By: Joseph “Tripp” Callaway
Russia has been, to say the least, active in Eastern Europe in 2020 and 2021. While the rest of the world was focused almost exclusively on the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. election over the last year, Russia sought to improve its position in Belarus and leverage its Sputnik V shot as a vehicle for vaccine diplomacy across Europe.,  At the same time, covert actions conducted several years ago by Russia against the Czech and Bulgarian arms industries have recently come to light, artificially inflating perceptions of Russia’s recent external activity. Russia’s military moves in the vicinity of Ukraine in April, however, particularly captured Western attention. Its massive buildup, the largest since its initial invasion in 2014, involved over 100,000 troops and associated tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and aircraft.,  Yet, just as quickly as the Russian military deployed its troops to the border with Ukraine (notably with a suspicious, seemingly intentional lack of operational security), it suddenly withdrew its military personnel later the same month. What motivated such Russian behavior, at a time when tensions with the West were already high? From an overarching international relations theoretical perspective, Russia’s penchant for a structural realist lens when assessing policy options is likely to explain these actions. This neorealist preference can itself be explained by a constructivist examination of the Russian geopolitical worldview. With that in mind, a neorealist perspective would note that Russia was likely motivated by three political interests: advancing its influence in Belarus, pressuring Ukraine to accede to certain demands, and limiting the risk of a unifying altercation with NATO.
Accounting for a state’s preferred theoretical model of the world is (ironically) empirically useful when selecting an appropriate lens to examine state behavior. In the case of Russia, structural realism/neorealism has a privileged position within the country’s geopolitical thought, both in its academic community as well as its policy-making sphere. According to Professor Tatiana Romanova of St. Petersburg University’s Department of European Studies, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union:
“The only paradigm that took firm root in Russia was (neo-)realism. There are a mere handful of representatives from the liberal, constructivist, or post-structural schools in Russia. Even now experts who teach international relations at leading Russian universities tell their students that there is only one approach, i.e. neo-realism. The rest is evil and is not meaningful for science.”
Today, the most popular Russian undergraduate international relations textbook focuses almost exclusively on theories of realism and maximizing “national interest,” with no significant mention of liberalism or constructivism. Experts such as former U.S. Special Representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker also note the elevation of power maximization in the context of the international structure at the expense of all else in the minds of Russian policy-makers, particularly President Putin, suggesting a neorealist bent. Intuitively, this makes sense from the perspective of Russian history. After centuries of invasions from German, French, Swedish, and Mongol competitor states, Russian policy makers are acutely aware of the cost of being situated along the “military super highway” of the Northern European Plain. Admittedly, this analytical framework does borrow the concept of socio-historical reflective worldviews from the constructivist school of thought. However, this essay is not meant to be a dogmatic view of neorealist theory in the strictest sense. Rather, this constructivist-inspired interpretation of Russia’s realist preference indicates the relevance of neorealism when examining the country’s recent activities in detail. The two schools of thought, constructivism and neorealism, are not mutually exclusive in this case, but mutually supporting.
Realism, under the context of Russia’s constructed realist identity, provides direct explanations for Russia’s motivations vis-à-vis Ukraine in 2021. According to the theory, states, especially great powers (which Russia self-identifies as under the tenants of constructivism), constantly seek power over rival states with the intent of becoming regional hegemons. This occurs as states rationally leverage their inherent offensive capabilities to improve their chances of survival in the anarchic, self-help international system. Again, one can see from Russian history, specifically military history, why such a philosophy of power maximization appeals to Russian leaders. This subsequently drives Russian national interests to dominate the key terrain of Eastern Europe today, just as it drove those same interests of Soviet and Tsarist leaders before them. These constructivist-realist tendencies lay the foundation for understanding the specifics of Russian behavior in Eastern Europe today, specifically with regards to Ukraine, Belarus, and the NATO-Russia relationship.
