IR Theory and Russian Apologia -Onur Erpul

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has called into question the major paradigms of International Relations (IR) – Realism in particular – and reinvigorated debates about great power politics. An important strand of Realist thought has set the tone, highlighting the culpability of the West in interfering with Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and goading the Russians into a desperate situation. These sentiments are echoed and embraced across the political spectrum by individuals who are quick to draw attention to similarities between Russia’s current invasion and dozens of interventions and invasions the US and its allies have carried out since the unipolar moment. The insurmountable gaps both among global public opinion and between IR theories on what to make of this invasion necessitate a theoretical recontextualization of Russian behavior.

I argue that IR theories frame discussions
of international order through moralistic concepts, but also underscore that
their limited utility necessitates a nuanced understanding of state behavior
predicated on a state’s disposition towards international order. Russian
aggression against Ukraine in the current case needs to be contextualized through
Russia’s long-standing reluctance to become a stakeholder in the present
international order.

IR Theory as Apologia

Great powers assert moral superiority,
often labeling intransigent states with epithets like a revisionist, rogue or
authoritarian. Writing on the eve of the Second World War, E. H. Carr cautioned
against the moral aspirations
of the great
powers that underpin international orders. Despite its central
role in the present international order as both great power and a permanent
member of the UN Security Council, the invocation of anti-imperial
forms the basis by which Russia often justifies its foreign and
domestic policies. After all, the United States maintains an empire and it can
interfere in the affairs of, or outright invade, other states with impunity,
which is just as harmful to international order. IR’s self-professedly most amoral
theory – Realism – frames international order as the remainder of an inadvertent
balance of power, professing no qualms about advocating for a nuclear-armed great
power like Russia to have an inherent right
to maintain an inviolable sphere
of interest
, never mind the agency of lesser power states.

Liberal IR theory, meanwhile, is also
culpable. Liberal IR theory conflates harmony with international order with a
state’s regime type, propensity for economic interdependence, membership within
international institutions, and normative performance. These liberal values
represent the trappings of American hegemony, however, and as a litany of
analysts will point out, the underlying cause of the war is NATO’s (and the EU’s)
rapid expansion. In other words, Russia fits well into the mold of a
belligerent and intransigent actor per the liberal IR tradition, yet the track record
of liberal great power states, including their own humanitarian failings,
bestows a modicum of normalcy to Russian conduct. Russia’s foreign policy
aspirations could be based on a desire to enhance its prestige and status at a
time of decline and external encroachment, but it is easy to identify the
mismatch between its status aspirations and the policy instruments used to
achieve them. After all, Ukraine is not a peer-competitor of Russia, and the
act of invading Ukraine, again with the flimsy victimhood-laden
, murdering civilians in troves, and having one’s military
humiliated, does nothing to enhance Russian power or prestige.  

IR theories have little to contribute, it
seems, in terms of contextualizing one of the most significant conflicts
unfolding before us. IR theories often adopt labels like revisionist or status
quo states, which have very limited analytical utility and only seem to appear
in both IR theoretical and public discourses as moralistic framings. Without
the understanding that states interact with international order in a variety of
ways at different junctures, it becomes difficult to prevail against the
“whataboutism” that seems to poison conversations about international

The Sources of Russian Conduct

Russia has always been a distinct and
self-professedly exceptional
actor in international relations. It has often been treated as an outsider to international
society (again, largely due to its own exceptionalism), but few would dispute
that Russia is a major military and political actor that has been a cornerstone
of the post-Cold War international order. More than any other factor, this
duality stems from the inability of Russia to buy into the present global
arrangements in such a way that it perceives a long-term benefit from playing
by the rules. This is to say that Russia is not a revisionist state per se
given that it cooperates with the West on a variety of high-politics issues. It
does, however, engage in order-challenging behavior and has been more than willing
to upend the rules of international order whenever its leadership has thought
it advantageous to do so.

