Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia’s Tragic Great Power Politics
Russia’s Tragic Great Power Politics

Russia’s Tragic Great Power Politics

International Relations Theories and Russia

Many Western scholars studying Russia and policymakers dealing with Russia have long found it an exhausting and bewildering endeavor. Winston Churchill famously described it in 1939 as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” More recently, Bobo Lo noted that Russia’s enduring characteristics include “an abiding sense of greatness and strategic entitlement; suspicions toward outside influences; an imperial mentality; and a profound political and moral conservatism.”[i] Olga Oliker has observed that Russia will always have a definition of its minimal security requirements that is out of the norm for a 21st-century European power. This will make it hard for the West to reassure Russia and easy  to escalate tensions with it, even inadvertently.  All of these observations support Stephen Kotkin’s conclusion that for the foreseeable future Russia will remain “a problem to be managed” for the West.

Other scholars, primarily those of the realist school of international relations, see Russia’s behavior as more normal and predictable. These scholars often fault the West for failing to take Russia’s legitimate security interests into account, thereby provoking Russia to lash out against perceived Western encroachment. John Mearsheimer, one of the foremost of these scholars, argues that although states “seek only to be secure” they nonetheless “act aggressively toward each other.”[ii] Three factors combine to drive this security competition: the absence of a central authority that can protect states from each other; the fact that states always have some offensive military capability; and the fact that states can never be certain of one another’s intentions. This, for Mearsheimer, is what makes relations between great powers tragic: none desire conflict, but all are driven toward actions that make conflict more likely. Seeking to make themselves more secure by building their military capability, they make their rivals less secure, leading to arms races and sometimes to wars no one intended.

Russia seems to be a textbook example of Mearsheimer’s theory. Its fixation on territorial security, its belief that military power is the currency of international relations, and its outsized – some would say paranoid – perception of threats posed by other states drive it to act in exactly the way Mearsheimer predicts. But as compelling as it is for its simplicity and predictive power, Mearsheimer’s theory is ultimately limited in its ability to explain state behavior. And, ironically, by behaving in the way realist theories like Mearsheimer’s predict, Russia brings the limitations of these theories into focus. 

Scholars like Alexander Wendt have noted that although Mearsheimer is correct that the world lacks a central authority, there is nothing inherent in this condition of anarchy that requires states to compete for power and security.[iii] Wendt sees interaction among states under anarchy as a more complex phenomenon than Mearsheimer does. Instead of a single “culture of anarchy,” Wendt proposes three. Under “Hobbesian anarchy,” states view one another as enemies and war is a common feature of international life, with the loser sometimes ceasing to exist as a state.  Under “Lockean anarchy,” states view one another as rivals who compete for power and influence. Although war exists here too, it is less common and its effects are less catastrophic for the loser than under “Hobbesian anarchy.” Finally, under “Kantian anarchy,” states view one another as friends, and often cooperate to their mutual benefit, although healthy competition is still a fact of life.

Mearsheimer’s view of the international system is attractive for its simplicity and predictive power. Wendt’s is attractive because it offers a more accurate model of how the international system functions. The problem with Mearsheimer’s “tragic” view of great power politics is that it deprives states of agency. The fact that some states respond to their environment in a way that drives them toward security competition with other states does not mean all states must do so. States have options, and many states cooperate with their neighbors to mutual benefit, while still others simply choose not to view the actions of other states through a lens of cynicism and suspicion. And their refusal to strive for “perfect” security – defined as having military advantage over all potential rivals – does not consign them to perpetual insecurity or guarantee their geopolitical irrelevance, as realist theories of international relations predict. 

On the contrary, many of these states are both richer and more secure than states, like Russia, which insist on viewing the world through the lens of nineteenth-century great power politics.  Wendt and other constructivist theorists note that identities form the basis of interests. In other words, who we are and who we interact with determines how we define our interests in the interaction. And identities can change through interaction, so that states which had once defined one another as enemies can learn to redefine themselves as healthy rivals or even friends. And through this interaction a “Kantian anarchy” can emerge. NATO and the EU are good examples here: through bitter experience the states of Western Europe learned that great power competition, which realism sees as endemic and compulsory, is actually a choice, and one which usually leaves all parties worse off.

Russia has also had its share of bitter experience, but it has drawn very different lessons from it.  Its lack of natural borders and history of invasions – by Mongol, Polish, French, and German armies to name but a few – predispose it to view itself as alone in a hostile world. Lacking allies and defensible borders, Russian statesmen from the tsars to the Soviets and Putin, share a worldview defined by fixation on external threats and an obsession with eliminating them, even when they are latent or only theoretical. While this fixation is understandable, it does not serve Russia, and, in fact, condemns it to perpetual conflict with its neighbors and the West.