U.S. media outlets often make the mistake of associating every unexpected event on the geopolitical stage, from North Korean missile and nuclear tests to Iranian covert action, as a “test” for an American administration. This has been the case with U.S. media coverage over Russia’s military activities near Ukraine as well. It is more useful, however, to consider such activities within the context of said states’ perceptions of global structures and national interests. For Russia, this means seeing the world through an anarchic systemic lens while attempting to advance the state’s vital national interest of preserving the physical security of its European core. Belarus holds a crucial position to help achieve this interest, specifically by providing Russia with strategic depth and offensive opportunities (particularly with regards to the Suwalki Gap and the Baltic States) in the event of a land conflict with NATO. Any analysis of Russia’s behavior towards Ukraine is incomplete without considering the implications for its relationship with Belarus.
Russia has long sought closer ties with Belarus, from the establishment of an airbase to the political integration of the two countries under the auspices of the nebulous 1999 Union State Treaty (UST). President Alexander Lukashenko, however, has consistently kept such Russian overtures, perceived as potential avenues of usurpation, at arm’s length, particularly since the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Donbass. However, with Lukashenko’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors since the rigged August 2020 Belarusian national election, he has lost his normal hedge against Russia, namely the on-again off-again economic support of the European Union and certain NATO members. With this, Russia has a unique opportunity to maximize its power against NATO, particularly against Poland and the Baltics. Lukashenko now appears more willing than usual to go along with Putin’s requests for further political and military integration in exchange for security and economic assistance. A Russian airbase or, even more valuable, the subordination of Belarus’s military to Russia’s Western Military District, would be a crown jewel in terms of Russia’s strategic depth and its ability to threaten NATO lines of communication to the Baltics. However, Russia must tread carefully to achieve these goals. As previously mentioned, Lukashenko recoiled at Russia’s offensives into Ukraine in 2014, and still has not recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate. Had Russia invaded Ukraine again in April 2021, as some observers feared, this would have jeopardized Russia’s efforts to maximize its power in the region, pushing Belarus and its ideal strategic real estate further from Putin’s grasp. Instead, a show of force near Ukraine and subsequent withdrawal was deemed more useful by the Kremlin, opting to pursue its goal of power maximization in the region, rather than being myopically focused on achieving goals in Ukraine via military action.
While it seems clear why Russia stopped short of an invasion, why did it pursue a dramatic show of force in the first place? This behavior can also be understood under a neorealist framework. As previously mentioned, the Russian military seemed to almost invite social media and traditional media attention to its recent deployment, in stark contrast to its secretive deployments in 2014 prior to the invasions of Crimea and Donbas. This seemed to suggest from the start that this deployment was intended as a public signaling mechanism instead of preparation for an actual invasion. What was such signaling meant to achieve? For one, it was likely meant to pressure Ukraine into resuming the flow of fresh water into Crimea. Since Russia’s 2014 invasion, Ukraine has blocked the flow of the North Crimea Canal from the Dnieper River into the peninsula, thereby withholding 85% of Crimea’s typical fresh water supply. The peninsula has faced drought ever since, leading to much animosity from Russia, which lacks domestic experience in desalination technology and cannot outsource such a solution due to international sanctions surrounding the occupation of Crimea. Thus, Russia likely views its recent deployment as a means of demanding access to fresh water resources from Ukraine. As acquiring greater resources is a key source of national power, this motivation seems logically to fit into a neorealist framework. It should be noted, however, that this signaling effort appears thus far not to have succeeded in restoring fresh water to Crimea.
