Rising Experts Task Force: How the Kremlin’s Energy Dependence Weakens Institutions and Undermines Foreign Policy

On April 1, international political economy scholar Emma Ashford presented her working paper, “The Weakness of Institutions: How the Kremlin’s Energy Dependence Undermines Foreign Policy,” as part of CGI’s Rising Experts Task Force (RETF). Ashford used resource-curse theory to argue that oil and gas revenues have had a direct impact on the Kremlin’s demonstrably disadvantageous foreign policy decisions, citing the Second Chechen War and the Georgian War as case studies. However, instead of focusing on the effect of the resource curse on Russia’s external behavior, she analyzed its role in weakening critical foreign policy institutions within the Russian government.

After summarizing the relationship between a high dependence on resources (revenues as percent of GDP) and weakened institutions, Ashford looked in depth at how the decline of foreign ministries, intelligence services, and the military affect foreign policy. In the case of Russia, this boils down to two main consequences: a personality-driven foreign policy process and a lack of unbiased information making its way to the top decision-makers. She noted that under the 1993 Constitution, it remains unclear who has primacy in making foreign policy decisions, and the administration of President Vladimir Putin has been increasingly successful in maintaining autonomy from the institutional structure. This autonomy has led to the rise of informal advisors with personal ties to the country’s leaders, including the oft-noted siloviki, and energy sector executives. Thus policy advice can often be one-dimensional or incomplete. This contributes both to poor policy decisions and to flawed implementation of those policies.

As further evidence of the failure of formal institutions in the Russian case, Ashford pointed to the changes in foreign policy control during the Putin-Medvedev “tandemocracy.” When Putin assumed the Prime Minister’s office, control of foreign policy decision-making migrated with him, in a highly irregular shift that made it extremely difficult to assess the foreign-policy power of President Medvedev during this period.

Ashford made a compelling case that the Second Chechen War demonstrates the problems that arise from this centralized approach to foreign policy. The decision to enter the conflict at all was a highly personalistic one, taken by then-President Yeltsin, but not supported by Russia’s Foreign Ministry or other bureaucratic actors. In hindsight, it seems clear that entry into this conflict was inadvisable due to the foreseeable international fallout that resulted, especially in a time of Russian economic dependency following the 1998 currency crisis. We also saw a disorganized military campaign and near-“executive paralysis” due to lack of information at the top.

Similarly, the 2008 war in Georgia was driven by Putin and his closest advisors, highlighting the personal political conflict between Putin and Medvedev. Though foreign-policy implementation had marginally improved since the Chechen conflict, the over-centralization of command nonetheless reduced cooperation between agencies, and the lack of objective information continued to plague the operation.

Ashford argued that, over time, the Kremlin’s decision-making process has become more personalized and more centralized. Foreign policy agencies have become mere implementers rather than sources of policy, a trend that has continued throughout the current Ukraine crisis. To illustrate that point, the final decision to enter Crimea was made by Putin with only a few close advisors present. While it’s impossible to assess the quality of information flow to Russia’s top decision makers, the Kremlin has publicly made many false assertions on key aspects of the crisis. This begs the question: is the Kremlin engaged in a purposeful misinformation campaign, or is it a victim to genuine misunderstanding?

Ashford concluded by stressing that Russian foreign policy is likely to become increasingly less cooperative, less rational, and more personality-driven in the future. In response, Western policymakers should focus on psychology rather than bureaucracy and make a concerted effort to understand Putin personally. Most importantly, officials should understand that the Russian counterparts they are dealing with, despite their formal title, may in reality have little or no influence over their country’s final foreign policy decision. While Western policymakers may never gain full access to Russia’s insular decision making process, Ashford suggested they can become aware of its particular features as a positive first step.

Check here in the coming weeks to read Emma Ashford’s complete working paper.