Neo-classical Realism; An Amateur's look into Russia’s Annexation of Crimea.
The foreign policy of the Russian Federation may be often be seen, especially by Western scholars, as turbulent, with policies ranging from radically disparate phases of cooperation and non-cooperation. The contrasting perspective however places Russian foreign policy on the balanced scale of shifts and continuity, with continuity emerging as the dominant route. In comparison to most Western Scholars, Russian Scholars tend to argue that the relationship between the West and Russia is often best described as a “simultaneous partnership and rivalry.”
Russia’s practical policies have provided enough examples to back to the perspective that Russian Foreign policy changes or evolves chiefly in response to modifications in Western foreign policy with respect to Russia. Post-soviet Russian policy seems to have prioritized less permanent interests such as; provision of security and autonomy, maximization of material utilities, but also maximization of status/prestige. Such nuances in the practice of Russian foreign policy are what make Neo-classical Realist evaluations of foreign policy viable for Russia, as this theoretical framework takes into account external imperatives, as well as domestic power capabilities.
Neo-classical Realism (NCR), as a potential supplement to Structural Realism, adds to the existing framework at a state level. Where Structural Realism explains the peculiarities of the international system at a systemic level, neoclassical realist thought acts as the ‘mediating variable’ between systemic level peculiarities and practical state behaviors. The Neoclassical trend focuses on the merger of applying disparaging material and subjective explanations, both of external and internal nature. While it acknowledges that the scope and purpose of a country’s foreign policy is dependent on its position at a systemic level and its relative material power capabilities, it doesn’t downplay the importance of interceding variables at the secondary, unit level either. This iterates that history, culture, perceptions and other ideational factors act as key stake holders in the implementation of foreign policy with regards to the international status quo. This is exactly why each state behavior responds differently to the same international system. Where main realist assumptions prioritize security, sovereignty and maximization of power, classical realists stress the importance of not only the aforementioned material factors, but also includes subjective factors, such as the likes of the competence of the political elite.
Neoclassical realist framework takes one step further and reclaims the importance of material factors in foreign policy analysis at the systemic level and adds ‘traditional’ constructivist perspective. Superiority, however remains with interests and international peculiarities as opposed to identities. Neoclassical realism can hence offer helpful insight into the contours of Russian foreign policy, especially in terms of the post-cold war era with regards to not only the 2 Russian presidencies, but also the Crimean intervention.
In order to analyze Russian foreign policy regarding Crimea and the West in extension, through NCR, or any theoretical framework for that matter, it is important to shed light on the development of the Russian Federation. Russia being stripped off its ideological beliefs post-Cold War and the USSR breakup resulted in a lack of confidence in the state. Russia however continued to gain strength from subjective factors of identity, acknowledging the continuance of their identity from the Czar and claiming their cultural and spiritual heritage from their Byzantine past. So much so that the Russian federation flag is similar to the Czar and the presidential standard is the same symbol as the Byzantine.
When USSR ceased to exist, the new state of the Russian Federation was under a new system of democracy and a market economy, with the Yeltsin Presidency leading the way for the next 10 years. Domestically Russia continued to face problems, including ethnic conflict, especially in light of the rehabilitation of the Christian Orthodox church and the coexistence of multiple ethnicities in a new democratic framework under Yeltsin. During the initial period of Yeltsin’s regime, a foreign policy leaning in favor of the West was adopted, however this period between new Russian Federation and the West ended as it became increasingly clear that both wings had disparaging geopolitical aims. Russia realized it will never be viewed as an equal partner, as the West considered Russia to be inferior in terms of modernization and enlightenment. The eastward expansion of NATO was something Russia vehemently opposed, and instead wished to secure a bilateral relation with NATO so as to have some influence in the organizations proceedings. Russia did however show a positive cooperation towards strengthening economic and political relations with the European Union. Bu the eastward extension of EU was also met with potential distrust.
However as the world’s order shifted to a more unipolar order leaning towards the US, the Russian foreign policy became increasingly concerned with US hegemony, especially during the tenure of foreign minister Primakov. Domestic opposition and foreign skepticism were key factors in terms of possible integration with the West, which another reason why neoclassical realism helps explain the dynamics of Russian foreign policy quite expansively. It helps take into account external and internal material and subjective factors. So relative to the NCR perspective, Primakov wished to balance the West by stressing the need for a multipolar international system, as he thought Russia was in the position to challenge and curtail the West. Individual power was a domestic problem in Russian foreign policy at the time as various bureaucratic entities wished a claim over foreign policy and Yeltsin himself and Primkov could only amount to inconsistent aims.
The end of Yeltsin’s democratic regime was met with the centralized control of Putin’s office. Putin’s foreign wished for calm between Russia and the US, however at the same time he did not hold back from the opportunity of building new ally ships in Europe, specifically France, UK and Germany. This did not mean that extensions of friendship towards the US were being halted. In fact after 9/11 Putin offered Russian support to the US for the war on terror. Putin wanted economic expansion towards the West and till 2000 the Western propaganda remained pro Putin. He wished to move away from previous policies and increase cooperation with the US. The US response however remains lukewarm especially with the NATO bombings in Serbia despite Russia calling for restraints, yet Russia still offered support for 9/11. The turning point of Russian cooperation however was the withdrawal of US from the Antiballistic Missiles Treaty (ABM). This generated a lack of trust in Moscow and with the eastward expansion of NATO and EU, Russian foreign policy took a sharp turn and joined with France and Germany in opposition to the US lead war in Iraq. Domestic pressures were also eminent, with the want for Russia to be established a power and not turn into Greece or Romania. Keeping in mind the 2 presidencies, it can be understood that neoclassical realist framework helps understand Russian foreign policy better, due to its focus on the state as well as its tendency to change in response to the Western policies regarding Russia.
