The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has shaken international security. As a result, many countries have expressed concerns regarding their national security. The event is contesting the liberal world order made up of democratic practices and established norms. Additionally, the war has had consequences on the global food supply and energy market, considering that the two countries are grain exporting powerhouses and Russia is an energy behemoth. Hence, the externalities of the conflict are making the world less stable.
As it is not entirely clear what the implicit and puzzling reasons that led Russia to invade Ukraine, this investigative essay employs three approaches: neoclassical realism, liberal democratic peace theory, and constructivism – to make sense of the war.
Consequently, a realist approach should help us perceive Russia’s security concerns and vital national interests. Whereas liberalism sheds light on the conflict by analyzing the level of cooperation, trust, and the relationship between Russia and liberal democracies such as members of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Finally, constructivism can provide explanations by identifying how implicit ideas, norms, and identities have influenced the behavior of Russia toward the war.
In other words, these theories are very practical for finding embedded causal mechanisms and patterns of behavior capable of explaining the armed conflict.
Neoclassical realism presupposes not only that a country’s foreign policy, intended as the outcome of a complex interaction of foreign and domestic elements, is influenced by its place within the system but also by its relative material capabilities. Similarly, the approach focuses also on the context of domestic politics.
After the fall of the Soviet Union (USSR), there were talks over the departure of Soviet soldiers from Central Eastern Europe and Germany’s reunification. Despite Putin’s claims about the US promising not to expand NATO further east, the evidence demonstrates that such a deal might have been discussed but not promised. The US treated Russia as defeated and sought to reaffirm its liberal order and expand NATO against Russia. Eventually, considering Russia’s weak position, Germany’s unconditional reunification got accepted in exchange for foreign credit. Several analysts, such as Carpenter and Kennan, argued that the alliance’s further expansion would provoke Russia.
The alliance expansion is detrimental because the country becomes more vulnerable by losing several buffer zones in the post-Soviet space and having to rely on uncooperative and militarily weak allies (e.g., Armenia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan). These countries, such as Ukraine, perceive Moscow as a threat and are susceptible to either bandwagon or balance against. Consequently, any convergence with the West, be it NATO or the EU, is seen by Moscow as highly destabilizing to national security. In this framework, the EU went from an economic partner to being perceived as a barrier to Moscow’s influence because of Brussels’ convergence with NATO on political and practical terms.
Militarily, Moscow can use the post-Soviet space to deploy nuclear weapons and hit major targets where NATO troops could be stationed. However, the presence of NATO within Ukraine or the Baltic states can greatly deter Moscow’s capabilities. Economically, NATO expansion, especially if incorporating Sweden and Finland, would threaten Russia’s strategy in the Arctic (i.e., maritime trade routes and energy reservoirs).
Domestically, the Kremlin needs oil and gas revenues to keep the country together. On the one hand, to maintain the social contract between the state and the population (i.e., power in exchange for a better standard of living). The elite feels the pressure to ensure these revenues. Formerly, American plans to create a network of oil pipelines around former Soviet Union territories excluding Russia exacerbated the Kremlin’s securitization of its borders and zone of influence to achieve this. On the other hand, a closer look at Russian budgets shows that significant financing to the more troublesome regions (i.e., Dagestan, Chechnya) diminishes separatism and “buys” loyalism.
Furthermore, the elite relied on economic growth based on commodities. However, since the 2008 financial crisis, Russia did not focus on modernization to increase legitimacy (e.g., anti-corruption, checks and balances, etc.) but on undermining its geopolitical adversaries. Hence, avoiding unsettling the internal equilibrium. As a result, foreign policy became domestic policy.
Therefore, with the integration of countries such as Ukraine into the West, Russia loses economic and political interdependence that are vital for its national interests. A wealthier Ukraine with greater material capabilities would harm Russia’s security and influence throughout the post-Soviet space.
