Crimea’s annexation by Russia, in March 2014, and President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to make a military incursion into Ukraine to ensure Crimea’s incorporation into Russian Federation seem to have taken many political analysts and policymakers by surprise. Once again, amid speculations about the country’s real intentions, fears have grown that an imperialistic Russia is taking an even harder foreign policy stance aimed at rebuilding its empire, in order to achieve some kind of strategic superiority over the West or acquire greater political clout in international arena.
However, it can be argued that Russia’s strategic interests are more modest. The country is not interested in reviving a new Cold War. It lacks not only the political, economic and military means to do so, but also the willingness, since it has more to lose than to gain in pursuing a policy of confrontation with the world’s major powers. Actually, what is seen as an irrational aggression against Ukraine is only one more chapter in the long history of Western misperceptions and failures to understand the driving forces behind Russian foreign policy behavior, which can be explained by the enduring nature of Russia’s strategic culture. Yes, the specifics of this event were surprising, although they were not unpredictable.
Understanding a country’s strategic culture is of utmost importance to policymakers, scholars and analysts, as it can offer causal explanations for regular patterns of state behavior. It helps us understand the rationale behind a country’s perceptions of the global scenario and its immediate neighborhood, what influences its foreign policies, and why it tends to behave the way it does. Desch (1998) argues that strategic culture can not only explain the lag between structural change and alterations in state behavior, but may also “account for why some states behave irrationally and suffer the consequences of failing to adapt to the constraints of the international system”.
Since strategic culture is a product of historical experience, different states have different strategic cultures, which are rooted in the formative experiences of the state, and “are influenced to some degree by the philosophical, political, cultural and cognitive characteristics of the state and its elites” (Johnston 1995:34).
The literature on the subject usually presents two distinct approaches to analyze strategic culture. The most accepted one is presented by scholars who define strategic culture in terms of military strategy and the use of force in International Relations (Snyder 1977; Gray 1981; Klein 1988; Jones 1990; Booth, 1991; Johnston 1995; Margaras 2004). According to this view, strategic culture can be understoodas a deeply held cultural predisposition for a particular military behavior or thinking, derived from a country’s history, geography, national myths and symbols, political traditions and institutions, among other sources.
Strategic culture is not, however, merely a product of military culture, and this is not the only area where its influence is felt. It also influences a country’s political and foreign policy traditions and practices, reason why the second approach has broadened its concept and has preferred to focus on the grand strategies of states and, in addition to military ways of attaining a state’s objectives, include variables such as economics and diplomatic ones. Thus, not only how political power is acquired and used, but also how a particular country sees and addresses the outside world are determining factors in shaping a state’s strategic culture. The foreign policy goals that are to be pursued by a state, and which reflect its identity and interests, are defined by its strategic culture. In this line of thought, the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) defines strategic culture as “the combination of internal and external influences and experiences – geographic, historical, cultural, economic, political, and military – that shape and influence the way a country understands its relationship to the rest of the world, and how a state will behave in the international community” (Bitencourt and Vaz 2009:1). Therefore, a country’s perspective of its own role in the international system and its perception of security are also part of its strategic culture. Thus, for operational purposes, strategic culture can here be understoodas a deeply held cultural predisposition for a particular strategic behavior or strategic thinking.
As a matter of fact, Russia displays a propensity to use force to achieve its strategic objectives. However, even though the country’s strategic culture can be considered “fairly stable with respect to the prevailing threat perception and Russia’s quest for great power status” (Eitelhuber 2009:2), some changes have been going on after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most conspicuously, the perceived role of military strength as the only source of power has declined, insofar as economic power has become more important. It certainly does not mean that Russia has abandoned military strength as a source of power and political influence and as an important tool in its international relations. It is still the chief institutional foundation of Russian statehood. However, economic development has also become an important driving force behind its foreign policy.
It must not be forgotten, however, that by its own nature, Russia is a revisionist country. The Russian state was born and expanded in a state of semi-permanent warfare. Over the course of the country’s history, from Imperial times to the Soviet era, the notion that its territory and resources were the object of neighboring and enemy states’ expansionist and bellicose ambitions not only shaped Russian threat perceptions, but also contributed to forge a strong nationalism, which is part and parcel of the Russian national identity. The country’s strategic culture and its great power aspirations are thus founded upon “an almost obsessive perception of a general threat towards Russian sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Eitelhuber 2009: 27), and an exacerbated nationalism, centered on the country’s interests, security, and global influence.
