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Authoritarian at Heart and Expansionist by Habit

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Assessing Cultural and Regime-Based Explanations of Russia’s Foreign Policy: "Authoritarian at Heart and Expansionist by Habit"?
By Andrei P. Tsygankov1
In Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 64, No. 4, June 2012.


Scholars disagree on how to interpret Russia’s assertive foreign policy. According to some observers, Russia’s authoritarian culture and political system have historically required for the Kremlin to depend on the Western threat image at home and engage in revisionist behavior abroad. These observers recommend that the Western nations abstain from engaging Russia as an equal contributor to shaping the global system. This paper assesses validity of the authoritarian expansionism theory by comparing it to other prominent perspectives on foreign policy, realism and constructivism. The paper argues that, by perceiving Russia’s historical and institutional distinctness as fundamentally threatening to the West, the theory overlooks important sources of foreign policy contestation at home and potentially varying directions abroad. In addition to analyzing the theory’s propositions, intellectual roots, and biases, the paper selects the historically important cases of the Crimean War, the Cold War, and the Russia-Georgia War. These cases help to demonstrate the theory’s flaws and highlight role of factors others than Russia’s authoritarianism in the nation’s foreign policy.


Russia’s international behavior continues to spark lively disagreements among scholars and policy makers alike. While some view Russia as largely accomodationist and non-threatening to the West, others perceive the Kremlin’s objectives as expansionist and disrespectful of existing international rules.2 The arrival of Barak Obama to power and his attempts to “reset” relations with Russia has yet to clarify the question of the motives of the Kremlin’s international behavior. Those on the skeptical side argue that the reset advocates misread Russia’s intentions and undermine Western allies (Kramer 2010a; Kramer 2010b; Cohen 2010; LeVine 2010). According to this line of reasoning, Russia’s authoritarian culture and political system require for the Kremlin to depend on the Western threat image at home and engage in revisionist behavior abroad (Shlapentokh 2009; Cohen and Dale 2010; Shevtsova 2010). It stands to conclude that the Western nations are better off trying to contain or transform Moscow, rather than engaging it as an equal contributor to shaping the global system.

Behind the policy debate about Russia’s intentions are profound theoretical, historical and ethical questions. Is a more democratic Russia likely to act in accord with the United States and Europe in international affairs? Does an authoritarian Russia necessarily present a threat to the West? Should Russia’s cultural and regime-based difference serve as a sufficient basis for excluding the nation from the list of partners and potential allies? More generally, should a difference in political system and values – whether it concerns Russia, China, Iran or another country – be treated by Western nations as potentially threatening their values and interests?

This paper seeks to assess the validity of the authoritarian/expansionist Russia approach by comparing it to two other prominent perspectives on foreign policy, realism and constructivism. Instead of focusing on Russia’s domestic authoritarianism, realism and constructivism study the foreign policy impact of international anarchy and norms, respectively. I argue that, as a guide to understanding Russia’s international behavior, the theory of authoritarian expansionism (TAE) is at best insufficient and at worst misleading. By emphasizing Russia’s purportedly autocratic nature, it overlooks important sources of contestation within the nation’s political system and the potentially varying directions of its foreign policy. By perceiving Russia’s historical and institutional distinctness as fundamentally threatening the West, the TAE also displays the tendency to deny Russia its own interests and stakes within the international system. As a result, many of the theory’s advocates blame Moscow for everything that has gone wrong in relations with Western nations and invariably offer policy advise that amounts to isolating or containing Russia.

The paper is organized in four parts. The next section reflects on the TAE’s assumptions and historical evolution. After identifying the theory’s propositions and intellectual roots, I offer an analysis of several biases from which it suffers. I then move to an empirical analysis by selecting three cases of Russia’s foreign policy that have been important to the progression of the TAE. My interpretation of these seminal cases – the Crimean War, the Cold War, and the Russia-Georgia War – highlights the role of factors other than Russia’s authoritarianism. The conclusion summarizes the paper’s findings and calls for a more complex and dynamic understanding of Russia than the TAE-based one.
The Theory of Russia's Authoritarian Expansionism

Authoritarian Expansionism and Other Theories of Russia's Foreign Policy

The central claims of the TAE may be summarized in terms of main propositions – one of a descriptive and one of a causal nature. The descriptive proposition states that Russia's main foreign policy objectives include the preservation and expansion of the country's imperial borders and institutions. The causal proposition comes in two distinct versions. Version One links Russia's expansionism to its authoritarian culture and propensity to impose itself onto other nations. The latter is expressed through the political regime's overconfidence and readiness to act unilaterally, rather than in the spirit of international cooperation. Version Two places emphasis on the leadership's low confidence and internal insecurity. The regime’s insecurity and preoccupation with political survival lead to diversionary form of expansionism. This version assumes the public to be generally passive and uninterested in the state's international activities.

