(PONARS Policy Memo) The weaknesses and inconsistencies of Russia’s recent actions toward the United States need to be explained. President Vladimir Putin is often seen as a foreign policy wizard, leading Russia to a string of successes and heightened international influence. But Moscow’s interactions with Washington are actually puzzling.
Using information drawn from press and other publicly available sources, this memo will examine four explanations for the situation: (1) Putin’s own psychological makeup and biases; (2) the unwillingness of knowledgeable advisors to stand up to Putin; (3) infighting among Putin’s advisors; and (4) the possibility that intelligence officers in Russia are acting on their own authority, without real state coordination. These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and we lack evidence to know which might be definitive. But the exercise is useful for thinking about the future trajectory of the Putin government and its foreign policy choices, suggesting that Putin may not be the only figure who matters going forward.