Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained that Russia’s foreign policy when it came to Iran was “schizophrenic.” I would argue that it is less a case of schizophrenia, and more a reflection of the fact that Russia does not have a singular foreign policy, but multiple foreign policies.
Even if we think that the current Russian government is more autocratic than democratic, it is still a pluralistic entity when it comes to policymaking. In the old tsarist system, the emperor might have been the supreme autocrat, but he was often pulled between different, competing policy choices backed by different power centers. Eugene Schuyler, an American diplomat posted to Russia in the nineteenth century, observed:
Each minister being independent and responsible only to the Emperor, there . . . can be no united policy. The councils of ministers do not so much discuss questions of policy as questions of detail, the solution of which depends on two or three ministers jointly. . . . it is possible for a measure to be put into operation although it may be contrary to the ideas and desires of the Foreign Office.
In the present Russian system, the president is formally in charge and sits at the apex of the policymaking pyramid, but he is often a reconciler and balancer of diverging interests rather than being in a position to implement his “autocratic will” through the ranks of the bureaucracy. Since 2008, the situation has been muddied by the emergence of two coequal power centers around the president (Dmitry Medvedev) and the prime minister (Vladimir Putin). As Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders noted, both Putin and Medvedev “routinely [act] to blur the [constitutional] lines; Medvedev summons ministers who report to Putin to issue public instructions on the economy, while Putin often takes a visible role on security and foreign-policy issues.”
Analyst Kirill Rogov, in looking at the current situation in Russia, commented in Novaya Gazeta that is not that Russia lacks a government, but that “we have at least three Governments”—each grouped around different clans and with different institutional power bases. At the center, Putin (and Medvedev) must find policy approaches that address the needs and concerns of these different blocs, in order to avoid any sort of destructive rivalries that pull apart the entire governing structure.
When it comes to Iran policy, there are a number of different actors at play. The modernizers—those who argue that Russia needs the active support (and investment) of the West in order to develop its economy and society—have pushed for the Kremlin to accommodate U.S. concerns about Iran. In order to facilitate a “modernization alliance” with the United States, particularly in the sphere of high technology, the Obama “reset” needed to be supported. As a result, I feel that it is no accident that the Obama administration submitted the 123 agreement on civil nuclear cooperation with Russia for approval as the Kremlin moved to back stronger sanctions at the United Nations (and also failed to provide diplomatic backing for the Turkish-Brazilian initiative with Iran). Moreover, Russian companies with significant interests in the United States—such as LUKOIL—have begun to terminate operations in Iran, in order to be in compliance with additional sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress on Iran.