The two versions assume diverse types of expansionism and have distinct policy implications. While version One identifies what might be “called expansionism from strength” or “missionary expansionism,” version Two describes expansionism that is driven by weakness or desperation and seeks to divert the internal public's attention from the regime's lack of legitimacy and effectiveness. The two versions also differ with respect to the perception of cooperation of Western nations with Russia. While both versions are skeptical of the possibility to develop a robust relationship with Russia, version One – by highlighting broad authoritarian support for international expansionism – is considerably more pesimistic than version Two.

Table 1 summarizes TAE’s propositions about Russia.

Table 1. Propositions about Russia's Authoritarian Expansionism

Descriptive Proposition

Russia pursues an expansionist foreign policy

Causal Propositions

1. Active authoritarian culture causes regime's confidence and missionary expansionism

2. Passive authoritarian culture causes regime's insecurity and diversionary expansionism

The description of Russia's international objectives and main causes of behavior abroad by the TAE contrasts with other theories of Russia's foreign policy. In particular, the TAE differs from realist and social constructivist theories. Realists typically emphasize material capabilities and the status of a great power as state international objectives. Scholars working in this tradition view the Russian state as acting within the same constraints of an international anarchical system that define choices of other states. Although internal factors, such as ideology, nature of government, and political culture, matter as well, their role is to specify, and sometimes to cover for, but never to contradict “genuine” national interest. Realists view national interest as a geopolitically enduring reality, rather than something open to interpretations, and define such interest as a preservation and enhancement of power within the existing international system. For instance, realists have argued that the Soviet leaders, while employing a revolutionary ideology and acting under a totalitarian system of government, defended Russia’s traditional state interests.3

To social constructivists, what matters most is not power or material capabilities objectively defined but what those may mean to the Self in terms of acquiring recognition from its significant Other. In the Russian context, Europe and the West in general played the role of the significant Other and prominently figured in Russia’s debates about national identity by creating the meaningful environment in which Russia’s rulers defended their foreign policy choices.4 Constructivists argue that although state behavior is shaped by power calculations, such behavior can only be understood in contexts of everyday interactions and socio-historical development. Even if anarchy is out there somewhere, constructivists say, we ought to focus on everyday interactions for understanding what anarchy means and how social contexts of power are being formed and unformed. Constructivist scholars of the Soviet foreign policy therefore view such policy in terms of signaling the Western nations the Kremlin's desire for equality and recognition (Nation 1992; Ringman 2002).

Table 2 compares the TAE to other theories of Russia's foreign policy.

Table 2. Theories of Russia's Foreign Policy

Westernizing State

Great Power

Authoritarian Expansionist State


International Objectives

Recognized part of

the Western world

Capabilities and

status of a great power

Empire and

geopolitical expansion

Main Causes of

Russia's Foreign Policy

Western influences

International anarchy

Domestic authoritarianism

Evolution of the TAE

The context and the long history of the theory of Russia's expansionism may be traced to European reactions to Nicholas's suppression of Polish demands for independence in 1830-1831. Russia did not limit itself to suppressing what was then an internal revolt, but also played a prominent role during the 1840s nationalist revolutions in Europe. In 1846, Russia led the way in suppressing Polish uprising in Cracow, which was a part of the Hapsburg state under the Vienna’s convention. In July 1848, Nicholas suppressed revolutions in the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia – partly to assist Turkey in defeating the Rumanian nationalist movement. In 1849, Russia provided Austria with financial and diplomatic assistance to strengthen its position in Italy, and Nicholas committed almost 200,000 troops to help the Hapsburgs to suppress the revolt in Hungary (Riazanovsky 1959, p. 248).