In this neoclassical view, Moscow is behaving as an ordinary great power establishing a zone of influence (e.g., the US in Central America). Conversely to the URSS era, Russia must race for influence and resources in the post-Soviet space against the EU and NATO, which have higher material capabilities. Here, because of the limited national resources that can be allocated to the conflict, the actual power of Russia requires itself to focus on its relative strength (i.e., military) rather than pursuing absolute advantages.
Consequently, the relative power of Russia impacts its foreign policy: to undermine NATO from within. Putin’s perceptions of Russia’s relative power led him to assume that by militarily reestablishing Ukraine as a buffer zone, there will be no confrontation because decisions within the alliance are taken unanimously. The ties with Turkey and Hungary should play in favor of Russia. He might have also perceived the West’s leadership and Ukraine’s military (deprived of deterrence force because of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty) as weak, choosing to act accordingly.
Moreover, the presence of nuclear artillery close to EU borders should discourage European governments from the collective defense. Putin seems to be testing the West’s promises regarding collective defense and eliminating any possibility for small countries to balance against Russia, and instead choosing, forcibly, to bandwagon.
Finally, this theory presupposes that a determinant of state behavior is how an unequal distribution of material capabilities across states pushes them to enhance security, namely, a balance of power competition. This analysis shows that pattern: NATO expansion has always compromised Russia’s vital security. While Russian leaders have been outspoken, resistance has not always been constant and pronounced. Contrastingly, resistance has been conditioned by the material capabilities and the national political power of the Russian elite. However, Russia’s current material power and domestic circumstances (i.e., elite under pressure) ensure an expanded foreign policy activity at the expense of its neighbors.
Thus, the theory reveals that Russia’s domestic and international concerns regarding the EU and NATO have led it to war as a retaliation. In this case, Ukraine is collateral damage.
Liberal democratic peace theory
Realism might be limited in overfocusing on material capabilities, thus overlooking the effects of international institutions shaping cooperation between states. Particularly the relations between liberal governments committed to democracy. Thus, this next theory holds that liberal states are more likely to be peaceful because of three pillars:
- Democratic representation (e.g., free routinary elections, checks and balances).
- Commitment to liberal principles (e.g., individual rights).
- Transnational economic interdependence (e.g., benefits of open trade raise the cost of war). Likewise, international political institutions should work as forums for communication and resolving disputes.
Under this view, Russia should have become more democratic by integrating itself with the EU. Yet, the country seems unwilling to undertake liberal reforms and cooperate with Western powers on peaceful terms. Consequently, Putin’s war in Ukraine is the outcome of several assaults on Russia’s democracy (undermining checks and balances on his powers) to the point of the country becoming an authoritarian regime. Thus, operating on different terms, the bilateral relations between liberal democratic powers and Russia have deteriorated, diminishing the scope of cooperation and peaceful conflict resolution. Moreover, economic interdependence should have prevented the conflict by making it very costly. However, the EU’s ability to sanction the Kremlin was conditioned by its energy dependency.
At this point, it is necessary to understand what has prevented Russia’s integration into the liberal political system. After the end of the Cold War, the US emerged as the hegemonic world power and sought to expand the liberal order by providing its members with material benefits and moral legitimacy. Countries considered essential to sustain the US-led system got helped significantly. For instance, China was provided with flexible prerequisites. Naturally, access to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was facilitated by the US, the dominant state that dictated the terms of entry to the world order.
Likewise, Germany and Japan were conceived as vital, respectively, in Europe and Asia. Having been occupied and defeated these two countries had their domestic political orders shaped by force. Conversely, Russia was not conquered nor forced to change its domestic political system. Russia was seen as a defeated adversary, and the US did not consider it essential economically or politically. Ergo, Russia was harshly integrated whereas China was integrated economically rather than politically. It is not surprising that China abstains more from engaging in conflicts, and the Kremlin refraining from applying deep liberal reforms, opted to redefine the direction of its foreign policy.
Consequently, given its governance approach, the Kremlin strategy has meant bypassing Brussels institutions and coordinating directly with bigger member-states such as Germany and France. Similarly, it has attempted to increase cooperation with other countries, establishing, for instance, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) where Russia plays a leading role.
