Russia's Rottweiler or Putin's Poodle?

Sergei Lavrov's misreading of Russian history.

Encounters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can be fiery, and Susan Glasser's profile of the diplomat highlights Russia's obstreperous posture on the stage of world politics ("Minister No," May/June 2013). Brash, loud, and demanding, Lavrov is tasked with reasserting his country's position on the world stage in the aftermath of what he views as the disastrous period following the Soviet Union's fall, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin went cap in hand to the West. In this role, Lavrov likens himself to Russia's greatest diplomat, 19th-century Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov. Despite his protestations, however, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Lavrov has emerged as more of a Soviet analogue than he would perhaps like to admit.

Gorchakov was Russia's foreign minister for almost three decades after the Crimean War, a time of crisis out of which he steered his country. When the fighting with Britain and France ended in 1856, it was obvious that the Russian Empire had missed victory because it had fallen behind in the race to modernize. In fact, Russia had yet to enter the race. It needed time to catch up industrially, educationally, and socially; Russia's internal transformation had to become the supreme priority. For most of his career, Gorchakov steered clear of international conflict, making policy comprehensible and predictable to the rest of the world. But he was no pushover in diplomacy. He never accepted the demilitarization of the Black Sea as permanent, and he shrugged off Western complaints about the brutal suppression of the 1863 Polish uprising. Eventually, he predicted, the Russian Empire would rejoin the card game of European politics with a handful of trumps.

It is easy to see why Lavrov might keep a portrait of Gorchakov, a new hero of post-communist Russia, in his office. But he also has former foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Gromyko on display -- the same Molotov who signed the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, the same Gromyko who voted to install SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe and invade Afghanistan. Lavrov is usually reluctant to mention them when abroad, but the choice of the portraiture for his ministry is far from accidental. Despite his Rottweiler manners, Lavrov is President Vladimir Putin's poodle. Putin has always placed an emphasis on state interests, official prestige, and international assertiveness. He stresses the continuity of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. He has abandoned Yeltsin's silence about the achievements of the Soviet years.

Those continuities with the Soviet Union are altogether too remarkable for comfort. Russia remains perilously dependent on the world market prices for oil, natural gas, diamonds, and timber, and it still needs to diversify its economy. The rule of law has yet to be established, and foreign direct investment is weak. Putin and Lavrov enjoy the plaudits they win with Russian popular opinion whenever they give offense to a U.S. president or secretary of state, and they balk at American efforts to form coalitions promoting a foreign policy based on democratic principles. They point to undesired consequences that flowed from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What they fear above all is that such an operation might one day be applied to Moscow itself.

Putin has wasted the windfall from the rise in energy export revenues since the end of the 1990s. Although he balanced Russia's budget in his first stint as president, he has shirked the task of fundamental modernization. All this is very different from what happened after the Crimean War, in Gorchakov's day and the age of reforms. By the 1880s, Russia had one of Europe's fastest-diversifying economies. Foreigners poured investments into the industrial and transport sectors. Undoubtedly, it was still a country of authoritarian tradition, and the movement toward the rule of law was a tormented one. But several basic reforms were seriously attempted, and Gorchakov was their eager supporter. Lavrov is many things, but, alas, he is no Gorchakov.

Professor of Russian History
Oxford University
Oxford, England



Forget "leading from behind." Obama's Middle East strategy is closer to "pleading from behind." 

Leslie Gelb is certainly right that the Obama administration's strategy of "leading from behind" was "ill-named and ill-explained" ("The Right Play," May/June 2013). But it was hardly a botched product launch. Rather, it was a game attempt to explain away a demonstrable failure of leadership as Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops closed in on the Benghazi rebels in March 2011. For more than a month after peaceful demonstrations had begun in Tripoli, the U.S. president dithered. When Libya's rebels, who had been on the offensive at the outset, found themselves cornered and about to be overrun, an unnamed White House official used the phrase "leading from behind" to explain what was a belated decision to support and enable a British- and French-led intervention.

Gelb rightly calls this misguided Libya "strategy" a "fiasco," which he is eager to distinguish from what he thinks is the "right" strategy for Syria. He brushes aside, however, the striking similarities between the administration's approach to Libya and its "strategy" for Syria -- both of which are appropriately described as "leading from behind" and both of which are dangerously flawed.

In the Libyan case, the United States waited long enough to diminish greatly its influence on the outcome but not long enough to avoid getting drawn into a conflict the administration had hoped to avoid altogether. Now we face a tumultuous Libya where it is unlikely that forces friendly to the United States will emerge as leaders -- and Americans are dead at the hands of those the United States empowered as it led from behind.

The Syrian case is even worse. Here the dithering continues after more than two years of unabated chaos. During this time, the vacuum the United States chose to observe has been filled -- as vacuums tend to be -- with the very jihadists Gelb thinks his "strategy" should stop. Two years ago, America could have exerted serious influence on the opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime, choosing whom to assist and whom to sideline. When Assad's opponents needed help, Barack Obama's administration stayed out of the game, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others took the lead in shaping the opposition that is now emerging. And though no one can be certain that an opposition supporting America's values and interests would have resulted from early U.S. support, we can be sure that an opposition shaped by Wahhabi zealots from Saudi Arabia won't.

If "leading from behind" describes the Obama administration's strategy in Syria and Libya, "pleading from behind" best sums up the White House's policy toward Iran, which may be far more consequential. Through its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, Iran has over several decades inflicted great damage on the United States, all while relentlessly advancing toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of all the policies the Obama administration has gotten or will get wrong, this is the most important. And like the others, it continues to be marked by interminable dithering to be followed almost certainly by the too little too late that the United States has trained its allies and adversaries to expect.

Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

Leslie Gelb replies:

It's always a pleasure to contend with Richard Perle because of his genius in making admittedly bad situations worse. When his policy proposals are clear, they invariably point to threats of force and use of force. More typically, however, he uses insinuation to suggest some magical solution or weakness in his targets.

Take Libya, where he blames U.S. President Barack Obama for doing too little too late and for not following through after Muammar al-Qaddafi's fall. Is Perle's point that the United States should have taken military action unilaterally, thus preempting and excusing military responsibilities by Arab friends and European allies? On the contrary, Obama's "leading from behind" caused others to assume responsibilities they otherwise would have dodged. As for Perle's jab at the president for lack of follow-through, what would Perle have done? Perhaps dispatched ground troops to "pacify" the country? But he offers us only insinuation and silence.

When it comes to Syria, it is by no means clear, as Perle suggests, that America's ability to distinguish good from bad rebels would have been any easier two years ago than today. And what if the United States had armed them earlier and that failed? Would Perle want U.S. air attacks? And if that failed, U.S. boots on the ground? Only silence and insinuation again.

Regarding Iran, Perle blames Obama for allowing the mullahs to virtually dominate the region. He seems to forget that the Iraq war he championed destroyed the only counterbalance to Iran in the region, leaving Tehran in a dominant position in the Middle East. Although Perle's letter is silent on what to do now regarding Iran, we know what he wants -- a massive U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear complex. And then what, Richard?