By suppressing internal opposition to the monarchical rule, Nicholas acted within the constraints of the Holy Alliance and had no hegemonic ambitions of his own.5 Although Russia acted in a multilateral spirit and only did what the system expected the Tsar to do, Nicholas was labeled the Gendarme of Europe. Such a presentation of Russia was partly a product of the continent's power struggle. Britain and France were not satisfied with the Vienna system, and each sought to challenge Russia's rise as a great power competitor (Taylor 1954, p. 61). No less significant, however, was Russia and Europe's growing divergence in values. European liberals now associated Poland and other nations that challenged monarchies with progressive values, and Russia with imperialism and repression. Russia was now deemed too “barbaric” and “autocratic” (Malia 1999, p. 99). Today, scholars such as John LeDonne, continue to argue that during the 1830s and 1840s the Russians were “dangerously close to the establishment of their hegemony in the Heartland”, and that Russia’s “expansionist urge” remained “unabated until 1917” (LeDonne 1997, pp. 314, 348).

Such was the political context for the emergence of the TAE in the liberal West. The Polish question did not go away, and the Polish elite led another uprising in 1863, during which the European powers, again, opposed Russia's effort to manage the issue and preserve existing territorial boundaries.6 Intellectually, the view of Russia as a barbaric expansionist was assisted by foreign travelers, such as the marquis de Custine, who began to promote this view even before the Polish uprising. The United States begun to develop negative perceptions of Russia after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, as immigrant groups (especially Jewish ones) engaged in anti-Russian lobbing in the United States to “liberate” Russia from autocracy and anti-Semitism.7 Perception of Russia as a dangerous autocratic power grew stronger as Alexander III and Nicholas II sought to preserve their influence in the Balkans. As theories of authoritarian Panslavism began to develop,8 scholars became convinced of the primacy of “Panslavist imperialism” in the Tsar’s considerations in the early 20th century (Geyer 1987; Tuminez 2000).

The social revolution in Russia in October 1917 provided another powerful impetus for developing the perception of the country as an expansionist autocracy. The Soviet Union continued its departure from the Western institutions, and it challenged the West's sense of military security. The Bolsheviks’ dissolution of the Constitutional Assembly in January 1918, doctrine of world revolution and establishment of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919 in order to spread communist ideas and set up new communist parties abroad all contributed to perception of Soviet Russia as continuing – in the most dangerous way – in the mode of authoritarian expansionism. Even after the Bolsheviks had renounced the idea of world revolution and dissolved the Comintern, the majority of the West's politicians and scholars could not change their mind about the Soviet system. Scholars became convinced that the idea of peaceful coexistence was a Soviet cover for an ideological expansion or an offensive war on the West. A classic statement of this position can be found in George Kennan’s (1961, p. 179) condemnation of “a regime, the attitude of which towards Western governments, psychologically and politically, was equivalent to that which would prevail toward an enemy in time of war.” Authoritarian ideology is the reason why many rejected the position according to which the Soviet leaders pursued a defensive response to the equally hostile Western governments. To Kennan, the latter came to hate the Soviet leaders “for what they did”, whereas the Bolsheviks hated the Western states “for what they were, regardless of what they did” (Kennan 1961, p. 181). This distinction has become common in Western scholarship of Soviet foreign policy since the Cold War.9

Despite the end of the Cold War, many have continued to interpret Russia as an authoritarian state with expansionist instincts, and not normal or abiding by acceptable rules of international behavior. Conservative representations of the Russia-threat argument tend to focus on the nation’s political culture (Pipes 1997; Odom 2001; Cohen 2007), while more liberal interpretations place responsibility for Russia’s “anti-Western” policies on the Kremlin’s leadership (Russia’s Wrong Direction 2006; Lapidus 2007; Legvold 2007), p. 98; Wallander 2008). Conservative perception was especially visible in justifications of expanding NATO to the east by incorporating former parts of Russia's sphere of influence. For example, the New York Times columnist William Safire (1994) pursued the “window of opportunity” argument by insisting on the need to extend the alliance membership for Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States and ultimately Ukraine, because “Russia is authoritarian at heart and expansionist by habit.” We must do it now, “while Russia is weak and preoccupied with its own revival, and not later, when such a move would be an insufferable provocation to a superpower” (Safire 1994). Richard Pipes provided the perspective of an academic and historian. He reminded his readers about Russia’s “heavy burden of history” and failure to make “a clean break with its Soviet past” (Pipes 1997, p. 67). To Pipes, Russians are yet to “overcome not only the communist legacy but also that of the czars and their partner, the Orthodox Church, which for centuries collaborated in instilling in their subjects disrespect for law, submission to strong and willful authority, and hostility to the West” (Pipes 1997, p. 70). The historian then cautioned against viewing the country as a potential ally, as Russia may still return as an enemy “if those who guide its destiny, exploiting the political inexperience and deep-seated prejudices of its people, once again aspire to a glory to which they are not yet entitled” (Pipes 1997, p. 78).

