Why Moscow Say No

Andrei Shleifer, Daniel Treisman
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Council on Foreign Relations
Too often over the last decades, policymakers in Washington have viewed Moscow's resistance to U.S. policies through the lens of psychology. In fact, Russia's foreign policy has been driven by its own rational self-interest.
Foreign Policy
Political Geography
Russia, United States, Washington, Moscow
Russia's international behavior during the last decade has puzzled many U.S. observers. As seen from Washington, the greatest challenges of the moment -- terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change -- are global ones that threaten all states. The United States has been trying to organize multilateral responses. Yet the Kremlin has proved singularly unhelpful. For years, Russian negotiators have stalled efforts to compel Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, Moscow has applied economic and diplomatic pressure to keep nearby states from joining NATO or letting U.S. troops use their bases to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and effectively detached two mountain enclaves from its territory. More recently, some have seen hints of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. Last June, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev chatted over hamburgers in Washington and announced that their countries' relationship had been "reset." Moscow signed a new treaty to replace the expiring Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and backed a UN resolution tightening sanctions on Iran. But in other ways, the Kremlin continues to disappoint. Russia only agreed to sanctions against Iran that allowed Russia to continue selling the country nuclear power stations and, apparently, developing its oil and gas sectors. Closer to home, Russia has conducted military exercises simulating an invasion of Poland and has deployed advanced antiaircraft missiles in Abkhazia. THE RUSSIAN SUPEREGO To explain such behavior, U.S. officials and commentators typically appeal to psychology. The Russians, they say, are acting out of injured pride. Impulsive, emotionally unstable, and often paranoid, the Russians are lashing out at their neighbors in an attempt to cauterize the wounds of recent history and rekindle their lost sense of grandeur.