The question of whether Iran’s leaders are acting rationally has concerned strategists for years. Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea has raised similar questions about President Vladimir Putin — posed by, among others, Foreign Affairs and Slate (which would have us believe Putin actually wants us to believe he’s irrational).
Acting on the presumption that Putin is a rational actor and will respond to measures that make further aggression in Ukraine most costly, the West has imposed sanctions against Russian officials and threatened to expand the boycott to the whole of the Russian economy. If Russia continues on its current course, President Barack Obama warned last week, “the isolation will deepen, sanctions will increase and there will be more consequences for the Russian economy.”
“He may be proven right,” writes Reuters’ David Rohde. “Over the course of 2014, the threat of economic sanctions may result in Putin backing down in Crimea and Ukraine. And historic sanctions against Iran — which slashed oil sales and cut the country off from the world banking system — could produce an accord that halts Iran’s nuclear program.”
“If not,” he believes “a 16th-century Machiavellian truism will reassert its dominance: The party most willing to decisively use force will prevail over a noncommittal opponent.”
That has so far seemed to be the case, at least for Russia. If anything, the apocalyptic leadership in Tehran has responded more “rationally” to sanctions that sunk its economy by reopening negotiations over its nuclear program. While it remains far from certain these talks will produce anything more than they did in the past, there is no question the sanctions forced Iran to reenter them. The Russians, on the other hand, seem to be taking the sanctions in stride. Indeed, some of the officials barred from traveling to the West claimed to be proud to be on the sanctions list — as did the Americans targeted by the Russians in return. They did not appear at all concerned. Putin himself mocked the sanctions, opening an account with the Rossiya Bank which was the only company boycotted by the Americans. Even as support for a tougher Russia policy is growing in Germany, Russia’s most important European trading partner which has so far been reluctant to impose heavy sanctions, Putin does not appear deterred.
Irrespective of the sanctions, the World Bank has warned that Russia’s economy will contract 1.8 percent this year, simply as a result of depressed confidence in the country. This, too, doesn’t seem to have an effect on Putin’s behavior. Is the former KGB agent becoming delusional after fourteen years in power, as The Economist and Washington Post suspect? Or might it be that Putin is a rational actor after all, but that his priorities are simply different from what a Westerner’s would be?
While Putin’s motives are a matter of speculation, what is clear is that the annexation of the Crimea follows decades of perceived humiliation of Russia by the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union — a huge blow to Russian morale in itself — its former Cold War rivals brought NATO right up to its border, incorporating even the newly-independent Baltic nations that had been part of Russia proper. Russia, believing itself to be a world power, was sidelined and sidestepped time and again, from NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 to the intervention in Libya in 2011, playing right into its historical sense of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis the West. Now, it has finally seen fit to reassert itself and not just challenge the West by its actions, but also in the way it justifies its conduct.
Putin famously described the Soviet Union’s dissolution as the twentieth century’s “greatest catastrophe.” But not just because it shrunk Russia’s empire. Rather, because it left millions of Russians stranded on the “wrong” side of the border in former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact states. The time has come to bring those “compatriots” back into Russia’s fold. The Russian Senate gave Putin permission to invade Ukraine to that very end. Russian state media, watched anxiously in parts of eastern Ukraine that are home to millions of Russian speakers, had for weeks preceding the Crimean invasion played up fears of ethnic division in the country. Neo-Nazis were supposedly about to take power in Kiev — backed by those nefarious Americans to boot — evoking memories of Nazi efforts to eradicate the entire Slavic population of Eastern Europe.
Russia sees itself as standing tall in opposition to such schemes with Putin leading the way. As Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Russia expert for the consultancy Wikistrat, puts it: “A man whose self-image of himself as Russia’s saviour, as well as a growing belief in what we could call Russian exceptionalism, a belief that Russian civilization has a distinctive and unique place in the world and must be protected from homogenising Western influence, have come to the forefront.”
It’s not just Putin who sees it this way. Many Russians approved of his invasion which they considered only an appropriate response to an imagined Western conspiracy to snitch the Ukraine from their sphere of influence. A recent survey by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion found more than 90 percent of respondents favoring unification with the Crimea while 86 percent said the peninsula, which was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, is part of Russia. Putin’s personal approval rating has skyrocketed, jumping nearly 10 percent in less than a month to 71.6 percent, the highest it has been in three years, according to the same polling firm. A full two thirds of Russians sees their country as a superpower again, up 16 percent compared to late 2011, according to Levada Center poll. What Western leader would look at those numbers and decide their policy is irrational?If Iran hopes to build a nuclear weapon, its motivations for doing so are similar. That country, too, feels threatened by American preponderance. Its sense of insecurity dates back to the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Iran with was supported by the West. Today’s regime still suspects that American and British intelligence services are plotting to dismantle it. The assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists can have only enforced the sense that Iran is vulnerable to foreign intervention. The country’s fears were exacerbated in the last decade by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s neighbors. Iran itself was declared part of an “axis of evil” and warned to sever its ties with terrorists and give up weapons of mass destruction or risk coming under attack.
Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons program, hoping to stave off military action. North Korea, by contrast, continued its efforts unabated. The former was toppled by a Western military intervention anyway; the latter survives. The lesson Iran must have drawn from this was that anti-American regimes that refuse to budge under pressure can persevere whereas leaders who give into pressure are removed once they have done so. From Iran’s point of view, a nuclear weapons capacity — which wouldn’t even require actually building a bomb yet — is the best guarantee of maintaining its sovereignty. It might come at a huge price. Its economy is in tatters, threatening the stability of its authoritarian regime from within. It has hardly any friends in the world. If it weren’t for the “Arab Spring” uprisings, its foes — all of them American allies — would have been in a strong position to deny it any regional influence. Yet regime survival trumps all these concerns.
Is this irrational? Hardly. Western government might derive much of their legitimacy from economic performance and believe their foreign policies are morally superior, but for the leaders in Moscow in Tehran, the world has changed far less. They still have to care about their immediate security, which sometimes necessitates sacrificing economic gains and involves building the prestige to placate their populations and deter potential adversaries.