To the Editors (Elias Götz writes):

Michael McFaul's article “Putin, Putinism, and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy” is well timed and likely to play a big role in shaping the debate about contemporary Russian foreign policy.1 The core argument is straightforward: President Vladimir Putin's illiberal worldviews are a major driver of Russia's international behavior. To be clear, McFaul acknowledges that other factors influence Russian behavior as well. In particular, he stresses that the balance of power enables Putin to pursue a confrontational foreign policy, but the balance of power does not motivate or cause his actions (pp. 102–105). Similarly, Russia's increasingly authoritarian political system serves as a permissive condition, concentrating decisionmaking authority in the hands of Putin (pp. 114–117). Thus, while McFaul recognizes that power and regime-type variables affect Russia's international behavior, the heavy causal lifting is done by Putin's illiberal conservatism and anti-Western mindset. The argument is intuitively compelling. On closer inspection, however, it fails to convince for four reasons.

First, the article's research design is flawed. By exploring only cases of Russian interventionism (e.g., Syria and Ukraine), McFaul is selecting on the dependent variable. In effect, he omits cases in which Russia abstained from intervention—although Putin's anti-liberal mindset would have pushed him to interfere. Consider, for example, Russia's response to the Velvet Revolution in Armenia. In May 2018, a wave of street protests erupted in Yerevan, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Serzh Sargasyan, who had been in power for ten years. The opposition made it clear that its ambition was to move the country in a more democratic direction. Thus, according to McFaul's thesis, Putin should have provided assistance to the Sargasyan regime to crack down on the protesters. This, however, did not happen. Instead, Putin adopted a wait-and-see policy and, after Sargasyan's resignation, established cordial relations with the new government in Yerevan.2 For a leader supposedly deeply terrified by protest-driven change and pro-democracy uprisings, Putin showed curious restraint. Likewise, Russia's relations with other authoritarian governments are not always amicable—far from it. In 2010, for instance, Russia aided the overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiyev's authoritarian regime in Kyrgyzstan.3 These examples run directly counter to McFaul's central argument, and they demonstrate the lack of representativeness of the selected cases.

Second, the article's account of Russia's Syrian policy is not on solid empirical grounds. For example, McFaul writes, “Imagine … a counterfactual in which Russia mediated a political settlement in Syria between the ancien régime and the opposition, in which [Bashar al-] Assad departed, but many pro-Russian actors of the Assad regime stayed in the government” (p. 99 n. 17). In fact, Moscow initially pursued this track. In 2012, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations, proposed a peace plan for Syria, which included the condition that Assad would step down and be replaced by an interim government. The Barack Obama administration, however, ignored the proposal, convinced that Assad would soon fall.4 Churkin's proposal for crafting a Syrian peace settlement shows that the Kremlin was not wedded to keeping Assad in power, at least not in the early stages of the civil war, as McFaul's account suggests. Moreover, the article's failure to mention this episode raises questions about McFaul's criteria for collecting and evaluating empirical material—criteria he never clearly explicates.

Third, and related, McFaul's analysis of Putin's Ukraine policy overlooks that Russia has repeatedly meddled in Ukrainian domestic affairs since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Rewind to the early 1990s. At the so-called Massandra meeting in September 1993, the supposedly liberal-minded President Boris Yeltsin blackmailed the Ukrainian government to grant Russia long-term basing rights in Crimea by threatening to cut off energy supplies. The Kremlin also intervened in Ukraine's 1994 presidential elections, providing financial and media support to the opposition candidate, Leonid Kuchma, who made closer ties with Russia a central plank of his campaign.5 More generally, Russia used an array of economic and military instruments during the early to mid-1990s to maintain basing rights in other post-Soviet republics.6 That Russia frequently interfered in the domestic affairs of neighboring states—well before the coming to power of Putin—undermines McFaul's thesis. Instead, it suggests that the Putin government's assertive policy in the former Soviet region is part of a much broader pattern of Russian behavior.

Fourth, McFaul's focus on the personal worldviews of Putin raises the question of what shapes his views in the first place. After all, in the early years of his presidency, Putin was much less confrontational toward the West. Among other things, he offered Russian support for the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan and acquiesced to a limited U.S. military presence in Central Asia. By the mid-2000s, however, he had adopted a more critical and antagonistic stance toward the United States. What happened? A close reading of McFaul's account suggests that Putin changed his views in response to external events. As he writes, “The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq created a new rift with the United States. More profoundly, ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine marked a more significant turning point in Putin's thinking about the United States” (p. 110). If this is so, it implies that Putin's belief system serves as a causal mechanism, or transmitter, linking external pressures and opportunities to foreign policy, rather than operating as an independent cause. In other words, McFaul's individual-level account of Russian foreign policy brings international-level factors through the back door, thus creating significant ambiguity in his theoretical framework. In essence, Putin's worldview surely matters in shaping Moscow's external behavior, but the extent to which it matters is much more limited than McFaul would have one believe.

Elias Götz

Copenhagen, Denmark

Michael McFaul Replies:

I thank Elias Götz for his careful read of my latest article in International Security.1 There is no higher praise than an author taking the time to consider your work and offer a response. Some of his comments reflect a different assessment of the same facts; others outline an important agenda for future research.