The Kremlin's international assertiveness in the wake of the colored revolutions in the former Soviet region has instilled additional fears in both conservative and liberal Western analysts. Russia has been frequently viewed as reviving the lost empire, backpedaling on democracy and challenging the West’s vital interests in the world (Brzezinski 2004; Russia’s Wrong Direction 2006; Cheney 2006; Satter 2007; Lucas 2009; Bugajski 2009). Russia's intervention in Georgia in August 2008 provided a fresh context for resorting to the TAE. Although Russia has legitimate interests in the Caucasus, many scholars and commentators explained the Kremlin's intervention either in terms of Russia's expansionist determination to secure full control over Georgia’s territory and resources (Asmus 2010; Blank 2009; Cornell and Starr 2009, p. 8; Sherr 2009) or the Kremlin's perceived insecurity in response to the colored revolutions and its search for internal legitimacy reasons (Cohen 2007; Lapidus 2007; Allison 2008; Ambrosio 2009; Filippov 2009). As a result, both conservative and liberal perspectives are skeptical that Moscow would enter cooperative arrangements with Western nations voluntarily. As an authoritarian revisionist state, Russia is instead expected to use available opportunities to upset American plans to remain the dominant world power. If this reasoning is correct, the American policy makers would be wise to abandon any search for partnership with the post-Soviet Russia and stay firm in resisting its power aspirations.

The TAE suffers from biases of essentialism, cultural ethnocentrism, and political hypocricy.


The first problem concerns the TAE’s presentation of Russia as a never changing entity that is constantly preoccupied with imperialist plans to subjugate and occupy other nations. This tendency to essentialize Russia and its foreign policy downplays the role of factors others than the nation's political culture or the regime's strategic design. As a result, little serious consideration is given to the possibility that Russia's international assertiveness may be designed as a response to actions by the West and seek relatively limited objectives.

For example, despite frequent claims that St. Petersburg's 19th century policy sought to topple the Ottoman Empire and conquer Constantinople,10 Russia's eastern goals were far less ambitious. These objectives included protection of the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and the right to have a secure passage of Russian vessels through the Black Sea. Although inside Russia there had been supporters of the drive to Constantinople within intellectual and foreign policy circles, it would be a mistake to view Russia’s foreign policy as driven by their views. Even after defeat in the Crimean War, the government did not turn away from Europe, as Russia's hard-liners had hoped. As Chancellor Alexander Gorchakov's activities demonstrated, St. Petersburg wanted recognition of its interests in the Black Sea, which Russia was prepared to defend even at the cost of German unification.

Even Soviet international policy had more limited goals than what many Western scholars and politicians believed. With the exception of the brief period of the world revolution drive, the Kremlin mainly sought to establish the Soviet Union as a great power and recognized member of the international community, not to expand the Soviet geopolitical boundaries. The Cold War, including the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and the military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 also cannot be adequately understood without considering actions by the Western nations. Western suspicion and mistrust toward the Soviet Union served to strengthen its determination to act assertively. From the willingness to work with Russia before and during the meeting at Yalta, Great Britain and the United States soon moved to unilateral and potentially confrontational behavior. Ideological differences notwithstanding, Stalin and his entourage did not abandon their attempts to mend fences with the West until Truman had made public his doctrine of globally containing communism on March 12, 1947, and the Marshall Plan had been proclaimed in June of the same year.

It is equally problematic to present Russia's more recent assertiveness as a part of a plan by the Kremlin to restore the empire and dominate its neighbors, even at the price of confrontation with the West. Those accusing Russia of reviving the lost empire, backpedaling on democracy and challenging the West’s vital interests in the world, oversimplify the extremely complex process of Russia’s transformation and its relations with Western nations. In particular, much of Russia’s assertiveness was a product of the United States’ regime change policy and the West’s post-Cold War advancement into what Russia perceives as the sphere of its geopolitical overall interests and efforts to achieve nuclear superiority.11 It is misleading to ignore the interactive nature of Russia-West relations, presenting Russia as an essentialist entity with once-and-forever formed values and behavioral patterns.