In addition to being a bid to increase its access to resources, Russia’s military messaging was also meant to demonstrate NATO’s impotence, cleaving Ukraine further from NATO’s sphere of influence. While not actually imminent preparation for an invasion, Russia’s drills on Ukraine’s border communicated that it could invade Ukraine if it deemed such action in its national interest. In spite of Ukrainian efforts to modernize its military in recent years with the help of NATO and U.S. security assistance, it is unlikely that it could withstand a concerted effort by Russia to seize key terrain, such as the source of the North Crimea Canal, if it deemed such action in its national interest. In contrast to the image of confidence and strength Russia hoped to portray, pleas for NATO membership from President Zelensky of Ukraine served as a reminder of Ukraine’s precarious position and lack of formal Article V collective defense assurances. NATO is unlikely to proceed with such a membership request, given the risk of including a state in conflict with Russia. Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg seemed to suggest as much by not echoing Zelensky’s calls for a membership action plan (MAP) throughout the crisis. Such dialogue also offered Russian diplomats an opportunity to remind NATO that any substantive push for Ukrainian membership would result in Russia escalating the crisis in Eastern Ukraine, a situation NATO wishes to avoid. In addition, such dramatic surges and immobilization of troops serve to keep NATO and Ukraine tense and off balance. Thus, Russia’s exercises served as a means of further disabusing Ukraine of NATO’s realistic willingness to militarily defend their territory in the event of a renewed major conflict with Russia, likely frustrating President Zelensky, cleaving Ukraine and the West further apart, and demonstrating Russia’s relative power and NATO’s relative impotence in their regional struggle.
In addition to maximizing power by maintaining influence over Belarus and seeking future coercive power over Ukraine, Russia also sought to ensure it minimized NATO’s collective power by avoiding activities in and around Ukraine that could unite the alliance members’ disparate policy priorities. Today, NATO faces both macro and micro level divergence over its future policy directions. At the macro level, Western European and Mediterranean member states, such as Spain, Italy, and France, tend to place a greater emphasis on policies that seek to stem the flow of migrants into their territory and reduce the risk of Islamist terrorist activity within Europe. France has questioned NATO’s relevance in general in recent years, with President Macron going so far as to warn that the alliance is drifting towards “brain death.” NATO’s Eastern allies, by contrast, such as Poland, the Baltics, and Romania, see the alliance as far more relevant to their immediate security concerns, specifically that Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty is a necessary guarantee of their sovereignty in the face of expanding Russian power. At the micro level, disputes such as the Greco-Turkish rift, Germany’s Nord Stream II controversy, and Hungary and Poland’s democratic backsliding serve to further discombobulate NATO. Together, macro and micro rifts within the alliance serve Russia’s interests, as they limit the group’s ability to reach consensus on a number of matters, including its responses to Russian activities. Effectively, they degrade the combined power of the NATO alliance compared to Russia, which maintains a relatively flexible hand of unilateral military and political action.
While a NATO military response to Russian maneuvers near Ukraine was unlikely, overly bold military action in Ukraine could have united the bickering allies of NATO in ways that recent Russian covert activities inside NATO states have not. It was clearly in Russia’s interest to deny NATO such a rallying cry for the immediate future. Russia’s withdrawal also still leaves the door open for it to intervene militarily in Ukraine later if conditions become more favorable. For example, the completion of Nord Stream II this year will provide greater leverage over Germany in coming years. Further, the escalation of any of the rifts examined above could provide an ideal opportunity for Russia to conduct further military action into Ukraine. For example, if the perennial Greco-Turkish feud were to spin into a kinetic conflict, Russia would likely have greater freedom to expand its offensive operations against Ukraine. Russia’s decision to leave some equipment and permanently rebase some of the troops involved in its recent exercises close to the Ukrainian border suggests they are leaving the door open for such aggressive courses of action in the future.
Russia’s recent efforts to intimidate Ukraine through military exercises near their shared border reflect a textbook neorealist effort to maximize power in a self-help system of anarchy. However, Russia’s propensity for such a worldview can best be explained through a constructivist lens that accounts for both Russian history and its academic and policymaking traditions. In short, Russia has made it clear to the world that it interprets international relations through a neorealist framework, and the world should listen and assess Russian behavior accordingly. With that in mind, one can see that Putin and his government conducted these exercises as part of a wider effort to maximize state power across the region. Russian interests in integrating Belarus more fully into Moscow’s political-military sphere, intimidating Ukraine, and maintaining NATO disunity all served to impact Putin’s calculus as far as how to maximize state power as a whole. One could expect to see similar or more extreme behavior in the future, as the Kremlin has left some of its troops and much of its equipment from the exercises behind along its southwestern frontier.
