By: Charlie Kramer  | 

The Pundit: Identity Is Guiding Russia To Attack Ukraine

Russia is on the brink of a full-scale invasion of its neighbor, Ukraine. As Russia continues to gather troops and weapons at the border, many may wonder what prompts a nation to go to war in the first place and how countries generally make their foreign policy decisions. Three prevailing theories exist about how countries carry out their international relations: Realism, Liberalism and Constructivism. Each strand plays a role in Russia’s aggression, but I believe that Russia’s land grab is based primarily on the international relations theory known as Constructivism, with the other two theories, Liberalism and Realism, only playing secondary roles in explaining the conflict. 

The theory of Realism focuses on the everpresent struggle for power between all states and individual actors. This attitude focuses on an individual country’s economic power and military might as a measuring stick for strength. The globe as a whole is viewed as a system of anarchy, which means that each state becomes self-interested, focusing on boosting their own power in order to achieve safety, prominence and security. Less powerful states often align with more powerful states for protection or resources that they cannot otherwise guarantee. Others will seize opportunities to balance against the stronger state, in hopes of gaining more influence themselves as opposed to playing second fiddle to a larger power. Finally, some countries remain neutral, focusing on maintaining their own security without being tied up with other states. Realists focus on power politics to make their foreign policy decisions. 

In contrast to Realism, the theory of Liberalism maintains that states’ interactions are more focused on cooperation, interdependence and diplomacy. While Liberalism admits that states do have interests, Liberals instead focus on relationships as the main drivers of decisions and foreign policy outcomes. Liberals believe that repeated diplomatic interaction breeds familiarity and creates bonds. Peace is borne out of working together, creating economic ties and establishing interdependence. An important aspect of interdependence is the creation of international institutions and international organizations like the UN or NATO, which help countries come together to form bonds. Democracies are especially good at forming bonds, and so therefore more democracy means more peace.

Finally, the third theory of international relations, known as Constructivism, focuses on ideas, shared beliefs and identity as the main drivers of success. Combining the beliefs, norms and values of influential individuals, as well as the state as a whole, creates its identity, which then influences its behaviors. Clashing identities between states creates conflict, even war. When beliefs, norms and values overlap, countries are able to form relations, and look past outstanding differences. Countries have a focus on spreading their own values internally, while also convincing opponents of these same ideas and beliefs.

In my opinion, Constructivism seems to be the primary driver of this conflict. Russia continues to operate under the firm belief that Ukraine is part of Russia. In the Kremlin translation of a Feb. 21 speech, Vladimir Putin stated “I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” Russia shares many cultural and social ties to Ukraine, in addition to Russian being a primary spoken language there too. For Russia, these connections are motivation enough to attempt to advance their influence, ideas and values onto a neighboring country. 

Proponents of Liberalism would argue that Putin is angry at the cooperation between Europe and Ukraine, and instead wants to be able to make Ukraine more dependent on and interconnected with Russia instead. While Russia in the past may have shown resistance to Ukraine’s attempts to bolster a connection with European institutions like the EU and NATO, currently Putin seems to be particularly angry at Ukraine for other, more Constructivist reasons. In this same speech, Fox News notes, “Putin took aim at the current government for trying to distance itself from its historically Russian and Soviet past, arguing to do so would have consequences.” Putin’s Constructivist focus on a Soviet/Russian identity, without primary focus on security concerns or other Ukrainian alliances, highlights the identity politics latent in this conflict.

While some would argue that Realism has the largest role to play in this conflict, it seems that the focus on a more secure and powerful Russia is also not the primary concern here. While yes, Russia continues to flex its military muscle while other global powers like the U.S. and China watch from a distance, this is not the main reason for Russia’s incursion. Russia does not feel overly attacked or militarily threatened by Ukraine, having already annexed parts of Ukraine such as the Crimean Peninsula. While fighting does continue there, no major pushback has occurred, and Russia has not faced any security threats because of it. With Russia’s general safety assured and no security advantages to gain if they were to capture more of Ukraine, Russia is primarily focused on further promulgating their Soviet identity through Ukraine. 

While Russia’s endgame is unclear, the nature of wars promulgated by identity is that they are grounded in strong convictions, which are not easy to uproot. While attacks based on Realism mean that when faced with a power greater than theirs the instigator would back down, this identity-driven threat means that an aggressor will not necessarily step down in the face of a greater force, because of their strong belief in their cause. Similarly, an attack based on the breakdown in interdependence and communication that are the cornerstones of Liberalism would mean that if those aspects were repaired, then a war could end. In the case of this Constructivist based attack, however, a lack of partnership does not seem to be the impetus, highlighting a scarier lack of solution to this crisis.

I pray that this conflict ends soon, and instead of ideas, values and beliefs encouraging individuals to practice violence, they instead will be used for the greater good and the pursuit of international peace. 

Photo Caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris in 2019.

Photo Credit: Kremlin/Wikimedia Commons