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“Putin’s Doctrine” as a Threat to the International System

Putin’s new doctrine is so far just a sketch rather than a finished product ready for immediate implementation. At a certain stage, it may be quietly disavowed; however, a return to a relatively calm period of post-bipolar international relations is unlikely to happen. The world should prepare to live under stricter rules that have yet to make themselves known.

Views expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kennan Institute. 

Over the last two decades, the system of international relations was aimed at finding a model to effectively support stability and global security, herewith containing and controlling regional conflicts. Such a model was being built by means of filling the existing institutions with new content and, to a lesser degree, creating new institutions to reflect the shifts in correlation of powers. During this period, Western countries, as winners of the Cold War, attempted to retain general global domination on the basis of rearrangement and optimization of resources manifested in maintaining leading positions in strategic directions and organized retreat in the areas where the western long-term interests were no longer discernable.

Unfortunately, this happened to the former USSR, where the United States and their allies gradually lost interest in complex and discordant transformation processes, while paying more attention to the Asian-Pacific region as simultaneously an essential source of industrial resources and serious threats. After 9/11/2001, the post-soviet region was no longer viewed as a source of security pressures; on the contrary, it was enrolled in the list of allies in the struggle with international terrorism. Another reason for the loss of western interest in newly independent states was a clearly marked fatigue and disappointment with failed “westernization” of the post-communist world.

Within the region, western attention was focused on Russia, which was seen as a somewhat problematic, yet contractible partner in supporting strategic stability and regional security. Warning signs in Russia’s domestic and foreign policy were discarded as relapses of the totalitarian past and the specificity of Russia’s historical tradition. Besides, in the late 2000s the West finally abandoned the attempts to promote democracy in Russia as hopeless, thus decreasing its influence on the internal processes in the country.

The first warning of Russia’s radical turn in foreign policy was its aggression against Georgia in August 2008. Yet, it was viewed as a one-off that did not change the general paradigm of the international system and thus did not require revisions in western strategy. However, the annexation of Crimea has in fact broken the world order that existed since the end of the Cold War, as one of the influential subjects of international system  attempted to harshly change its status despite its real resource potential. If it concerned a gradual increase of economic, political and power parameters, the system could adapt to it. But when a sudden claim for leadership is made by a state in economic stagnation, the situation becomes very dangerous, as the lack of force is substituted with adventurism and belief in the leader’s good luck.

The recent events certify the emergence of the so-called “Putin’s doctrine.” It proceeds from the assumption that the balance of power in the world has significantly changed: the potential and political will of the West have weakened, while power parameters of Asian and Latin American countries have grown. In the opinion of the Russian opposition politician and expert V. Ryzhkov, the doctrine includes Russia’s renunciation of attributing itself to the European and Euro-Atlantic civilization; selective recognition of the norms of international law; selective cooperation with international organizations; and the right to limit sovereignty of the post-soviet states, as well as to ignore national sovereignty and territorial integrity of weaker states, etc.

Consistent implementation of the doctrine will dramatically change the picture in northeastern Eurasia and increase the threat of serious regional conflicts. First of all, there is an increasing risk of the use of force by Russia against its neighboring countries, particularly, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. In the first three cases, it may develop into hostilities of different intensity ranging from classical war with armed forces to “hybrid wars” with a high autonomy of soldiers and subversive small units. Georgia has already suffered from, and Ukraine has begun to experience, Russia’s new approaches to war. In the cases of Kazakhstan and Belarus, there may be a “mild” annexation of a part of a territory or complete absorption that may be facilitated with populations’ psychological and military unpreparedness to resist Russian occupation.

The so-called “Putin’s doctrine” constitutes a greater menace to the contemporary world order, as it undermines the basic principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity that has roots as far back as 1648 by the Westphalia Treaties. Clearly, this principle was repeatedly broken since then, but there were no attempts to justify its renunciation. To be fair, we should note that its erosion was started with the policy of “humanitarian intervention” that was not launched by Russia. However, it was Russia that misappropriated the right to decide when to use force without logical grounds and without receiving formal support of relevant international organizations.

I believe that the greatest threat is hidden in Russia’s renunciation of attributing itself to Western civilization. In essence, its leadership announces the revocation of geopolitical and cultural heritage of Peter I and returns to the Moscow Kingdom of the 17th century. The author is inclined to evaluate this as a game, but let us imagine that Vladimir Putin and his companions are really honest in their views and intentions. This means that for the foreseeable future Russia is turning into a serious source of regional and global hazards. The experience of “non-western” civilizations in the “westernized” world is not convincing here. Russia does not have millennial Confucian traditions of China with its polished statehood and strong labor ethics of the population that allows conducting leveled and effective expansion without seriously irritating other partners. It also does not have the Indian self-absorption and harmony of Buddhism that allows controlling a complex ethnic and religious conglomeration and combining the heritage of British administration and legal procedure with a traditional social structure. To the contrary, Russian society is in the descending trend of the civilization cycle manifested in the degradation of social self-organization and statehood. Under such circumstances, its rejection of European roots and its simultaneous alienation from the East (Asia) under a plea of singularity and uniqueness will inevitably lead to assimilation and gradual absorption by stronger civilizations. I repeat that even if the “anti-westernism” of Vladimir Putin is a bluff, this does not bode well for Russian leadership and society and implies its immaturity and incapability of being an independent responsible player.

Finally, on a positive note, we may say that Putin’s new doctrine is so far just a sketch rather than a finished product ready for immediate implementation. At a certain stage, it may be quietly disavowed; however, a return to a relatively calm period of post-bipolar international relations is unlikely to happen. The world should prepare to live under stricter rules that have yet to be carved out.

About the Author

Sergiy Fedunyak

Fulbright-Kennan Scholar;
Professor, International Relations, Chernivtsi National University, Chernivtsi, Ukraine.
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more