“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

Russia observers love to trot out Churchill’s famous quote. In fact, people love to use this quote in all sorts of other contexts–to apply to pretty much anything that is difficult to comprehend.

Churchill, however, made this statement in a radio address on October 1, 1939, and was referring to Soviet intentions in adopting the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the terms of under which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany divided up interwar Poland and the Baltics. Why would the Soviet Union allow Germany to advance eastward? Churchill argues that it can only be understood in the context of Soviet self-interest. By conceding some territory to the east, the Soviets hoped to draw a line: this far and no further. We all now how well that worked out in the long run, but Molotov-Ribbentrop did arguably buy the Soviets some time to recover the worst excesses of the purges.

Although Churchill was wrong was he said that the Nazi regime would, as a result of von Ribbentrop’s visit to Moscow, have to “accept the fact that the Nazi designs upon the Baltic States and upon the Ukraine must come to a dead stop,” he was certainly right that national interest is the key to understanding Russia. Then as now, Russia operates very much as a classically realist actor.

Russia’s idea of what constitutes national interest may vary (widely, at times) from American notions of national interest, but if you want to know what motivates the Russians, you have to examine their perceptions of national interest.*

I’ve been invited here to write occasional commentary on the political and economic situation in Russia and the former Soviet Union. I also have a strong interest in general economic issues, so I’ll probably ruminate on that subject from time to time as well. I don’t have quite as many fancy degrees as the other folks here, but I recently received a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a focus on Russia Eurasia Studies, so I hope that I’ll be able to use this platform to say a few interesting things and spark some worthwhile debates while I’m at it.

* The second rule (and equally important) of Russia-watching is “follow the money”. I’ll get to that later.