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War as a sign of weakness: Failure of reforms and of reframing the Russian nation

Article by Dr Leila Alieva

July 27, 2022

War as a sign of weakness: Failure of reforms and of reframing the Russian nation

Putin’s war so far has achieved all the opposite to the declared goals – NATO came even closer to its borders; Ukraine became more militarised; the most loyal to neutrality, Sweden and Finland, applied for NATO membership; and the usually disunited West showed unprecedented unity in application of sanctions. With the continuation of the war debate moves to the issue of whether Putin should be defeated and tried, or should he be brought to the negotiations table with the Ukrainian President, after a rather shocking statement by the French President, Macron, calling “not to humiliate Russia” in Strasbourg. The unprecedented violence, destruction and war on extermination developing in Ukraine hints to a rather personal nature of the unfolding tragedy in Europe.


The increasingly personalistic regime of Putin – which emerged from the failure of reforms, weak civil society, and institutional legacies of the totalitarian and Soviet regime – led to the domination of his psychological factors in Russia’s foreign policy. It can be reduced to a power contest between Putin and the US, (or Biden), where Ukraine is rather a tool and a legitimate and vulnerable target. He perceived it as a legitimate target due to his understanding of the nature of international relations as pure realpolitik and division in the spheres of influence by the great powers. He viewed it as a vulnerable one due to the anticipation of disunity in the West and its pragmatic rather than normative policies, as well as weak capacity and readiness of Ukrainians to resist. On all accounts he faced miscalculations. Yet, the war showed that at least two important actors were not taken seriously enough by the West – the Russian society and the newly independent states.


Reframing approaches

Macron was quite late with his appeal not to humiliate Russia. In fact, this is the right time to humiliate, and moreover to defeat it. There is no justification of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and atrocities against civilians in this war, and Russia’s current behaviour is a direct consequence of the impunity, mixed messages, appeasement and unlimited pragmatic cooperation. The motivation of Putin was to prove that he is also entitled to invade and control other states, as is his perception of what the West does, with the US first of all. The ‘spoilers’’ role is not to resolve, but to violate, and thus raise the status and attention of oneself. However, what was left beyond the centre of attention most of the years of transition, is that there is not only a need of the people to be perceived equal to the others, but also to have a distinct – and dignified – positive identity, which makes them what they are with their culture and history. The domestic debates on identity took place early in Russian society, but often they were reduced to the historical ones and due to the weakness of society, and against the background of failing reform process, it allowed Putin to hijack the debate and fill an identity with the content of his power projection. Yet, there was something the West could have done. Instead of increasingly being concerned with supporting Russia’s regime status and not to “humiliate” it, they could have more openly recognised a positive potential of the people, or society to reform, even with the reference to history and/or culture. The distinct identity, or at the state level – identity – is taking place in interaction with the other states, who send the messages of the normative framework of the status and reputation. Making Russia not great but attractive – is the goal. Putin’s attempts to sketch such an ‘identity’ was about control and power, rather than added value to international relations – recall his interpretation of “dukhovnost” or other similar concepts. It was reinforced by the fact that the latter was understood by the West as purely technocratic exercise – cooperation in peacekeeping and security – or pragmatic economic cooperation. Mixed messages from the outside – speeches about human rights, but impunity in violations, such as those in Chechnya, or participation in the oil and gas deals by former and still influential politicians, the rewards of a ‘co-chairman seat’, or peacekeeping forces in spite of the rather destructive role in secessionist conflicts – allowed increasingly authoritarian Putin to utilise the West and its values as a threat domestically, while its institutions and representatives as enablers internationally. Thus, society was increasingly left behind in the equation of official relations. Society’s need in ideational factors, positive distinct identity, added value in the world affairs and culture were failed to be addressed domestically or were not recognised internationally. Hence the capacity of Putin to fill the void by ‘greatness’ which is measured by military victory and physical size of the country in a hijacked ‘identity’ process. He did not fully overlook the soft power issue in identity – in fact he stressed on a few occasions that Russia is now representing true European values, what he called “reasonable conservatism”. Although he refers to the prominent Russian philosophers’ tradition, it reflects the reality – failure of reforms and authoritarian rule –  which makes Russia unattractive to the societies around Russia, as it indicates its incapacity to play a traditionally modernising and Europeanising role, at least for some regions of the Former Soviet Union and for some periods of history. If there was a positive influence in history, it was about such influence, as our survey just before the war in Ukraine discovered in perceptions in the South Caucasus.[1]