Thus, this approach shows that Russia does not repudiate the liberal system: Moscow supports multilateral cooperation. However, it tends to favor international organizations where the country is not a marginal player such as the United Nations where it holds veto power in the Security Council.
Likewise, the Kremlin has advocated for a liberal world order similar to the post-war II, namely, a state-centered order in which the great powers establish the rules of the international society. Here, given its military capabilities, the country is recognized as a great power. However, Moscow rejects the notion of a liberal world order where influence and status depend on its members’ democratic and humanitarian credentials, specifically when this can give way to meddling in domestic affairs. Similarly, Moscow has been reluctant to adopt neoliberal market reforms that favor private actors at the expense of the state’s economic influence. In short, Russia strives to participate in a Western-led liberal order on its terms.
NATO members and the EU have colluded in reducing Russia’s influence in the liberal global order based on its performance on liberal criteria. Therefore, any democratic convergence by the countries that maintain Russia’s global power status (e.g., post-Soviet space, Ukraine) to either NATO or the EU is a threat to its economic and political vital interests.
Furthermore, because NATO and the EU, being liberal democracies, operate on significantly different terms, they mistrust Russia as an authoritarian regime. Consequently, cooperation is flawed, and peacemaking gets weakened. In this context of mistrust, liberal democracies become susceptible to realist foreign policy.
Thus, this theory argues that had Russia been a full democracy with checks and balances, restricting the authoritarian Putin, the motives would not have escalated to violence. Alternatively, the regime’s needs for legitimacy and economic concerns would have got resolved on peaceful terms because of mutual trust in the peacemaking institutions. Yet, the failed liberal integration of Russia, either economically or politically, means that Moscow necessitates building its influence on countries with similar governance and institutions. For this reason, it significantly fears the convergence of countries in the post-Soviet space to liberal democracy. This way, Ukraine’s increasing democratic convergence with the EU and NATO was a casus belli.
Norms, values, and interpretations of the material world determine states’ interactions. Moreover, this is a mutually constitutive relationship. That is to say, the norms of the international system affect the identity of a state. Subsequently, identities influence interests which, in turn, prompt actions that affect norms. Thus, it is the ideas that eventually determine whether there will be or not a conflict.
Identity and values
Akin to ambitious countries such as the US having an identity built upon a myth (i.e., the city upon a hill) to justify their actions, Russia, after the fall of the URSS, has been looking for a national identity that could unify the country. Currently, the ideological consensus builds on the antagonism of the West based on incompatible values where Russia represents ‘justice’ or ‘fairness’ (words that Putin often emphasizes). Moreover, Russia, protecting Orthodox Christianism and being a great geopolitical power, should not subordinate to the West. It is vital to revise accepted international legal norms. Additionally, traditional values, order, and stability are more valuable than individual rights and freedoms. This credo provides Russia with the sanctity of its vital national interests and national identity increasing the legitimacy of the political system, independently if democratic or not.
Thus, there is a difference between the West’s worldview more liberal and centered on the ideas of human rights and free markets, and Russia’s worldview focused more on national sovereignty and security of the motherland. Furthermore, because both the EU and Russia project their influence, competition and antagonism have shifted to ideas and discourses where Russia emphasizes its traditionalism and religious values, and its unified sense of history and identity.
Acknowledging that international cooperation and conflict resolution require mutual interests and understanding, opposite worldviews and belief systems can obstacle this process by misinterpreting actions from others. In this context, Putin’s belief that Russia is the real traditional and conservative Europe confronted by the West might raise barriers to cooperating with his European counterparts.
Moscow’s adherence to many important international norms, contrary to his identity and values, might have been possible due to the country’s initial weak position in the 1990s where it needed legitimacy and foreign aid. Indeed, the need for international legitimacy is a crucial prerequisite for domestic receptivity to international institutions. However, the more Russia got stronger and increased its legitimacy and identity, the less it needed to continue to adapt to new policies and international norms.
