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How realpolitik and the predictability of the West’s weaknesses helps autocrats legitimise their foreign policies

Article by Dr Leila Alieva

June 5, 2019

How realpolitik and the predictability of the West’s weaknesses helps autocrats legitimise their foreign policies

With democracy and liberalism in decline, and pro-active autocrats dominating the international community, the resilience of the political models based on democratic principles, human rights and freedoms is increasingly being tested. The external threats posed by powers like Russia, coupled with domestic political trends of xenophobia and illiberalism manifesting in growing far right movements, are threatening democratic institutions and values, such as freedom of expression.  Instead of being met with unity these challenges are faced with fractious responses from the Euro-Atlantic states, with Brexit being a prime example of this fault lined response. These responses are leading many democratic sceptics and passive conformists with autocratic regimes to justify their positions by asking: if, in this current international landscape, there is a difference between Russia and the Western powers when it comes to their foreign policies? Between the recent foreign policy actions of Europe and the United States (US) and the news shared about them, ‘true’ and ‘fake’, on the digital informational space, including social networks, how can the Euro-Atlantic states preserve their democratic political models? And, whilst doing so, also delegitimise autocrats’ foreign policies?

In our more interrelated, globalised and ‘transparent’ world, people are better informed, or better misinformed, and they can judge on issues which were previously hidden. This is particularly evident about the foreign policies adopted by different states. Wherein domestic policies can still be strongly influenced by ‘fake news’ and autocratic regimes internal propaganda mechanisms, states’ foreign policies are more open to scrutiny. A higher level of public observation reveals the domination of realpolitik to a wider audience. A term created by Ludwig von Rochau, ‘realpolitik’ is deemed to be ‘the law of power [that] governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world’. [1]

The logic behind realpolitik is that foreign policies are driven by the interests or pragmatism of the state, or a group of states and alliances, rather than idealistic, value-driven considerations. However, at this stage of global interconnectedness the values and interests of a state, or group of states, are not easily separated and the survival of states’ democratic political systems and identities are increasing linked to how they conduct themselves in relation to other states. The contemporary threats to states, and/or a group of states, range from traditional hard power threats to the soft power ones of autocratic states, such as ‘fake news’, propaganda, corruption, etc. The latter threats require even greater attention, as they may be less tangible, but are in no way less aggressive in nature. And most importantly – the autocrats can and do promote them pro-actively.

Despite the risks to democratic states’ systems there is a prevalence of realpolitik today, which aids autocrats in justifying their adjustments’ not to the liberal order and formal international law, but to the rules of the powerful and self-interest. Putin sees this dynamic clearly. He does not believe in the ‘value-driven’ policies promulgated by the Western states, but views the world in purely realpolitik terms.

As he perceives it, Putin is ‘copying’ the West by getting involved in various geographic areas; to either establish Russia’s military presence, help incumbent regimes, use secessionist conflicts to preserve Russia’s influence, establish its peacekeeping forces or border troops, or dragging states, where possible, into the Russia-led regional organisations.  

In this venture he tries to drag the West into ‘power’ competitions for influence on his own terms and in his understanding. The involvement of the established democracies in such cases would also look natural – for example, the small states in Russia’s underbelly cannot protect themselves and need external assistance. Putin knew, for instance, that once he was in Ukraine, he would get the West’s attention and he would get NATO advancements in response. By creating a vicious circle of increasing Western involvement in a competition governed by the ‘rules of the powerful’, it gives him greater legitimisation of his own policies. Since the annexation of Crimea, all international crisis ridden areas like Syria or Venezuela have served his justification of realpolitik, while at the same time increasing his domestic grip on power. Moreover, the annexation of Crimea increased sensitivities in the Baltic States, especially in their reactions to Russia’s war games, Zapad, in 2017, which led to them urging NATO’s unity in response.

