Not by Bread Alone: Russian Foreign Policy under Putin

Not by Bread Alone: Russian Foreign Policy under Putin

by Robert Nalbandov


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Since its independence in 1991, Russia has struggled with the growing pains of defining its role in international politics. After Vladimir Putin ascended to power in 2000, the country undertook grandiose foreign policy projects in an attempt to delineate its place among the world’s superpowers. With this in mind, Robert Nalbandov examines the milestones of Russia’s international relations since the turn of the twenty-first century. He focuses on the specific goals, engagement practices, and tools used by Putin’s administration to promote Russia’s vital national and strategic interests in specific geographic locations. His findings illuminate Putin’s foreign policy objective of reinstituting Russian global strategic dominance. Nalbandov argues that identity-based politics have dominated Putin’s tenure and that Russia’s east/west split is reflected in Asian-European politics.
Nalbandov’s analysis shows that unchecked domestic power, an almost exclusive application of hard power, and determined ambition for unabridged global influence and a defined place as a world superpower are the keys to Putin’s Russia.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612347103
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Pages: 592
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 2.00(d)

About the Author

Robert Nalbandov is an assistant professor of political science at Utah State University and the author of Democratization and Instability in Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus and Foreign Interventions in Ethnic Conflicts.

Read an Excerpt

Not by Bread Alone

Russian Foreign Policy under Putin

By Robert Nalbandov


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61234-798-1


Continuity without Change

In 1990, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a German rock band, the Scorpions, came up with perhaps its most famous song, "The Wind of Change." The iconic words "The world is closing in / Did you ever think / That we could be so close / Like brothers" were the closest depiction of the spirit of expectation of drastic and — at that time — positive transformations in the world. Globalization was still too far on the political horizon to talk about, but the conflict between civilizations, as described by Huntington at the dawn of the bipolar era, was long gone.

With its first breath as a newly reborn state, Russia resembled Ilya Murometc, its fairy tale hero, staring at the stone on the three-prong road and choosing between three equally destructive options: imminent death (physical extermination), losing the horse (economic deprivation), or staying alive but forgetting himself (identity oblivion). Dimitri Simes added political context to the Russian trilemma regarding the three possible outcomes of the situation in the new post-Soviet geopolitical environment, predicting "the restoration of the Russian empire under an authoritarian, xenophobic, anti-Western regime; the splintering of the region into different groupings with widely divergent foreign policies and cultures; instability and possibly even civil war; or the emergence of truly independent democratic nations united by some form of a common market and collective security framework." The independent Russian state survived, notwithstanding two bloody wars in Chechnya and sporadic outbursts of separatist feelings in Tatarstan, one of its major Muslim enclaves. This was achieved, however, not at the expense of societal consolidation and strengthening of the social contract between the citizens and the government, but as a result of titanic efforts on the part of President Putin's government to build the "vertical of power," a famous euphemistic cliché of neoauthoritarianism.

Life after the Union Empire

The Soviet Union did not die in 1991: it lapsed into a quarter-century-long lethargy and was awakened by Putin's calls for the Russkii Mir (Russian world), a thinly veiled reference to the Pax Romana by the Roman emperor Octavian Augustus in 27 BC. At the end of 2006, speaking prior to the start of the Year of the Russian Language, Putin said, "And the Russian world can and should unite all those who cherish Russian words and Russian culture, no matter where they live, in Russia or abroad, and no matter what ethnic group may belong. Use more often this phrase — 'Russian world'!" The problem lay in the Russian semantics, in which the words "peace" as pax, and "world" as mundus are complete homonyms: mir. The Roman version of pax meant a time of stability that spanned two centuries, in which multiple tribes under the rule of Rome lived in relative peace, fighting neither one another nor their metropolis. Pax Romana was, in a way, an archaic version of the Soviet Union: probably that is why it is so appealing to the contemporary Russian political establishment. In the case of Putin's Russian world, we see the attempt to violate the regional and possibly worldwide pax with the purpose of bringing narrow mundus to a single dominant ethnic group: the Russians.

Poetically speaking, the Soviet Union has been a Sleeping Beauty waiting for her Prince to kiss her awake and return her to her previously unblemished glory. Hans Morgenthau was right: unlike individuals who possess some degree of morality, countries, especially empires, do not commit suicide out of moral considerations. They die for many reasons: because of internal systemic collapses, like the Mayan civilization in the ninth century. Or they may experience the crisis of overexpansion, such as the Mongol empire in the fourteenth century. Or they may be conquered by outside forces, as Urartu in the sixth century BC. Or they may collapse due to all of the above factors, the convergence of which led to the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century.

