Russia and the Making of Post-Cold War Geopolitics

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“It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all.”1 These lines, written by one of Vladimir Putin’s closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, are set in a dystopian future, sometime after the “fifth world war”. When looking at the ongoing struggle in Ukraine or the mess that is Syria, however, his account sounds terrifyingly familiar.

Russia has been involved in many of the international incidents or trouble spots that have occupied our news pages in recent years. The country’s role in the international system and the goals of Russian foreign policy have been subject to heated debate in Western media and scholarly circles. Depending on the perspective applied, the characterization of Russian behavior has ranged from accusing it of deliberately provoking a new Cold War, to portraying it as an unpredictable rogue state, or, more recently, to praising the country as an ally in the fight against Islamist extremism. These wildly divergent interpretations lend themselves to one of two possibilities regarding Russia’s external orientation: the country has nothing resembling a consistent foreign policy strategy, or, Western commentators often fail to interpret Russian interests correctly. I would argue that the latter is closest to the truth.

The debate on Russian foreign policy in the West has been framed by two diverging perspectives. The first is that of scholars specializing in Russia or other post-Soviet countries. This perspective is based primarily on empirical knowledge and historical evidence and is sometimes informed by liberal or constructivist international relations theory. The other perspective, which is steadily gaining in popularity as the fighting in Ukraine drags on, is dominated by realist theory. Proponents of this line of thinking view the conflict in Ukraine, for example, as a matter between sovereign states or blocs of states, acting rationally according to their material self-interest. Numerous commentators from the realist camp have argued that the Russian annexation of Crimea was a rational response to Western attempts to roll back Russia’s sphere of influence.

Unfortunately, neither the realist view alone nor country-specific knowledge ungrounded in theory seem to be suitable for providing an accurate appraisal of Russian foreign policy that corresponds to the actions we have seen. In times like these, when the downing of a Russian bomber on the Syrian-Turkish border prompts commentators to evoke fears of a Third World War in the making,2 political  analysts seeking to interpret such international incidents ought to do so with clarity, structure, and taking a long-term perspective.

International relations theory is a critical foundation for applying these elements to policy analysis. For studying Russian foreign policy, the theory of neoclassical realism seems to offer the most expedient framework. Neoclassical realism does not rely solely on objective explanatory categories, but also factors in subjective variables such as domestic political developments, culture, ideology, prestige, and social norms. The theory further softens the presumption that a state always acts rationally, since not all of its self-interests are considered to be material. Finally, Russian foreign policy itself typically displays realist features. For example, it is frequently cited that Russia openly aspires to great power status through a transformation of the international order into a multipolar system.3

Not only are Russia’s national interests considered to be realist in and of themselves (i.e. placing greater weight on economic and military indices of power rather than soft power metrics),4 research applying the neoclassical realist framework has also shown that Russia’s main interests have been “continuous throughout the process of (re-)conceptualization of its foreign policy through its main documents.”5  Kropatcheva argues that if both the domestic context of action, i.e. material power capabilities, subjective self-perception and perception of international realities, as well as objective changes in the international context were taken into account, Russian foreign policy would seem more predictable and persistent than Western politicians and scholarship commonly believed.6

Assuming that there has been continuity and intent behind Russian foreign policy – what are its key concepts? TV producer and author Peter Pomerantsev has put forward an interesting idea: he borrows from Vladislav Surkov’s fictional writings and refers to the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy approach as forms of “non-linear” or “hybrid” warfare. Non-linear war encompasses everything from Moscow’s “little green men” that seized Crimea early last year, to massive disinformation campaigns to spin Western media, to the use of intelligence or cyber operations. Pomerantsev asks whether Russian actions in Ukraine over the last two years, which many in the West have interpreted as “Cold War or even 19th century mindsets,” were actually a manifestation of a “21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances.” In truth, he argues, the West was caught up in “old ways,” while the Kremlin was “the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization.”7

The ongoing dynamics provide a stark illustration that power politics are far from over. For Western policymakers, this has meant that the goal of their post-Cold War foreign policy – building a liberal world order through trade liberalization, nonproliferation, and democratization – is increasingly being trumped by the need to put out geopolitical fires. In an article last year, Walter Russel Mead argued that “old-fashioned power plays” were back in international relations. Russia, whose goal was to “reassemble as much of the Soviet Union as it can,” had already succeeded in dismembering Georgia, bringing Armenia into its orbit, tightening its hold on Crimea, and dealt the West an unpleasant and humiliating surprise with its Ukrainian adventure.8

If we speak about a return of geopolitics, however, we must acknowledge that the ways in which it is being conducted have changed fundamentally, and so, arguably, have its objectives. The traditional Cold War paradigms, under which geopolitics referred solely to matters of military power and territory no longer seem to hold. Taking into account recent developments and the new forms of global competition that have emerged, as well as increased ambiguity regarding states’ intentions, it is necessary to adapt our understanding of power politics and augment it by new forms of hybrid warfare. This is a power struggle on unconventional terms, and the Kremlin has played a major role in formulating these terms.

There is a clear rationale behind the Kremlin’s love for all things non-linear. Russia faces clear economic and military limitations that are hard to reconcile with its great power ambitions. As Russia expert Mark Galeotti argues, through its use of “guerrilla geopolitics,” Moscow was able to leverage on its capacity for misdirection, bluff, intelligence operations, and targeted violence to maximize its opportunities.9 Whether these non-linear tactics will be successful in the long run remains to be seen. While Crimea signified a triumph of Moscow’s new approach, as the destabilized conditions allowed for a pre-emptive information war followed by a near-bloodless takeover,10 the insurgency in south-eastern Ukraine has been less successful so far, merely wreaking havoc in the region and provoking the imposition of Western sanctions.

“Their aims were quite different. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part,” writes Surkov in his post-apocalyptic short story. And one thing about the use of non-linear warfare is for sure. It makes for a fascinating, yet tragic, modern tale of geopolitics. Fact, unfortunately, not fiction.


1. Peter Pomerantsev, “How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2014, accessed November 30, 2015:
2. see for example: PW Singer and August Cole, “Here's how World War Three could start tomorrow,” The Telegraph, November 24, 2015, accessed November 30, 2015:
3. Andrew C. Kuchins and Igor A. Zevelev, “Russian Foreign Policy: Continuity in Change,” The Washington Quarterly 35 (2012), 154, accessed November 30, 2015:
4. Ibid., 153
5. Elena Kropatcheva, “Russian foreign policy in the realm of European security through the lens of neoclassical realism,” Journal of Eurasian Studies 3 (2012), 32
6. Ibid., 37f
7. Peter Pomerantsev, “How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare,” Foreign Policy, May 5, 2014, accessed November 30, 2015:
8. Walter Russell Mead, “The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2014), accessed November 30, 2015:
9. Mark Galeotti, “‘Hybrid War’ and ‘Little Green Men’: How It Works, and How It Doesn’t,” E-International Relations, accessed November 30, 2015,
10. Ibid.