The invasion of Ukraine occurred at the
intersection of Russian exceptionalist thinking and the Russian leadership’s
desire to avoid future losses. It is difficult for the leaders of a state like
Russia to normatively invest in what they perceive to be an unwelcoming
international order. Since the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet
Union, Russia has been working on shepherding together its former empire and
staving off what it perceives as Western encroachment in its backyard. At the
same time, however, Russia’s ruling classes seem content to reap the fruits of
Russia’s deep commercial ties with the rest of the world and heavily invest in
Western countries in myriad sectors ranging from energy trade to football,
not to mention illicit
. Clearly, the Russian leadership is invested in maintaining at
least a modicum of transactionalism, if not more, with the West. Endorsing a
full-scale invasion of Ukraine and being subjected to increasingly punitive
sanctions is not
to their advantage

A far more important factor is Putin, whose long-standing presence at the helm obscures analytical distinctions between the qualities of his leadership and the structural features of the Russian regime. Putin’s own brand of leadership has been controversial, to say the least. He has been alternatingly labeled a great leader because of his past exploits and a madman because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which seems to have been engineered and is being directed primarily by Putin alone. The question here, of course, is the gap between Putin’s stated concerns over Western encroachment, Russia’s claims over Ukraine, and actual Russian policy. Putin could have achieved his goals with a circumscribed invasion of the disputed regions. Instead, Russia’s current destructive path makes sense only in the context of a leader contemptuous of Ukrainian statehood and one who cannot make peace with an international order unwilling to accommodate Russian exceptionalism.

Putin’s rationale is likely also affected
by Russia’s grim prospects. Despite its reputedly sanction-proof economy, the
Russian economy is likely to contract because of sanctions and the costs of the
war itself. Despite the overall successes of the Russian economy under Putin, hydrocarbons
constitute most
of Russia’s exports, which portends economic volatility and vulnerability,
especially if Russia’s major trading partners like Germany decided to terminate
the importation of Russian gas
. Russia has also been facing a demographic
since the end of the Cold War, which has only become more
pronounced in recent years, with projections casting doubt about the
possibility of Russia having the necessary manpower to be able to conduct war at
the scale of its invasion of Ukraine in the future.

The Russian leadership, or Putin at the
very least, must be viewing Russia’s prospects with concern. They were willing
to invade a large neighboring state to rectify this problem. The said state exists
on geopolitically significant real estate and, like many of its neighbors,
attempted to court the West to allay the eventuality of a Russian invasion. Disdainful
of Ukrainian independence, and lacking any compunctions about using force, Putin’s
decision appears to be a calculated risk taken to resuscitate Russian power by a
leadership unwilling to accept their country’s decline.

Calling a Spade, a Spade

The fact of the matter is that Russia’s
wholesale invasion of a neighboring country is consistent with Russia’s past modus
. It is, moreover, a serious blow to international order as it
undermines the sovereignty of Ukraine, the security arrangements in the region,
and the fundamental goals of the international order to promote peaceful
coexistence. Ultimately, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rests on flimsy,
jingoistic reasoning. Russia has long expressed grievances over Western
influence and its waning influence among neighbors. Its decision to escalate in
Ukraine ultimately lies in a fundamental inability to link Russia’s long-term interests
with that of the international community, and the urgency with which the Russian
leadership seeks to address Russia’s projected decline. NATO and EU expansion
no doubt aggravated these concerns, but the Russian response essentially
vindicates its former imperial subjects’ zealous desire to join the West.

Conventional IR theoretical “wisdom” should
not distract us from decades of Russian exceptionalism and its disposition
contra international order. Presently, the international community has no other
option than to act in solidarity with Ukraine until the end of the hostilities,
after which the international community needs to work hard to make Russia a
genuine stakeholder in the system.

Dr. Onur Erpul

Onur Erpul earned his BA and MA in International Relations from Bilkent University, and Ph.D. from Florida International University. He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Foreign Policy and Peace Research. His research interests include IR Theory, foreign policy analysis, security studies, state formation Erpul’s publications have appeared in International Theory, Foreign Policy Analysis, and the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea Studies.

To cite this work : Onur Erpul “ IR Theory and Russian Apologia ”, Panorama, Online , 10 May 2022,

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