Because the political elite cannot survive by adhering to Western norms (i.e., anti-corruption, human rights), it continues to project illiberal behavior vis-à-vis the EU (e.g., supporting illiberal movements). Consequently, Russia is seen as the threatening ‘other’, especially because of the Russian imperialism past among certain EU members. Thus, the West plays a role in defining Russia’s national identity and interests through interaction by denying or resisting its role as a great power.
It is in this context that Russia converges with China to engage in norm contestation to enhance power and influence in world politics. Invigorated by the US attempts of questioning and revisioning the meaning and application of norms after 9/11, Russia tries to reshape international norms to counteract the influence of major liberal democracies. In the current context of international liberal norms, Russia’s particular identity is not acknowledged. Consequently, its status gets constantly delegitimized.
Russia contests norms by adopting liberal discourses and practices to demonstrate American and European actors’ non-compliance undermining the credibility and trust of Western actors. Not only Moscow adopts liberal discourses, but it also gives it non-liberal content. Thus, Moscow attempts to weaken certain universal norms. For instance, Moscow’s justification of the war has included the liberal responsibility to protect (R2P). This way, Moscow creates the capacity to influence norms and the scope of practical action.
Thus, a constructivist approach shows that the complex relationship and interaction of recognition and non-recognition of its status among influential liberal states has affected the identity of Russia (e.g., Russia as Europe, Russia as an Alternative Europe). The divergence between Russia’s self-understanding and the actual recognition by liberal states does not allow for good relations or cooperation. When Moscow’s distinctive values and interests got acknowledged, cooperation was possible.
In this framework, the war in Ukraine is, as Clausewitz put it, a continuation of politics by other means. Namely, a non-political way to contest, reinterpret, and reshape international norms to create space for Russia’s self-perception: a strong state, and a great geopolitical power, with a Westphalian socially constructed understanding of sovereignty, although this does not apply to its post-Soviet space. Because wars act as earthquakes destroying norms, Putin’s statement that the special military operation was a repudiation of the US liberal order corroborates this constructivist insight.
In other words, NATO and EU expansion towards the post-Soviet space in values and norms, harms Russia’s identity being deep-rooted in its dominant position controlling this space. Likewise, such expansion corrodes the scope of practical and ethical action to act as a power according to its self-perception. Finally, given the mismatch between Russia’s self-perception and its recognition by liberal states, together with the mistrust this generates war was inevitable to reassert its identity within the post-Soviet space.
Each theory has provided valuable insights to understand the implicit motives behind the Russia-Ukraine war. However, each theory alone is explanatorily limited, considering that no grand theory can make sense of complex political phenomena. For instance, neither realism nor liberalism can explain ideological foreign policy. Constructivism, subsequently, cannot satisfactorily explain cooperation despite opposite identities. However, we can gain a clearer vision by combining these theories into a multi-theoretical approach.
Consequently, the war in Ukraine is a consequence of fierce rivalry concerning material capabilities, power, ideas, identity, and liberal values between Russia, the EU and NATO.
Realism sees the invasion of Ukraine as the result of tough foreign policy to establish a zone of influence to safeguard Russia’s security and economic interests by undermining NATO and the EU’s collective defense and presence in the post-Soviet space.
The liberal approach suggests that Russia’s aggressiveness is due to not being a liberal democracy with robust institutions such as checks and balances. Had the country had these, it could have prevented authoritarianism from engaging in hostility to increase the regime’s legitimacy. Similarly, the lack of strong integration within a liberal free market did not increase the cost of war sufficiently to the point of preventing the conflict.
Finally, not being a liberal democracy like other major Western powers nor these recognizing Russia’s self-perceived status as a global power, Moscow has been confined to a marginal role. In this constructivist context, the war in Ukraine is a rejection of the current world order and norms to accommodate Russia’s identity and values.
[Photo by Kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Daniel H. B. Gamez is a master’s student in International Relations with research interests in political stability, social movements, comparative politics, and power politics. As an active student, he has also been editor-in-chief of a student magazine, vice-president of a student council, and student representative at Stockholm University.