An Interview with Nina Khrushcheva on Russian Foreign Policy

In the English-language scholarship, there have been two general accounts for interpreting President Putin’s foreign policy. One emphasizes his possible ideological commitments (ranging from his interpretations of Russia’s historic geographic boundaries and identity) and, for lack of a better phrase, his effort to “make Russia great again”. A second emphasizes his strategic interests and his desire to retain power (e.g., the invasion of Ukraine provides a possible distraction from domestic problems). 

To what extent do you think either of these broad frameworks correct or useful?

Nina Khrushcheva

Both are useful to some degree, and for Putin it is a combination of both. The problem with Western scholarship, particularly in English, is it wants to define Russia neatly, put it in boxes that are rationally understood. It thus provides a lot of room for simplification and interpretation. But Russia is big and chaotic, and its actions and thoughts are chaotic too. Putin does think that the end of the USSR and Russia’s central role was a great loss and it was done unfairly to Russia. In 20 years he was able to contribute to making Russia stronger, more secure and prosperous, and since that received no recognition, in fact animosity – all these talk for at least a decade of how to confront “the resurgent Russia” – Putin decided to take matter into his own hands: “You are not going to respect us, we will make you.” He is not that unusual compared to his predecessors; after all, a lot of Russian problems with the West come from a Western attempt to keep it in a box, but Russia wants to be recognized as equal.

I joke sometimes that the problems arise from Russia’s desire not to sit at a children’s table next to the toilet, where it invariably ends up. And also, Putin is a “hobby historian.” He likes culture, in awe of cultural figures and cultural thought. I was a witness to it myself in Moscow in his early presidency when he was starstruck by sitting next to the dissident musician Mstislav Rostropovch.  He saw Alexander Solzhenitsyn as his historical mentor, the true Russian spirit. In many ways, Russia was an empire and therefore after the collapse of the USSR was lacking its own nationalist identity, unlike other republics that fell off. So Putin listened to those like Solzhenitsyn, who offered panslavic Eurasianism as a uniting concept. Russia is a big and complex country with a complex history and culture so it is hard to distinguish what comes first – the imperial drive and the desire to be recognized and respected or a quest for power. That too is an important, and imperial, feature.

In Russia power is barely rotatable. If the “czar” comes in, it is for life. Putin’s actions in Ukraine are also driven by necessity to stay in power, because like many leaders he thinks that the first two quests, being imperial and being respected, would perish if it were not for him. In a way, he created a system of governance – with poisonings, arrests of opponents and so on – that is not going to look kindly on him leaving, so he needs to stay. And generally, leaving or wanting to leave power in Russia is a dangerous endeavor – Khrushchev was ousted in 1964 because he wanted to have only two terms of leadership, rotate the party apparatchiks and so on.

In the aftermath of more authoritarian governments, we have seen the emergence of more liberal and reform-minded leaders in Russian history. I have in mind figures like your great-grandfather, Nikita Khrushchev, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Do you see any indication that there is a viable alternative to Putin that represents a similar reformist or liberalizing tendency either in the Russian government or in civil society?

Russian history does look like a set of pendulum swings and we hope for another Khrushchev or Gorbachev after Putin, but we simply don’t know. In 1953 or 1985 there was no indication that either of them would be chosen or that they would pick the liberalizing direction that they ultimately picked. 

In the United States, there has been some agreement between some left-leaning scholars (such as the late Stephen Cohen and John Mearsheimer) and far-right populists over Putin’s motives. They often claim Putin’s foreign policy is reactive to the threat of NATO expansionism. How do you respond to this assessment?

They are right to some degree. I was George Kennan’s last research assistant and in my archives I have his 1997 letters to Strobe Talbott about NATO, essentially predicting that Russia was going to behave the way it does now. Professor Kennan gave me those copies asking for my opinion then. Imagine that! But the extreme response to this kind of the typical American action of “my way or the highway” is on Putin. There must be other ways to stand up to the American hubris, to make a convincing argument even to such a typically “deaf” partner as the United States. Khrushchev was incensed after the U2 incident in 1960. To some degree the Cuban missile Crisis was a response – you are not hearing us! – but he was a political actor, and so there was a political resolution beneficial to all sides.

Putin is a KGB lieutenant colonel, and he pursues an unwavering “order” only the KGB understands. With the USA and Russia security guarantees offered in January, there was plenty to discuss and settle upon. Putin chose not to.