How Russia’s Quest for “Perfect” Security Makes it Less Secure

In Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics, Russia’s quest for “perfect” security has actually made it less secure. In Ukraine, Russia’s intervention came on the heels of several months of political and social upheaval in Kyiv. Things culminated on February 22, 2014, when the parliament voted to dismiss Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich, giving interim presidential powers to the speaker of parliament. Russia immediately denounced the removal of Yanukovich as a “coup” and added it to the list of “Color Revolutions,” which, it claimed, the U.S. intelligence services had staged across the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

From here, Russia’s disinformation machine went into high gear. Starting the day after Yanukovich’s removal, Russia’s military intelligence service began a campaign to influence key decision-makers and the public in Ukraine. Using fake accounts on Facebook and its Russian equivalent VKontakte (VK), the GRU portrayed the opposition to Yanukovich as “Nazis” and “fascists,” and claimed that they formed armed groups, which were moving toward Crimea and southeastern Ukraine, bent on violence toward civilians there. To bolster these claims, GRU agents, posing as Ukrainian nationalists, posted online threats against Yanukovich’s allies. 

Having created the specter of “Nazis” and “fascists” bent on violence, Russia’s intelligence services had an easy time convincing many in Crimea and southeastern Ukraine that their best bet for salvation was an alliance with Moscow against Kyiv. Other factors certainly contributed to a pro-Russian view in these regions. Crimea has longer historical and stronger cultural ties to Russia than it does to Ukraine. Southeastern Ukraine is economically tied to Russia in a way the rest of the country is not. And successive Ukrainian elections had shown a clear split in voting, with Crimea and Ukraine’s southeast reliably voting for more Russia-friendly candidates. But the fear stoked by the GRU was the spark required to cause these latent tensions, which had long existed, to burst into a separatist conflagration. 

Unfortunately for Russia, its actions also influenced Ukrainians outside of Crimea and the southeast. In sowing fear, fomenting separatism, and catalyzing civil war in Ukraine, Russia created there the thing it most feared: a strongly anti-Russian and pro-Western Ukrainian national identity. The foundations of that identity had long been present, especially in Ukraine’s far western regions, which had a long history as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a fairly short experience as part of the Soviet Union. But before 2014, the more Russia-friendly identity that predominated in Crimea and the southeast served as a counterweight to the anti-Russian view that predominated in the west.

Today, outside of Crimea and the Donbas, Ukraine bears little resemblance to the Ukraine that existed from 1991 until the seizure of Crimea. Signs and symbols of a uniquely Ukrainian national identity are everywhere. That identity is strongly pro-Western, with a distinct anti-Russian tinge. Polls bear this out: whereas in 2010 only 28% of Ukrainians supported NATO membership for their country, in 2018 67% did. In part, these numbers reflect the fact that citizens of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk are no longer counted in polls of this type, but support for Western integration is stronger in the rest of Ukraine as well. 

And by carving out of Ukraine the regions most skeptical of a Western trajectory for the country, Russia has eliminated a natural, internal brake on Ukraine’s drive to integrate with Europe. Ukraine has turned toward the West before, most recently with the Orange Revolution in 2005. But by 2010, Ukrainians were fed up with the infighting and lack of progress of their pro-Western government, and voted in the Russia-friendly Vladimir Yanukovich. Russia’s seizure of Crimea and fomenting of separatism in the Donbas have eliminated the potential for another such voluntary turn to the East by removing the most Russia-friendly voters from the Ukrainian electorate and catalyzing the formation of a strongly anti-Russian national identity in the rest of Ukraine. 

Another consequence of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is a hardening of Western and especially American will to provide military assistance to Ukraine and Georgia, another state subjected to recent Russian military intervention. The revisions in policy toward Ukraine and Georgia between 2008 and today are striking. Before the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, U.S. military assistance to these states was tightly focused on developing their capacity to send forces to Iraq and Afghanistan, and carefully avoided providing any sort of assistance that Russia might view as provocative.[iv] To avoid provoking Russia, America’s NATO allies were even more reticent. 

Since 2014, the U.S. has provided Javelin anti-tank missiles to both countries and is considering the provision of other high-end weaponry. France has agreed to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Georgia. And the U.S. and its NATO allies have undertaken training missions in Ukraine and Georgia designed to assist both countries in repelling invasion from Russia. None of these events was conceivable prior to 2014. All make Russia marginally less secure by increasing the military capability of states along its borders and increasing NATO interest in their security.

The Baltics is another area where Russia’s insistence on “perfect” security makes it less secure. The entry of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into NATO in 2004 did not change the military balance between Russia and the Alliance: the combined military forces of the Baltic States number just over 40,000, just 2.8% of Russia’s total force of 1.45 million. And the Baltic militaries lack armor, artillery, and air power, all things Russia has in huge numbers. As long as the Baltic States did not become a base for troops from other NATO members, Russia could afford to be sanguine about their Alliance membership. Unfortunately, Russia’s own actions brought about the exact outcome it sought to avoid.

Although NATO can be criticized for failing to understand the deep psychological impact its incorporation of three former Soviet republics had in Russia, the Alliance was careful to signal it had no intention of deploying forces on the territory of its newest members. Indeed, in the initial years after the accession of the Baltic States, NATO was focused on Afghanistan and other “out of area” missions; it was unconcerned about any potential threat to its members from Russia. The unofficial NATO mantra in this period was “out of area or out of business.” The idea behind this slogan was that since NATO’s own backyard was an area of stability devoid of any serious military threats, NATO needed to learn to operate in places like Afghanistan to remain relevant as a military alliance and contribute to global security.