The Soviet Union's retreat from the global arena was different. A quarter century of foreign policy implosion initially led to the truncated views of Russia regarding the world around it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country was still struggling to keep the Soviet bits and pieces together, while limiting its role to a mere spectator in the international world order. First Russian president Boris Yeltsin was tasked with the enormous agenda of preserving foreign policy status quo in whatever forms possible, even if it led to a tighter rapprochement with the West by possibly jeopardizing the future of the "Great Russia." Initially, as Andrew Kutchins and Igor Zevelev noted, "The idea was that Russia should subordinate its foreign policy goals to those of the West since the hope, and even the expectation for many, was that Russia would soon become a fully Western country. Becoming part of the West greatly overshadowed traditional Russian images of the country as a great power, and the sovereignty and role of the state were diminished by the goal of transforming into a market democracy." At the birth of a new nation, Russia was thus ready and eager to end the civilizational confrontation with the West and to rejoin the European family of nations after almost a century of self-inflicted isolation.

In the early 1990s, there was a common desire among Russian liberals, including their first foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev, to take the upper hand in their country's foreign policy. Kozyrev, who on numerous occasions lamented the negative consequences of the Soviet empire on the future Russian foreign policy, was known for his ultra-liberal (in the Russian sense, of course) positions regarding Russia's role in world politics. At first, Russia willingly undertook the role of the second, if not the third, violin in the world concert of states. Such a foreign policy stance was, to a certain degree, stipulated by the domestic processes under way in Russia in the early 1990s. The phantom pains from economic collapse logically ensued after the dissolution of the command-and-control economy of the Soviet Union accompanied by the overwhelmingly popular defeatist sentiments. Such a stance prevented Russia from exercising its foreign policy in various directions, be it active opposition to NATO's intervention in the former Yugoslavia and full participation in the settlement of the conflict there, or mediation in the ethnic conflicts next door in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Moldova, in which Russia may have exerted her power with a "big brother" influence.

With Putin's ascent to power, starting from his lead of the FSB, followed by his first prime ministership in 1999, and ending with his continuous presidential reign, the realists of all sorts may finally breathe freely. "The game of 'high politics' is the same game it always was," as Colin Gray once famously put it. The end of the Soviet Union rendered a supposedly lethal blow to this school of thought, which was unable to rationally predict self-destruction of a nation-state. After all, a state so supreme and so intractable in the international system should keep going forever. The problem was that the Soviet Union was not a nation-state in its standard sense. For more than seventy years, it was unable to mold a new but consolidated Homo sovieticus nation where "national in form, socialist in content" would homogenize fifteen ethnicities, several of which had had negative historical narratives of bloody confrontations.

After a rather unexpected knockdown resulting in the rapid transformation of the international world order at the end of the twentieth century, the realists were almost finished with their incredibly myopic outlook on international processes. Theirs was a vision of the world where, according to John Mearsheimer, "for every neck there are two hands to choke it." Such a mind-set could not withstand the attacks coming from the followers of social constructivism. Constructivism was a rather new offspring in the family of theories of international relations, which praised identity over rationalism. It replaced both realism and liberalism with its rather rosy view of world affairs based on mutual respect for human rights controlled by international organizations via economic interdependence between the growing numbers of democracies who preferred to cooperate rather than to fight one another. Due to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, and Africa, the scope and focus on the international arena had slowly shifted to the second image, a subsystemic level of intrastate interactions. Domestic actors represented by ethnic groups brought in the notion of "societal security," thereby replacing the hegemony of states.

Putin's Contributions to Russian Foreign Policy

This was the time when Vladimir Putin, an almost unknown former midlevel KGB functioneer, rose to power. In less than a decade he had become the alpha and omega of Russian politics or, for a better word, an institution of his own. His power style, or Putinism, soon became associated with the state-controlled oligopoly, where the majority of decision-making tools are concentrated in the hands of the closest entourage of the leader's friends, but which still allows for certain degrees of freedom to the majority of its population — only to prevent them from changing the existing state of the distribution of wealth by satisfying their primary needs with limited benefits. Without a doubt, no major decision in Russian foreign policy is taken without Putin's personal touch, be that the war against Georgia in August 2008 (while he accompanied his national team to the Beijing Olympic Games) or the "hybrid war" in Crimea in March 2014 where the "polite green men" (the term given to unidentified soldiers in Russian military uniform who occupied the peninsula) in 2014 "facilitated" the referendum on Russian annexation of the peninsula. Putin is usually known for his reticence in giving immediate feedback for his country's behavior. For instance, his first speech on Crimean annexation was as late as three weeks after the actual, unofficial Russian intervention, and during the 2008 war against Georgia, he largely remained in the shadows as prime minister, giving the first violin role to President Dmitry Medvedev. Nevertheless, Putin remains the major power actor at home, projecting his influence onto the actions of his government in the international arena.