The West’s engagement with Putin gives him yet another argument to those who sees no difference between the two’s foreign policy agendas; these agendas being defined as cynical neo-colonialist policies that act in accordance to the idea of divisions of spheres of influence. In the case of Crimea, it was Putin’s argument that the US, not the people, made the coup d’états in Ukraine that overturned the state’s corrupt leader which ‘legitimised’ his own involvement in Donetsk, or annexation of Crimea. This perception of the West’s realpolitik – with or without a foundation – was perfectly described by Hill in his recent publication, reviewed by Thomas De Waal. [2]

The former secretary general of NATO, Rasmussen last year stated that not granting MAP to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 was a mistake. [3] In fact, the hesitance of the Western organisations and states to respond positively to the expressed interest of the small states near Russia has been often driven by the same logic – ‘we respect the sphere of influence of Russia and do not want to irritate it by getting too close’. This was the case with the European Neighbourhood Policy, and then later with the Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, where the perspective of membership has never been stated in the European Union (EU) documents. At the 10th anniversary of the EaP the uneven result thus was noted. While the partnership and association agreements were signed with four of the six states, the most impressive achievements so far where in the area of trade and people-to-people contacts, leaving the areas of deep and substantial reforms behind. This led to the missed opportunities for the West and emboldened the behaviour of Russia in the region.

But the West can turn a ‘military victory’ by Putin into a moral defeat, by behaving contrary to his expectations – depriving him of status and attention, and offering the societies a way to reach a better political model. This may express itself in addressing the structural obstacles to reform within the EaP states, such as the Soviet institutional legacies, weakness of post-colonial institutions, political economy of rentier states, lack of sense of interdependency blocking development of common strategy, and tactics in countering external threats and conducting domestic reforms; thus contributing to building of their resilience to the threats.

On the other hand, as Arjun Appadurai stresses, there is a tension between the logic of the ‘state’ and the ‘globalised world’. [4] Indeed, there are clearly processes, which can be contained within, and by, the state, and at the same time those which transcend borders.

The reactive policies and responses to the international challenges deprive democratic states of the capacity to project their own qualitatively different ‘power’. Diplomatically, the West loses opportunities to outsmart the autocrats, by being dragged into the hard power competitions and races for influence. In fact, the unity of Europe and the US in application of sanctions against Russia in the face of the Ukrainian conflict, is already outsmarting the autocrats, who are anticipating their capacity to split the West due to its pragmatism, vested interests and realpolitik. The political and moral effects of unity and consistency of the Euro-Atlantic community in reaction to Russia’s policy in Ukraine is in fact even more important than the economic ones, as it sends the signal that Putin miscalculated. Yet, the recent tweets by Trump that “getting along with Russia is a good thing” might undermine the perception of consistency. [5] The unity demonstrated in the case of Ukraine can, and should, still be achieved in other cases to show the autocrats the ‘red lines’ when breaking the norms.

Autocrats do not get confused by the complexities of international relations, as in their dealings with external actors they rely on structural predictability of behaviour and the priorities of the politicians, which they learnt quickly. They rely on peculiarities of pragmatism, which they utilise as weakness, when cracking the unity in the Western position and foreign policies by offering lucrative interests.

Most importantly, being dragged into power competitions, particularly in the field of hard power, in various geographic areas with autocrats at this stage of international relations undermines democratic states positions and values. By trying to replace ‘patrons’, and ‘recognising legitimate sphere of interests/or influence of Russia’ the established democracies devalue the sense of independence and the interdependency of those states under threat, diminishing their sense of responsibility in sorting out relations in the region through cooperation and boosting their own power. 

So the demand and the peculiarity of this stage of international relations would require not making Russia arm itself in competition, but rather ‘disarm’, both figuratively and literally. By offering unusual solutions and unexpected responses by Western powers this can be achieved, such as through unity of action, encouraging greater normative behaviour, and depriving the ‘winner’ of the rewards in getting its share of influence and control in contested parts of the world through the use of hard power. Another potential solution is to help Russia identify its possible value added contribution in helping the states to consolidate their independence rather than establish and enforce its influence over them.

These solutions and approaches require a serious reconsideration of the nature and substance of power, and the ways in which to recognise it in the system of international relations in the contemporary world. In a reconsidered world order, one would see the smaller states as equal to the big states, where their will and voice is equally respected in practice, and their power is not in the size of territory or military forces but in their capacity to be creative and develop effective and environmentally sound technologies, or to develop high culture and comfortable conditions for human lives. In the current world order, the small states can boost their power vis-à-vis the ambitions of, and non-compliance with, the liberal order powers via various measures – either by joining the existing unions or creating regional alliances to counteract the attempts of regional powers to dominate their sovereignty. But at the same time this world order is where the political trends are not contained within the national borders, and become a universal competition between – illiberalism and liberalism, xenophobic and exclusion versus open-mindedness and inclusion, authoritarian versus democratic, kleptocracy versus transparency.

