I’ve just completed and passed a 12 week course “Understanding International Relations Theory” on Coursera run by the HSE University, Moscow. It was written four years ago, so well before the invasion of Ukraine. It has been on my To Do list since I completed my Masters in Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies, essentially an international relations course, but I wanted the perspective of a Russian university on the subject. I got round to doing it when I did because a small number of people were saying the invasion of Ukraine was inevitable and were predicting the nation of its escalation of not addressed. I also felt it was predictable and based on Russia feeling unheard in its objections to Eastward NATO expansion, not being heard on the world stage beyond its power of veto at the UN and its objections to how regime change was being conducted by the West.
Anyway, the theory is just the same: Realist, Liberalist and Marxist paradigms of interpreting international relations, with their modern neo- versions to accommodate their failings, and the special theories like Democratic Peace Theory, Regime Theory and the delightfully named Liberal Transnationalism or Complex Interdependence Theory. Also, the critical theories of Constructivism, Postmodernism and Feminism. As expected, it starts with the Peloponnesian Wars, goes through the philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and the Westphalian view of state sovereignty, the League of Nations, the Great War, WW2, the United Nations, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and almost up to the present day. All as expected.
But the interesting bit was toward the end: the analysis of Russian foreign policy. It is entirely a Realist policy, so very different from how the West operates. And using the Realist paradigm of a desire to balance power, of great powers operating in a ‘concert of nations’ and Russia expecting to be the most influential state in its region, the behaviour of Russia was indeed entirely predictable.
While many were saying Putin is mad, that he intends to invade and conquer Europe, that it is all to do with internal Russian politics, had got it wrong. The invasion of Ukraine is – like most violence at any scale – all about humiliation. Russia resents being treated as insignificant on the world stage, resents the encroachment by NATO and the EU into its sphere of influence, resents not being involved in decision-making about world issues such as the Arab Spring (hence its involvement in propping up the Syrian regime to show that it can) and that it was not defeated and eliminated when the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia wants to be seen as what it sees itself as and has been for centuries: one of the great powers in the Eurasian zone.
All conflicts end with communication. And communication starts with listening. We need to stop treating Russia as a defeated opponent or an enemy to be crushed by an ongoing unofficial Cold War and try listening.