Domestically Putin gave his fellow Russians just what they have long been craving: the feelings of moral superiority over others and belief that "they hate us because they ain't us," that everyone else is envious of the "Russianness," their moral values, and military might. Deep inside, however, this viewpoint is somewhat similar to Nietzsche's ressentiment discussed in his Genealogy of Morals, only in its reverse meaning. This feeling is based on two conditions: "fundamental comparability between the subject and the object of envy, or rather the belief on the part of the subject in fundamental equality between them," and "the actual inequality ... of such dimensions that it rules out practical achievement of the theoretically existing equality." Ressentiment was somewhat absent during the Soviet era, when Russia acted as "big brother" and the primus inter pares in the happy Soviet family of incarcerated nations. After Russia revived from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, this feeling started slowly but surely to appear in popular Russian nationalism. It became an amalgamation of the primordial form of "a spiritual principle," in which the newly formed views of the Russian nation go back to early Christianity, Peter the Great's conquests, and the victories of the Russian military in various wars it fought for survival. It is also somewhat modernist, bringing together growing numbers of Russian citizens by "imagining" their communities as a unity of all Slavs, a vision embodied by the "Russian world" that their government strives to create in the international arena.

Starting from the end of Putin's second term in 2008 and beginning with his third one in 2012, growing Russian ressentiment finally arrived at the logical point of its progression. It found its archenemies embodied by the Western world, in general, and Americans, in particular, whom Putin called nouveau riche for getting the wealth and the power in the international affairs that they did not deserve. Previously praised and accepted democratic practices became almost obsolete within months; even "liberalism" became a swear word in the Russian popular pro-Kremlin culture. The contemporary Russian political discourse had long engaged in nationalistic clichés, turning liberals into "liberasts" (a semi-homophone combination of a "liberal" with a "pederast"); Europe into "Gay-rope" (an allusion to the freedom of sexual orientation, as a universal human right, but one faced with particular popular resentment and hatred in the mass culture in Russia); Americans into Pindos (a pejorative term for the Greek settlers along the Black Sea coast given to them by Ukrainians in the nineteenth century); the United States into Pindostan, and the culmination of all derogatory labeling — "fascists" and "national traitors" for all those who opposed Russia's international and domestic policies.

Transformations in Foreign Policy

The change in Russia's view of itself and the rest of the world coincided with the transformation of Russian foreign policy priorities and the ways in which to achieve them. The first Foreign Policy Concept Paper adopted during Putin's presidency in 2000 noted the underlying and irreconcilable difference between two outlooks on international relations: that of the West and Russia's own, hidden by the guise of liberalist thinking. Its further reading, according to Lawrence Caldwell, introduced realism: "As the Foreign Policy Concept of 2000 looks westward toward the developed states of Europe and North America, it carefully adopts the language of realism." Yet in 2000 Russia was more open to international cooperation and viewed its place in the world through the prisms of this cooperation. The 2000 Concept declared relations with the European Union as its foreign policy priority: "The main goal of Russian foreign policy in Europe is creation of a stable and democratic system of European security and cooperation. Russia is interested in the further balanced development of the multifunctional character of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)." By allowing liberalism into its foreign policy thinking, Russia emphasized the need to reinforce various intergovernmental structures, allowing its voice to be heard on the intraregional arena and also to further develop bilateral contacts with single states.

Russia was also more malleable in its relations with the United States. The 2000 Concept focused on Russia-U.S. relations concerning the need to deepen bilateral cooperation for the greater common good: a very liberalist notion. The Concept reads, "The Russian Federation is prepared to overcome considerable recent difficulties in relations with the United States, to retain the infrastructure of the Russian-American cooperation created for the past ten years. Despite the existence of serious, in some cases fundamental, differences, Russian-American cooperation is a prerequisite for improving the international situation and ensuring global strategic stability." Russia was striving to cement its place in the international society of states and was open to cooperation as never before or after.

When the domestic chaos of the 1990s settled down and the legacy of the Chechen wars began to fade away followed by the success of the "vertical of power," Russia adopted a more forthright stance with regard to regional and international affairs. This opened up the Pandora box of ressentiment. In his speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin attacked the postulates of global security because of dissatisfaction with Russia's role within that realm: that of a follower rather than a leader. Putin blamed all involved, and specifically the United States, for turning the OSCE, the organization through which Russia dreamed of playing a key role, "into a vulgar instrument of ensuring the foreign policy interests of one country." He also attacked NATO for expanding beyond its borders and threatening the projection of the Russian political ego on the European continent by building "One single center of power. One single center of force. One single center of decision making. ... [T]he world of one master, one sovereign." It was back in 2007 that Russia had shown the first signs of unwillingness to play in the international security game, the rules of which, as he presumed, were written by the winners of the Cold War: the United States.


Excerpted from Not by Bread Alone by Robert Nalbandov. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

1. Continuity without Change
2. Fear and Loathing in Russian Political Culture
3. Russia and the United States
4. Russia and Its Near Abroad
5. European Dimensions of Russian Foreign Policy
6. Identity Meets Money in Asia and the Pacific
7. Peripheral Politics
8. Quo Vadis?

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