What can the West do? The most reliable way is to restore its role as a normative power, or be more consistent and clear in its value-driven policies. As the Belarussian opposition leader in exile Andrei Sannikov recently noted in a Facebook post before the presidential elections in Ukraine: “By inviting both Ukrainian presidential candidates to Paris, Macron stressed an importance of the election itself, rather than the specific candidate, thus teaching a lesson to Russia.” [6]

It is important not to justify the ‘predictability’ of the West’s behaviour by compromising on this goal for the sake of pragmatic interests, but rather demonstrate integrity, unity and consistency. Listed are various suggestions to demonstrate thus:

  • The West’s policies should be pro-active rather than reactive, as it happened with opening the doors for Eastern and Central Europe along with Baltic republics in the post-cold war period through EU and NATO enlargement. While not suggesting the membership option for the other former Soviet Union (FSU) states was a missed chance, the early direct support for civil society in Georgia, Ukraine and various other states of the FSU has prepared a foundation for future reforms.   
  • The substance of these policies should be an alternative to the autocrats’ policies – contrary to autocrats intimidating – supporting and strengthening the state’s independent decision-making by supporting the institutions rather than particular forces. In areas torn by conflict, such as the South Caucasus, where the Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) conflict is the major dividing one in the region, promoting a sense of interdependency through awareness of individual responsibility for creating a safe and friendly environment, and respect for international norms should be encouraged. The geopolitical agendas, such as energy resources, should not influence the integrity of assessment of standards of democracy in rentier and oil rich states.
  • Normative certainty should be brought to the ‘grey’ areas, such as those dominated by secessionist conflicts, where international law is being violated, but no consequences are followed or enforced. By avoiding an immediate imposition of sanctions against the violators of the international borders, regardless of who they are, in both the NK and Georgian conflicts the West did not act as the normative power. Moreover in case of the NK conflict, one of the participants of the conflict, Russia, was awarded the co-chairman’s position in the mediating process, not with immediate sanctions for violating Georgia’s borders. Similarly, the Minsk Process is characterised by normative uncertainty, leaving the sides to negotiate according to their perceived bargaining powers.
  • Support for regional organisations, initiated by the states themselves. One such example was GUAM, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova for Democracy and Economic Development, which had an appealing concept at the core of it – the development of norms of relations between the states, but which did not get the deserved attention and recognition of the West.
  • The West needs to use more actively the attractive power of its democratic model, which has a universal nature and can appeal to people’s hearts and minds, including those under the rule of autocrats. The power of links was proved in the case of Ukraine and Armenia, where communication with the West through visa liberalisation and Diasporas fuelled the motivation to conduct changes in these states.
  • Western powers need to be united in application of all measures enforcing international law and responsible behaviour. This may be achieved regionally through greater inclusion of the European neighbours into the debates related to European affairs and its future, as they will bring external perspectives on the consequences of a weaker and disunited Europe, which is currently visibly lacking in the ongoing debates about the future of Europe and (liberal) democracy.

Dr Leila Alieva is a Senior Common Room member of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University, where she previously was an academic visitor and a fellow of Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA)/Scholars Rescue Fund (SRF). In 2018 she was a research fellow at the Institute Fur Kulturwissenschaften (IFK) in Vienna, Austria. Until 2014 she was founder and President of the independent policy research/ think tank the Center for National and International Studies in Baku. Since late 80s her research focus was on conflict analysis and resolution, as well as area studies – Azerbaijan, Caucasus, Former Soviet Union; Russia, as well as energy security, democratization and civil society in the oil rich states, regional and EU and NATO integration. She has been a resident research associate at a range of different institutions including the Russia and Eurasia Center at Uppsala University, the NATO Defense College (NDC) and the National Endowment for Democracy.

Photo by Patrick Gruban, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] William Hooke, Living on the Real World: the ultimate realpolitik, Living on the Real World, December 2016,

[2] Thomas De Waal, Book Review: No Place for Russia – What would it take to make Russia more comfortable with its neighbours, the EU, and NATO?, Carnegie Europe, January 2019,

[3] First Channel News, Anders Fogh Rasmussen: NATO sent @the wrong signal@ to Vladimir Putin by not granting Georgia and Ukraine Map in 2008, First Channel, November 2018,

[4] Appadurai, A. 1990. Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy. Theory, Culture & Society7(2), 295-310

[5] Donald J. Trump, Twitter thread of May 3rd 2019,  

[6] Andrei Sannikov, Facebook status of April 12th 2019,

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