Götz's most important criticism is that my research design is flawed. I agree that the argument of the article—or a future book—would have been better tested with variation on the dependent variable, a task that I tried to accomplish implicitly using within-case variation: no Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2004 but intervention in 2014, and no Russian intervention to save Libyan autocracy, but intervention to save Syrian autocracy. Even with the 20,000 words graciously allowed to me by the editors of International Security, I felt the discussion of the three cases lacked the details to have made the respective causal claims stronger. “Stylized facts” versus “history” is always a trade-off. I find Götz's suggestion of adding the case of Armenia in 2018 intriguing. After the negative consequences for the Russian economy and Russia's international reputation after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, was Putin's decision not to intervene in Armenia a case of lessons learned? Or, was the threat to Russian autocracy and Putinism from the Armenian peaceful uprising simply not that substantial? These are good questions for future research. I also would add other cases that more tightly fit with those in my article: regime change in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the U.S. presidential election in 2012, and Libya in 2011. In these cases, the Kremlin decided not to intervene. What is the shared independent variable in these three cases of non-intervention that is not present in subsequent Russian interventions in Ukraine 2014, Syria 2015, and the United States in 2016? President Dmitry Medvedev. The addition of these cases of non-intervention in my article would have strengthened the case for the causal role of Putin and Putinism in shaping Russian foreign policy during his third term.

Second, Götz states that my “account of Russia's Syrian policy is not on solid empirical grounds.” Here, we will have to agree to disagree and let other researchers and readers reach their own conclusions. Contrary to Götz's claim, it is not true that “in 2012, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations, proposed a peace plan for Syria, which included the condition that [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] would step down and be replaced by an interim government.” As U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation in 2012, I spent a great deal of that year negotiating with Russian counterparts on a Syrian peace plan. In June 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Russia to meet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to bring the U.S. and Russian positions closer before the Geneva conference on Syria a few days later. We failed. In Geneva, as I wrote in my article, “Clinton described the road map as a “‘blueprint for Assad's departure’” (p. 128). Lavrov rejected Clinton's claim, however, stating, “There are no prior conditions to the transfer process and no attempt to exclude any group.”2 I attended meetings between President Putin and President Barack Obama in 2012 and between Putin and Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013. Putin never agreed to, let alone proposed, a plan that would have led to Assad's departure (and Churkin would never have done so independently).3

Third, Götz argues that apparent continuities in Russian policy toward Ukraine from the 1990s through the 2010s present a significant, alternative hypothesis to my argument. My reading of the evidence does not support his claim. First, President Boris Yeltsin supported Ukrainian independence. (One could argue that without Yeltsin's actions in Russia, especially in response to the August 1991 attempted coup, there would have been no Ukrainian independence in 1992.) Second, the kinds of interventions in 2014—annexation and support for separatists—were qualitatively different from those in the 1990s. Third, Russian objectives were radically different. Yeltsin never sought to undermine Ukrainian democracy. Putin did.

Finally, I obviously disagree with Götz that Putin's belief system is not “an independent cause” of Russian foreign policy. I do agree, however, that tracing this causality is a complex task, because Putin and his ideas interact with other domestic and international variables and his ideas changed over time. The Putin whom I met in 1991 had a different worldview than Putin in 2021. His ideas changed in part due to external events and domestic developments, including, most importantly, mass demonstrations in Russia in 2011–12. Rather than always privileging parsimony, scholars should sometimes embrace how different levels of analysis can be woven into a single theoretical explanation, and how multiple factors—power, regimes, individuals, and ideas—can influence outcomes simultaneously.

Michael McFaul

Stanford, California



Michael McFaul, “Putin, Putinism, and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy,” International Security, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 95–139, Subsequent references to this article appear parenthetically in the text.


Fred Weir, “Armenia Is Having a ‘Color Revolution.’ So Why Is Russia So Calm?” Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2018,


Stephen Blank, “Moscow's Fingerprints in Kyrgyzstan's Storm,” CACI Analyst, April 14, 2010,


Julian Borger and Bastien Inzaurralde, “West ‘Ignored Russian Offer in 2012 to Have Syria's Assad Step Aside,'” Guardian, September 15, 2015,


Elias Götz, “Neorealism and Russia's Ukraine Policy, 1991-Present,” Contemporary Politics, Vol. 22, No. 3 (2016), pp. 307–308,


See, for example, Alexander Cooley, “Imperial Wreckage: Property Rights, Sovereignty, and Security in the Post-Soviet Space,” International Security, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Winter 2000/01), pp. 100–127,; Daniel Drezner, “Allies, Adversaries, and Economic Coercion: Russian Foreign Economic Policy since 1991,” Security Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1997), pp. 65–111,; and Bruce D. Porter and Carol R. Saivetz, “The Once and Future Empire: Russia and the ‘Near Abroad,'” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1994), pp. 75–90,


Michael McFaul, “Putin, Putinism, and the Domestic Determinants of Russian Foreign Policy,” International Security, Vol. 45, No. 2 (Fall 2020), pp. 95–139, Subsequent references to this article appear parenthetically in the text.


“Geneva Decisions on Syria Already Being Distorted – Lavrov,” RT, July 3, 2012,


For a discussion of the details of this tragic diplomatic failure, see Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2018), chap. 20.