Despite changes in Russian leadership the main realist concerns regarding security, sovereignty and maximization and maintenance of power remain the same. Its foreign policy also consistently aspires towards economic expansion. That being said, Russia perceives the West as their primary contender and compares its domestic development and international potentials and capabilities to the West and wishes to be as economically stable as the West, but also realizes this is perhaps not possible without the cooperation of the West. This is also why Russia called for reforms in the OSCE in order to encourage equitable dialogue, as Russia would enjoy an edge in a multipolar world order. That being said, Russia’s approach towards Western IGO’s including EU, NATO, OSCE has been goal oriented depending on the organization under discussion, so goals include a wide spectrum from “soft political-military through soft security to economic goals.” However this primary aim is to gain decision making power and positions so that Russia’s personal concerns are not ignored on a systemic level.
Using NCR one can understand the duality of Russian Foreign Policy. While Russian geopolitical discourse may consider eastwards expansion of NATO as a security risk into its “sphere of influence”, it also looks towards the West eventually acknowledging its status in a now increasingly multipolar international order. Where on one side Russia wished to modernize in terms of security and generate ally ship with states like Afghanistan, it also wished to modernize in the economic front and develop cooperation with the US. Moreover the internal politics of Russia and the anti-western rhetoric often finds itself in disparity with the practical politics of Russia, which remains of peace towards the international realm. So the NCR framework helps highlight the dualism between Russia’s external politics on a systemic level and internal politics on a secondary, more unit based level.
Aside from Russian behavior towards the West (especially with respect to Western institutions), another important aspect of the Russian foreign policy lies in the Crimean intervention. Traditional realist accounts are sufficient for understanding that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine lies in state interest and proves Kremlin’s capability to use military might. However the governments’ use of more covert strategies are better analyzed and interpreted through NCR, which provides a more nuanced take on Russian intervention, taking under consideration; “covert military actions, economic, and normative dimensions. NCR unveils economic strategies by accounting for the oil and gas market in Ukraine and other CIS states as one of Russia’s main resources. Russia’s trade relation with Ukraine was put to use several times, including putting pressure on political elite in Kiev for economic benefit.
Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 on grounds of common ethnicity and heritage. The West continued to argue the annexation as illegal under International Law. The takeover of Crimea was more of a preemptive measure, to stop Crimea from falling into Western hands. Eastwards expansion of the West has already resulted in compromised Russian borders, with western bases. Russia accused the West of enforcing democracies in Russian areas of interest, and rejected those interventions. The annexation of Crimea was materialized with no military intervention and Russian federation even called out the Wests hypocrisy in the case of Crimea.
Russia however in order to legitimize and reinforce its authority in Crimea, called for a plebiscite within Crimea, in correspondence with the international laws of “self-governance” and “democratic will of the people.” In line with the normative and nationalist rhetoric used regarding Crimea, Russia stated that the Russian cultural civilization and general ideational grounds are independent and disparate from that of the West. Hence, their argument concluded to the fact that ethnic Russians living in otherwise multicultural states like Ukraine, should not have to tolerate Western-centric and apologetic governance or media. This concept was primarily based on Russia’s claim to the foreign policy of former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact signatories. The referendum resulted in Russia’s favor but it is also important to note that Russia’s fight for Crimea’s self-determination has been called out as limited to only those who wish to be part of Russia.
When it comes to rights of Ukraine, Russian logic of self-determination seems absent as they were willing to ignore other overarching sentiments present in Ukraine. When it comes to Crimea however, Russia makes strategic use of norms and discourse and develops a link on ideational grounds, which isn’t just lip service as the official Russian Foreign Policy document and Constitution gives a special reference to the cultural and spiritual ties with Crimea. This gels particularly well with Russia’s nationalist discourse, where a potential threat to national security may be caused on the basis of ethnicity.
To conclude, neoclassical realism proves to be a holistic framework for the study of Russian Foreign policy, especially with relevance to the Crimean annexation and the West. Not only does it help shed light on domestic capabilities, but also takes into account international contexts that drive policies. In Russia’s case, the treatment of the West towards Russia is always reciprocated. While NCR focuses on material factors such as the expansion of western democracies along Russian borders, it also focuses on subjective factors like that of common heritage and ethnic ties with the Crimean people and Russian prestige and status equated to its preservation. However a shortcoming of NCR may be seen as its understanding of nationalist discourses as mere political tools used to assert influence and domination. For Russia however, nationalist discourses are not simply normative instruments, Russian ideology is built around the importance and preservation of Russian culture and tradition, something they believe is unique from the west and should not be confused or mingled with it. Constructivist theory may prove to be better in trying to understand ideational factors such as these when it comes to Russian foreign policy respecting to Crimean intervention.