How Putin’s desire to restore Russia to great power status matters

March 6, 2014
Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Steven Ward is visiting assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Starting in the fall of 2014, he will be assistant professor of Government at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

Russian escalation of the Ukrainian crisis has been swift, culminating (for now) in a Crimea occupied by Russian troops and likely soon to officially become Russian territory, and a dangerous situation elsewhere in which Russian President Vladimir Putin is itching to take advantage of any Ukrainian resistance to legitimate further action. Russian behavior seems reckless and counterproductive. Hours before Russian escalation became apparent, Josh Tucker wrote that he would be surprised by a Russian intervention. Tucker is right – what Russia is doing is costly, and it is not obvious what Putin stands to get out of it. However, Dan Nexon is also right: states sometimes (often!) do seemingly crazy, costly, and self-defeating things without an obvious strategic rationale. So if Russian escalation in Ukraine is such bad grand strategy, why is it happening? One answer is Putin’s ambition to reestablish Russia’s “great power” status.

As Deborah Larson and Alexei Shevchenko pointed out in a 2010 article in International Security, the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a Russian identity crisis. During the post-Cold War period, the United States and its Western allies no longer treated Russia as a “great power.” The most important manifestation of Russian demotion from the ranks of the major powers was a new willingness by Western actors to encroach upon what had been understood during the Cold War as Russia’s sphere of influence. NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, intervention in the Balkan conflicts, and growing Western ties with post-Soviet regimes in Ukraine and the Caucasus were evidence that “the West had failed to accord Russia the status and role to which it was entitled (pg. 80).”

The result was a concerted effort by Russian leaders to reestablish Russia’s great power status by reestablishing Russia’s sphere of influence. This has involved an attempt to reassert Russian leadership over the post-Soviet states, and especially the ability and right to intervene economically and militarily in its “near abroad.” In the wake of the 2008 war with Georgia, then-President Dmitri Medvedev stated that Russia “like other countries in the world, has regions where it has privileged interests.” This sort of claim is nothing new for Russia or for other states with great power status aspirations: Japan made a similar defense of its actions in Manchuria in the wake of the Mukden Incident. The planned Eurasian Union can be understood as another part of Russia’s attempt to reassert its identity as a “great power.” And since, for Putin, the Eurasian Union would be worthless without Ukraine (much like the Sochi Olympics was worthless without a Russian gold medal in men’s hockey,) a Ukrainian refusal to join might scuttle the project.

Seeing the Ukraine crisis through the lens of status anxiety has two important implications moving forward. First, we should not be surprised that Russian policy seems insensitive to costs and risks. Much of the international relations literature on international social status suggests that status matters to states because it matters to leaders for social psychological and domestic political reasons (see, among others, here, here, here, here, and here). Defending honor, responding to insults, avoiding humiliation, and building prestige are intangible values that are difficult to incorporate in a cost-benefit analysis. And history (and recent scholarship) shows that states have at times pursued these values at the expense of economic and security interests.

Second – in contrast to much recent commentary (like this, this, and this) – if Russian interests in Ukraine do involve status claims, then the United States and the West must be very cautious in their response. My research shows that obstructed status claims can facilitate shifts toward deeply revisionist foreign policies in snubbed actors. Widespread perceptions that a status “glass ceiling” is blocking a state from a status category to which it aspires make it difficult for elites to justify moderate foreign policies, and relatively easy (and more politically beneficial) for them to justify aggressive ones.

The rise of perceptions of status immobility, for example, play an important role in the story of Japan’s turn away from the West during the early 1930s. In the wake of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, the United States and the League of Nations responded with official condemnation, but no hint that Japan would face any more serious consequences. Even so, official condemnation – combined with a decades-long pattern of what Japanese understood as race-based unfair treatment – was enough to drive Japan to withdraw from the League of Nations, even though most Japanese moderates dearly wanted to avoid this outcome. It had become impossible to successfully argue in favor conciliation with the Western status quo, and this would play an important role in the evolution of Japanese grand strategy through 1941. It turns out that obstructed status claims were similarly critical in Wilhelmine and then Weimar/Nazi Germany’s decisions to launch broad challenges against the status quo (this research – unpublished parts of a book manuscript in progress – is available upon request).

Obviously, Russia is not Imperial Japan, and Putin (recent claims notwithstanding) is not Hitler. But the way in which consistently obstructed claims to great power status have influenced grand strategy in modern history presents a cautionary tale: an overly aggressive response to Russian action in Ukraine (especially in the absence of any intent to back up words or sanctions with military force, or to prepare to refight the Cold War) is only likely to strengthen the hands of Putin and his domestic allies, and create incentives to challenge Western interests elsewhere.

Of course, this does not mean the Obama administration should declare that Russian intervention is legitimate. Such a course would be harmful for relations with American allies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and would also play very poorly domestically. Fortunately, Russian ambiguity (thus far) with respect to the extent of its intervention leaves the United States with an out. But if Russia escalates further, the administration should, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, speak softly since it does not plan to use its big stick.

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