased Hitler only proved that they would do nothing to stop him. Putin on the other hand, is the leader of an ailing, former great power. As insulting and inappropriate as it may be for a sitting president to say it out loud, Obama was correct in calling Russia a “regional power” that was “acting not out of strength, but out of weakness.” Putin is vulnerable and insecure, and is therefore lashing out to ensure what little security Russia has left. This is a last-ditch effort to save Russia from being surrounded and overrun, not the first in a series of aggressive political moves meant to take over the world.



American foreign policy has suffered from the delusion of the nineties that it was the only country with an opinion that mattered. In the absence of a rival or enemy to whom the US could react, foreign policy became Americentric, and the US forgot how to take into account the national interests of other countries. The US seemed to know exactly what was in every other nation’s best interest, despite evidence to the contrary, and created foreign policies without regard to the rest of the world, choosing to act instead of react. Obama’s new approach to foreign policy is an improvement: acknowledgment of arrogance in the ‘reset’ policy and leading from behind instead of jumping headfirst into problems in which the US has little geostrategic stake, much as they have been criticized, are an improvement from the Bush Jr. era of ‘our way or the highway’ politics.

The US needs to take into account the history and view of each country with whom it deals, both how it sees itself, and how it perceives to US, as well as how that country sees the problem at hand. In this vein, a Senate Foreign Perceptions Committee would be extremely helpful. Different from the Foreign Relations Committee, the foreign perceptions committee’s sole purpose would be the briefing of congresspeople and policy makers in the US. Placing such a committee in the Senate would ensure a higher pedigree of politician than the House of Representatives while simultaneously keeping it out of the White House, allowing for increased accountability across branches. The committee would be required to be consulted before any planned intervention, provision of arms, or negotiations to lead to a treaty with any foreign nation could begin, which would allow for more communication and transparency in policy design.

Further, the committee would be required to be bipartisan, both in political party affiliation and in international relations school of thought affiliation. US foreign policy must stop being driven by a single prevailing school of thought at any given time. The inclusion of realist, liberal, and constructivist voices, would lend a great deal more flexibility to the committee and the policies it would recommend.

The committee would be required to work closely with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, the Departments of Defense and State, and the White House. Open lines of communication would be required at all times in order to facilitate timely policy responses instead of slowing down policy creation further.

The committee would police the actions of congresspeople with regards to foreign policy, in order to provide for consistent dissemination of information among the two houses of Congress, and to prevent incidences of interference from occurring, as in the case of Senator Tom Cotton’s letter to Iran, which was accused of undermining President Obama’s ability to conduct foreign policy. In such a globalized world, where the President of Israel can come to speak to Congress without the President of the United States’ involvement, greater care must be taken to ascertain that US foreign policy is perceived as consistent and unified, instead of disjointed and incomplete.

The US can no longer afford to make moral cases for foreign policy without first considering the bare national security implications of that policy. The primary concern of a state is the security of its citizens, after all, and policy that ignores that fact and has no basis in the security of its citizens and fails to consider the implications abroad and how other states will perceive it is not policy at all, but wish fulfillment.



[1] Ronald Reagan, March 8th, 1983, “Evil Empire” Speech, addressing the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida

[2] “Reagan Doctrine, 1985” US Department of State,

[3] NSC National Security Decision Directive 75

[4] Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview with BBC on December 17th 1984.

[5] President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime Lou Cannon 1991.

[6] “Gorby Had the Lead Role, Not Gipper” The Globe and Mail, June 10, 2004.

[7] Gorbachev and New Thinking in Soviet Foreign Policy, 1987-88,

[8] “The Collapse of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan” World Association for International Studies, Stanford University,

[9] Gorbachev and New Thinking in Soviet Foreign Policy, 1987-88,

[10] George H.W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 29, 1991

[11] “Team America: World Police” IMDB,

[12] “A Short History of the Department of State: The First Gulf War” US Department of State: Office of the Historian,

[13] “A Short History of the Department of State: The First Gulf War” US Department of State: Office of the Historian,

[14] Signatures of Partnership for Peace Framework Document,

[15] Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Federation of Russia, signed in Paris, France

[16] “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963

[17] Roméo Dallaire, UN Canadian Force Commander,

[18] Colum Lynch, “Rwanda Revisited” Foreign Policy Magazine, April 5, 2015

[19] Colum Lynch, “Rwanda Revisited” Foreign Policy Magazine, April 5, 2015

[20] Democratic Peace Theory,


[22] Kaplan, Fred. “Bush’s Many Miscalculations” Slate, Sept. 9 2003

[23] Barack Obama, in an address to students of the New Economic School in Moscow, July 2009

[24] Feith, Douglas J. et. al, “How the Russian ‘Reset’ Explains Obama’s Foreign Policy”, Foreign Policy Magazine, October 16, 2012.

[25] Carleton, Gregory. “Russia: The Story of War” Tufts University, 2014.

[26] Volkov, Denis. “Putin’s Ratings: Anomaly or Trend?” Institute for Modern Russia, 23 December, 2014.

[27] Google Definitions

[28] Oushakine, Serguei Alex. “The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia”. April, 2009.

[29] Judah, Ben. “Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin”  25 March 2014.




[33] Khodarkovsky, Michael. “Chechnya and Charlie Hebdo”, New York Times, 22 January 2015.



[36] Used here in the sense of a school of thought within the field of international relations.

[37] Putin, in a speech at the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on 24 October, 2014

[38] Stephen Harper at the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia on 15 November, 2014

[39] Garry Kasparov at the Munk Debate on Russia on 10 April, 2015

[40] Barack Obama in a press conference on 9 August 2013

[41] Barack Obama in a press conference on 25 March 2014




[45] Power, Samantha. “What We Promised”.

[46] Mearsheimer, John J. “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” Foreign Affairs, October 2014.

[47] McFaul, Michael. “Faulty Powers” Foreign Affairs, December 2014.

[48] Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his nomination hearing on 4 February 2015


[50] Mearsheimer, John J. “Don’t Arm Ukraine” The New York Times, 8 February 2015.

[51] Walt, Stephen. “Why Arming Kiev is a Really, Really Bad Idea” Foreign Policy Magazine, 9 February 2015.