We have seen far-right populists in the United States and Europe express admiration for Putin. To what extent do you see a convergence between Putin and his allies and the new face of the right elsewhere?

Russia is the largest country on earth and Putin is the most popular “villain,” but the far right was far right before Putin thought he would be associated with it. Victor Orbán, even Dick Cheney, they all came first, and a lot of far rightism Putin learned from Berlusconi in fact. But yes, now it is converging in breaking the globalization liberal status quo which they see as unfair to their countries’ national interests. 

Whether sincere or not, some justification for Russia’s involvement in the affairs of its neighbors – the “near-abroad” – has been grounded in the fact that ethnic Russian minorities were, in some sense, stranded in these countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has been a source of inflamed tensions in Estonia, Ukraine, and Georgia. How can this lasting problem be addressed?

These tensions were somewhat resolved some years ago so it is a bit hypocritical of Russia to make this argument. It is because of Putin Russianness has been having an extra bad rap. If he were less militant, we would be less hated. Sure, there is a lot of general unfairness in relation to the Russians because of the Cold War (and Hollywood and media propaganda in the US never gave up its favorite enemy), but Putin made this worse. We have been portrayed as villains as is and he stepped into that role seamlessly.

Much has been made of the interests of the oligarchs as a potential check on government policy. Is there any reason to think these economic elites offer a moderating influence?

That was delusional. No oligarch would have a say over Putin’s politics or actions. They existed thanks to him and he had been saying for some time, get away from the West, they would sanction us, hate us, etc, and you’d lose everything. And they did. So now they owe him even more than they did before. Whatever wealth they have left is now only in Russia. They may become a moderating influence one day, but not with Putin. He did keep the liberal economic team for now but none of it is related to politics.

Putin has attempted to forge (perhaps, re-forge) stronger ties with the non-Western world, whether via BRICS or by supporting regimes in the Middle East. How do you assess this turn to the East as well as to the global South? To what extent has this delivered a real alternative for Russia’s foreign policy orientation?

This doesn’t seem like a viable strategy. The USSR offered assistance to these regimes. What kind of assistance Russia can offer now? The BRICS countries are tired of the US diktat for sure, but it is the largest economy, and Russia should be better organized if it wants influence. Putin should be younger and more interested in strategic decisions about attracting them than just sitting in the Kremlin spouting orders to others and venting grievencing. When he talks about the “just international order” what is it exactly? What does he offer to the world except that they agree that they don’t want to follow the US domination? Fine, but now what?

Historically, military failures in Russian history have been remarkable catalysts for social change in Russia – whether initiated by elites or by everyday people. As the war in Ukraine drags on, is there any indication that this tradition might be drawn upon?

Perhaps. When it all began, a very highly placed Kremlin official told me on February 25th, “it is going to be another Afghanistan of 1979.” The official is still there, serving the boss, but his comparison with the Soviet loss in Afghanistan hasn’t changed.

The Russian economy’s reliance on the price of oil renders it highly vulnerable to changes in oil prices. At the same time, oligarchical control of the “commanding heights” of the economy establishes barriers to upward mobility. In light of these circumstances, what are the prospects for improving the lives of Russia’s citizenry and addressing economic inequality?

The Russian citizenry’s life was much much improved under Putin. Though the country relies a lot on oil and gas it developed an incredible force of the service economy, food culture, small businesses, and so on. There has been plenty of upward mobility (I’ll refer you to my book In Putin’s footsteps). In fact many Russian cities had developed an incredible culture of services and comfort. I ran to Moscow during covid because the comfort there was incomparable to the failing NYC. This is what Putin should have started to export, not guns and empire. Like the 19th century Russian literature that used European models but became great in its own right, that culture of comfort and services was becoming clever, original and way superior to most things I know in the West. They should have used it as a “new economy” that Russia could offer. In fact, based on the numbers of the new “Russian nomads” after February 24 and later after mobilization, Armenia for example improved its economic rating status because their development is going to use all this incredible talent.

And that is a main shocker – Putin made Russia a greatly functional autocracy with excellent prospects on par with the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew, and then he himself destroyed his creation. A coup in the Kremlin of sorts, and a historical anomaly – done by the same man against himself.

Nina Khrushcheva is Professor in The Julien J. Studley Programs of International Affairs at The New School. She is an editor and contributor to Project Syndicate: Association of Newspapers Around the World. Her books include Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, and, most recently, In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.


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