Putin’s perception of power and society’s stance on the war

Once the community cannot find its positive distinct identity it is easier for a leader to move to the role of ‘spoiler’, or status void of any normative content, and get support of the lost and disappointed society.


Moreover, power is understood in pre-modern/modern way, untouched by globalisation and technology, in terms of its physical size. Grabbing and collecting the lands as a way to make the country ‘great’ again is a convenient way for elites who failed or are resistant to make qualitative changes in the country. These debates have been taking place in Russia since early 1990s – whether Russia should focus on re-establishment of control over its former ‘periphery’ or on reforms and changes within the country’s borders. Our study on the experience of conflicts in the South Caucasus proved that post-Soviet autocrats are not interested in modernisation leading to the “opening of the post-Soviet minds”, as it will deprive them of a powerful tool of control and distraction from the domestic issues in substance.[2] The similar phenomenon is reflected in the “modernisation effect” typical of the rentier state (such as Russia) described by Michael Ross.[3] Military power has a dramatic quality and spectacular form needed for visualisation of the role of ‘victor’, which constitutes the core of the ‘greatness’ concept of officially narrated identity.


On the other hand, Putin and his proxies with old Soviet thinking are led by cynicism in perception of the nature of international relations as that of realpolitik, with the division of the world in the spheres of influence by the most powerful states. In his behaviour he is guided by the perceived “red lines” established by the foreign policies of the West, first of all by the US, justifying his invasion of Ukraine, which has even greater legitimacy in his eyes, as is in Russia’s “underbelly”, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan for the US.


It is often said nowadays that the West should have been taking Putin’s words and statements seriously, meaning his views on history of the Former Soviet Union states and Russia, signaling Russian imperial intentions and claims, which extended far beyond its current borders, most recently when he compared himself to Peter the Great. However, he also said several times about unique history and culture of Russia, and earlier in his time in office even about the importance of democracy as a way to realise this unique creative potential of Russians, otherwise predicting country’s stagnation.[4] Yet, whatever was a dynamic official rhetoric and way of thinking, the societal united alternative of the identity narrative did not ripe and hold. This is one of the factors explaining the population support of the war. Besides the unreliability of polling data in the politically restrictive conditions, the identification with the official narrative is an attempt to reduce cognitive dissonance formed by need in positive identity – on the one hand, and – a negative information resulting from the actions by the state, which the citizen cling to – on the other, which happens in the absence of an alternative positive distinct identity.


Missed opportunities and the way forward

Similarly to the underestimation of society’s basic need for a distinct positive identity and the reduction of Russia’s foreign policy drivers to those of ruling elite’s ‘exceptionalism’ and ‘status’, another underestimation was related to the status of the Former Soviet Union states and their capacity to resist, form alliances, and the potential threat of unresolved conflicts, along with the dangers of appeasement of Russia’s leadership. But Ukraine’s resistance made the West take it more seriously.


Enthusiasm for “re-shaping Eurasia” by the bold policies of the South Caucasus leaders of the 1990s was replaced by the bitter awareness that the West will not counterbalance pressure from Russia –mainly coming through support for secessionist conflicts – in the 2000s. The GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) – the only alliance formed not by the big powers, but from the states themselves – based on the common pro-Western orientation and common security concerns did not turn into a viable regional organisation, partly due to the fear of the West to upset and provoke Russia. The transformation of GUAM into an effective regional military-defense alliance before the countries and NATO became ready for their membership could make the resistance of the Ukrainian people to invasion much stronger and the war shorter. Having understood that they were left alone vis-à-vis Russia’s threat some states, such as Azerbaijan and most recently Georgia, turned to the balanced policies, with those who did not, like Ukraine, paying a high cost for not doing it.