The tough crack down on separatist movements in Chechnya and Dagestan, Russia’s military incursion into Georgia in 2008, the recent annexation of Crimea, and the apparent support to separatist movements in eastern Ukrainian regions, more specifically in the cities of Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov, clearly follow this pattern, which had already been reinforced in July 2008 when the then President Andrei Medvedev approved a new “Foreign Policy Concept” for the country whose main objectives were “to ensure national security, to preserve and strengthen its sovereignty and territorial integrity, [and] to achieve strong positions of authority in the world…”1.
Other elements also contribute to shape the country’s strategic culture, such as the deeply rooted authoritarian leadership style and the militarized political culture. Actually, Russian political culture has a deep influence over its strategic culture. As Ermarth says (2006:6), Russian “[P]olitical culture is itself very “martial” or harmonious with military values in that it is grounded on the principle of kto-kovo (literally “who-whom), i.e., who dominates over whom by virtue of coercive power or status imparted by higher authority”. This assumption implies that Russian political elites tend to see the characteristic traits of democracy as mere political tools that can be used to manipulate and control people and weaker governments, in order to pursue and achieve the country’s interests, and for the benefit of the central authority.
To a large extent, Russian foreign policy mirrors its political culture. The kto-kovo tradition has implications for the country’s international relations, as it represents a tendency to see “foreign states or actors as either enemies, or subjects, or transient allies, or useful fools to be manipulated” (Ermarth 2006:6). That helps to explain why Russia manifests a preferential option for developing its multipolar strategy on the level of other major powers, be it through bilateral agreements of through forming a variety of coalitions, rather than through the framework of international institutions. This perspective also explains Russia’s increasing pressure on Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and also Ukraine to join the Eurasian Union, a trading bloc designed by Moscow to link Russia and its closest neighbors and meant to counterbalance the economic influence of the European Union in the region.
Now that the country has overcome the chaotic period which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaderships have systematically manifested their desire to restore their nation back to its former great power status, which is a major driving factor in Russian foreign policy and have acted according to this perspective. The country not only wants to increase and project its influence and power in its geographic region, but also aims to be a more significant actor in the international arena, an impulse that is not likely to subside.
Russian leaderships appear to see the world primarily through a Realist prism, in which the search for a balance of power is a permanent feature. To them, Russia’s mission is to promote the emergence of a multipolar world, in order to contain and counterbalance the magnitude of the American power. The main elements of Russia’s strategic culture – combativeness, competitiveness, political assertiveness (Ermarth 2006) and a tough stance against what is perceived as the greatest threat to its security and ambitions, the United States – are present in the country’s renewed aspirations for great power status. At the same time, due to its strategic culture, Russia will keep on reacting to what is perceived as a threat to its territorial integrity, influence and values, being particularly sensitive to U.S. and European Union attempts to not only include in a collective security community countries that were once part of the Russian sphere of influence, but also to promote market economies and liberal democracies in this area.
Putin has made clear that he is ready to squander his political capital and significant military and economic resources in defense of the right to protect what he sees as Russia’s “vital space” and interests. And since the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now a fait accompli, faced no serious international opposition, only mild diplomatic protests, an analysis of the Russian strategic culture indicates that more such adventures may yet to come. Unless, of course, that the United States and other major Western countries find an effective way to make such actions more costly for the Russians without increasing the risks of a direct military confrontation.
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Eitelhuber, Norbert. ‘The Russian Bear: Russian Strategic Culture and What it Implies to the West’. Connections, The Quarterly Journal, Vol. N. 1, Winter 2009, pp. 1-28.
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1 The Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation. Retrieved from http://www.mid.ru/ns-osndoc.nsf/1e5f0de28fe77fdcc32575d900298676/869c9d2b87ad8014c32575d9002b1c38?OpenDocument
Marcos Degaut is PhD student in International Security at University of Central Florida. (email@example.com)