The above-noted essentialist presentation of Russia's foreign policy in part results from the TAE's cultural ethnocentrism. Rather than viewing other cultural communities as a source of learning, ethnocentric theories tend to perceive them as a potential threat precisely because of their difference from the self. Ethnocentrism precludes the TAE from being able to appreciate Russia's historical, geopolitical, and institutional distinctness because ethnocentric ideas assume the superiority of their own culture and inferiority of others.

A good example of a Western ethnocentric theory is that of democratic peace, according to which democracies do not go to war with each other.12 Critics of the democratic peace theory pointed out that it reflects American values of what is “democratic” and that and that those values themselves have been shaped by the United States’ perception of external threats (Oren 1995, 2002). Upon closer inspection, the theory of democratic peace is a mirror image of the authoritarian expansionism theory. Simply put, the two theories say that by not fighting each other Western-style democracies tend to act peacefully and cooperatively abroad, whereas the non-Western authoritarian systems, such as Russia, are bullish and expansionist exactly because they are non-democracies. Yet social structures and internal conditions are far more complex than the two theories present. For example, in the post-communist context, democratization is not infrequently accompanied by state weakness, thereby allowing the re-emergence and the rise of a previously dormant militant ethnic nationalism. As a result, not only do some of the newly established democracies go to war against each other, but they may also do so in part as a result of their moving away from authoritarianism (Mansfield and Snyder 2007). Similarly, authoritarian regimes that lack popular legitimacy may be cautious enough and abstain from assertive foreign policy if they perceive such policy as potentially destabilizing. Just as authoritarian regimes may be compatible with building an inclusive national identity and an efficient economy,13 such regimes may be compatible with a moderate international behavior.

The highly simplistic treatment of Russia's political system becomes especially problematic in the post-Soviet context. Indeed, if judged by the degree of public support, rather than by institutionalization of effective checks and balances, Russia's political system can hardly be called undemocratic.14 Yet Russia's system is still emerging, and can hardly be labeled either as an established democracy or pure authoritarianism. More nuanced categories and theories need to be developed if we are to match Russia's domestic conditions to its foreign policy. Even within the West, meanings of democracy change over time,15 and it makes little sense to analyze the Russian post-communist “democracy” by comparing it to the model of Western societies (McFaul 2001; Fish 2005; Baker and Glasser 2005), rather than to Russia’s own history.


The essentialism and ethnocentrism of the authoritarian expansionism theory also feed into questionable policy recommendations. Presenting Russia as an autocratic power that invariably threatens the outside world leaves this world few options regarding engaging Russia. If the nation – especially in presentation of version One of the TAE – was, is and will remain an autocratic and anti-Western imperialist state, then the West must either contain or confront it. Such recommendations do not only tend to perpetuate the tense state of West-Russia relations; they are also politically hypocritical because they deny Russia interests and stakes that the Western nations themselves view as fundamental to their own existence. Russia’s interests and values are not only perceived as incompatible with those of the West; they are also viewed as illegitimate and not worthy of recognition.

An example of these kinds of recommendations for Western governments might be the calls by many advocates of the TAE to punish and contain the Kremlin following its assertive post-9/11 policy. Disappointed by Russia's unwillingness to follow the United States' international agenda, analysts and members of the American political class, such as Senator John McCain and Vice-President Dick Cheney, issued multiple statements indicating their concerns with Russia’s new “imperialism” and energy “blackmail.”16 Steps, such as revoking Russia’s membership in the G-8, severing its ties with other Western institutions, banning private investments and recognizing the independence of secessionist territories (Chechnya) were proposed (McCain 2003; Frum and Perle 2003, p. 263; Pipes 2004; Edwards and Kemp 2006; Russia’s Wrong Direction 2006) that would amount for a policy of containing Russia or returning to where the two nations were during the Cold War.

Blaming Russia alone for the breakup of the post-9/11 international coalition is insufficient at best and misleading at worst, and recommendations to contain or punish Moscow are counter-productive. Denying it its political and energy interests and the right to set an independent foreign policy is sure to come with large political and economic costs. Such an approach is not likely to discipline a Russia that continues to be in a position not to yield to external pressures. Continuous treatment of Russia as a potential threat, rather than a legitimate member of international society, may indeed bring to power in Moscow those who are interested in exacerbating relations with the West. Politically, it may generate a prolonged cycle of hostilities shaped by Russia and the West’s clashing perceptions of each other’s intentions. NATO expansion, as well as military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, has already done its share of damage in this respect. Hard-line nationalists in Russia will only be grateful to hawkish pundits and politicians for assisting them in constructing an image of the West as a threat.

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