Thus the Western reaction to the war in Ukraine disclosed both long term and short term challenges to its policies. The war, which is rather a deja vu moment in this part of the world after the dramatic experience of violence and wars in the 20th century, demonstrated a failure of deterrence of the potentially dangerous leader in spite of all the signals coming from the smaller states since the end of the Cold War. It has also revealed the destructive power of the regime which fills the void of the failure of society to find its identity, reinforced by the underestimation of its role by the international community, and the sense of impunity and appeasement of the official policies. European Parliament appealed to the Russian society against the decades of identification of the country with the regime, which is as belated, as was Macron’s rather irrelevant appeal not to humiliate Russia. The latter would probably be more relevant to the society than to regime. Indeed, one of the ways to move forward is to credit people with the positive potential to reform, helping them to re-discover a civilised and distinct identity, based on humanism and universal values, rooted in their history and culture. The war in Ukraine is an expression of Russia’s weakness – its incapacity, based on identity, to form a unique contribution to world affairs, which would be attractive to other states and their societies first of all. One of the most powerful driving forces of South Caucasus states’ transformation was the memory (or distinct positive identity) of the pre-Soviet occupation, based on just two years of democratic experience of the modern nation state. Azerbaijan’s unique contribution to world affairs in the early 20th century was building the first democratic republic in the Muslim East and being a source of liberal ideas far beyond its borders. This liberalising influence could be one of the ways to assert a distinct self instead of the imposition of control through either soft or hard power, as is done by Russia’s leader – who has found himself in deadlock of failed reforms, monopoly on power and national identity.


There is nothing unique in the search for national identity. The UK has been going through this process in the pre-Brexit period or in Germany with it serious re-consideration of the traditional Ostpolitik. However, in a decolonised country with non-democratic and weak state institutions the process might be painful and destructive.


While establishing identity at least two conditions are needed – freedoms and interaction with external actors for recognition. Currently the way out of this vicious circle for society is to gain confidence in having a potential positive distinct identity and added value. At this time, when the country is weak, this potential can always be found in one’s own history and culture to support costly moral choices made at a time of war. The participants of our survey stressed the possible role of modernisation, which Russia could have played, when conducting reforms, as in some periods of its history. The range of possible traits can vary from the cultural modernisation of the early 20th century, progressive political reforms in the 19th century (even if short term), scholarship and its influence on the world science, and the roots of freedoms, like in the Novgorod republic (although contested between the two nations). The latter indeed became a point of historical reference for the anti-war protesters in Russia since the end of February 2022, who chose the tricolor flag without red as a symbol of their movement. So even under the current oppressive conditions the society shows its attempts to change the nation and take back the hijacked control over identity formation from the autocrat.


Therefore, the objective of Russia finding its identity and place in the world is still ahead, and is a possibility as the societal protests show. However, it is a challenging task, as after the war in Ukraine is over it will have to go through real reforms, accompanied by transitional justice, holding criminals responsible, and atonement similar to that in the German state and society post-1940s.


[1] Leila Alieva and Bakhtiyar Aslanov, How autocracy impedes de-securitization, or why democracy matters: the case of Nagorno-Karabagh in the eyes of Azerbaijanis, Caucasus Survey 6, no. 3, (2018): 183-202,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael L. Ross, Does Oil Hinder Democracy?, World Politics 53, no.3, (2001): 325-361,

[4] Иван Шаблов, Putin said this during his conversation with the representatives of culture, in 2000 in exchange with a pop-singer Yurii Shevchuk, Facebook,

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