This all changed in 2014. Russia’s intervention in Ukraine awakened NATO to a critical deficiency in the security of its Baltic members. Alliance planners who had not seriously considered the idea of a Russian military intervention there now began to do so. NATO’s answer to this problem was the adoption at its 2016 summit of what the Alliance calls its “enhanced forward presence” (EFP) policy. This entailed the deployment of four multi-national battlegroups to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The battle groups are led by Canada, Germany, the UK, and the U.S., and are composed of forces from these countries and 14 other NATO member states. 

Before 2014, Russia confronted only the comparatively meager forces of the three Baltic States across its western border; now it confronts the forces of the majority of NATO member states.  While the 4000 NATO troops deployed to Poland and the Baltic States under EFP are not enough to pose a direct military threat to Russia, Moscow now has to contend with the fact that any war in the Baltics could draw in the rest of NATO. While NATO’s Article 5 always made it possible that a war in the Baltics would draw in other NATO members, this was not assured. Article 5 only stipulates that each member will consider an attack on one Ally an attack on all – it does not dictate how each Ally will respond to that attack. Instead, it says that each will take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” NATO’s EPF deployment, taken in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine and saber-rattling against NATO Allies, make it far more likely that at least 22 NATO members would now deem it necessary to go to war with Russia in the event of a war in the Baltics.

Conclusion: Why Perfect is the Enemy of Good Enough

Russia’s fixation on military capability as the currency of international relations, its reflexive mistrust of the intentions of other states, and its insistence that it be afforded the privileges of a nineteenth-century great power comport well with the predictions of John Mearsheimer’s realist worldview. Mearsheimer would also be unsurprised that Russia’s pursuit of “perfect” security has made it less secure – this is exactly the type of tragedy implicit in the title of his book. In this sense, turning to Mearsheimer as a guide for Russian behavior is useful. 

But this view misses the fact that states have choices, and states that make different choices than Russia often end up wealthier and more secure. Yes, there is risk in this path. A neighbor trusted as a friend or ally today can turn into an enemy and a threat. But these transformations are rare and do not happen overnight. Through interaction, states are able to gain information on the intentions and capabilities of other states, so any transformation from friend to adversary is likely to come with some warning. Next, the consequences of such a transformation are not as catastrophic as realism claims. The “Hobbesian anarchy” that provides the theoretical foundation for much realist thinking is a relic of the past. While war is still far too common in the international system, states that lose wars no longer face a threat of extermination.

Given these facts, states can, and routinely do, choose security that is good enough over security that is perfect. This allows them to focus more resources on social and economic development of the type that Russia sorely needs. Instead, Russia’s quest for perfect security has left it relatively less secure in 2019 than it was even in the 1990s, when – according to Putin’s rhetoric – it was “on its knees” and at the mercy of the West. But in the 1990s the West had no interest in confronting Russia. Instead, Western states alternated between ignoring and assisting it. Europe was struggling to deal with the Balkan Wars and attempting to engage Russia as a partner in the effort. The U.S. was demobilizing from the Cold War and focused on spending the “peace dividend” it expected to reap – the U.S. Army reduced its presence in Europe from 300,000 to some 30,000 and the U.S. defense budget declined from $426 billion in 1988 to $296 billion in 1998.

In large part due to Russia’s insistence on being treated as a great power and its hyper-suspicious view of the intentions of other states, all these trends have been reversed. Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, its saber-rattling against NATO members, and its continued attempts to destabilize perceived adversaries throughout Europe and North America have had an effect opposite from the one it presumably hoped. Russia now faces a revitalized and more cohesive NATO, which has deployed forces to within 100 miles of St. Petersburg, and has taken a much greater interest in the security of Russia’s neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine. An American President who came into office hoping to “get along” with Russia has now withdrawn the U.S. from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and pledged to “outspend an out-innovate” Russia if it comes to a nuclear arms race. Russia’s attempts to destabilize the Balkans drove Montenegro and North Macedonia toward NATO – the latter suddenly proving amenable to a compromise on its name, the issue that had kept it out of NATO for over a decade. Montenegro is now a NATO member and North Macedonia is in the final stage of its accession talks.

All of these events have degraded Russia’s security and all of them were avoidable. Each was the result of Russia reacting to potential or theoretical threats as if they were actual threats, and in the process causing actual threats to materialize. The true tragedy of Russia’s great power politics is that this outcome was not determined by the structure of the international system but by the choices Russia itself has made. These choices turned theoretical threats into actual threats, making Russia less secure in the process.


[i] Bobo Lo, Russia and the New World Disorder, (London, Chatham House, 2015), 203.

[ii] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 3.

[iii] Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 247.

[iv] For example, when I was the Chief of the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation in Georgia from 2006-2008, we were specifically prohibited from providing any assistance to the Georgian armor, artillery or attack helicopter forces.  The reason for this prohibition was that those forces were not needed in the Georgian contingent in Iraq, and assisting those forces was seen as too provocative to Russia.  This prohibition was so comprehensive that we were even prohibited from assisting the Georgian Army in developing training course syllabi for these forces.