 Vladimir Soldatkin, “Putin Throws $1.5 Billion Lifeline to Embattled Belarus Leader,” Reuters, September 15, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/belarus-election-russia-int/putin-throws-1-5-billion-lifeline-to-embattled-belarus-leader-idUSKBN26521Z.
 “EU Blasts ‘Manipulation’ Of Vaccine Info by Russia, China,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, April 28, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-china-eu-blasts-vaccine-disinfo/31228285.html.
 Hana de Goeij and Andrew Higgins, “Russia’s Ties with West Fray Further After Czech Republic Expels Its Diplomats,” The New York Times, April 22, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/22/world/europe/russia-czech-republic-spies-ammunition-depot-2014.html.
 Michael R. Gordon and Georgi Kantchev, “Satellite Images Show Russia’s Expanding Ukraine Buildup,” The Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/satellite-images-show-russias-expanding-ukraine-buildup-11618917238.
 Cyrus Newlin et al., “Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border,” CSIS, April 22, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russian-troop-buildup-along-ukraines-border.
 Poline Tchoubar, “Videos of Russian Military Exercises near Ukraine Border Spark Panic on Social Media,” France 24, April 8, 2021, https://observers.france24.com/en/europe/20210412-ukraine-russie-vid%C3%A9os-convois-militaires-russes-fronti%C3%A8re.
 Paul D. Shinkman, “Russia Announces Withdrawal of Troops From Ukraine Border,” U.S. News and World Report, April 22, 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2021-04-22/russia-announces-withdrawal-of-troops-from-ukraine-border.
 Tatiana A. Romanova, “Neoclassical Realism and Today’s Russia,” Russia in Global Affairs 2012, no. 3 (September 2012), https://eng.globalaffairs.ru/articles/neoclassical-realism-and-todays-russia/.
 Allen C. Lynch, “Russian Realists on the Art of Diplomacy,” The Russian Review 79, no. 4 (October 2020): 654–57.
 Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46, no. 2 (Spring 1992): 391–425.
 John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), 29.
 Ibid, 30-31.
 James S. Robbins, “Ukraine Crisis May Be Putin’s Test for the Biden Administration,” USA Today, April 21, 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2021/04/21/russias-aggression-toward-ukraine-test-bidens-administration-column/7279269002/.
 Jeffrey Mankoff, “Will Belarus Be the Next Ukraine?,” Foreign Affairs, February 5, 2020, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/belarus/2020-02-05/will-belarus-be-next-ukraine.
 Vessela Tcherneva et al., “Belarus’s Brutal Politics,” ECFR’s World in Thirty Minutes, March 5, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/podcasts/episode/belaruss-brutal-politics/.
 Soldatkin, “Putin Throws $1.5 Billion Lifeline to Embattled Belarus Leader.”
 Christian Mamo, “Inside Crimea’s Water Crisis,” Emerging Europe, April 2, 2021, https://emerging-europe.com/news/inside-crimeas-water-crisis/.
 Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (New York: Cornell University Press, 1990), 22.
 Roman Olearchyk and Michael Peel, “Ukraine Pressures NATO to Speed Path to Membership,” The Financial Times, April 6, 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/e7dc0f67-fd63-4c2b-bcc3-fdbe06c4672a.
 Cyrus Newlin et al., “Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border.”
 “Emmanuel Macron Warns Europe: NATO Is Becoming Brain-Dead,” The Economist, November 7, 2019, https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-warns-europe-nato-is-becoming-brain-dead.
 Anders Åslund, “What Will the Impact Be If Nord Stream 2 Is Completed?,” The Atlantic Council, April 27, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/issue-brief/what-will-the-impact-be-if-nord-stream-2-is-completed/.
 Cyrus Newlin et al., “Unpacking the Russian Troop Buildup along Ukraine’s Border.”