The Nexus of Russian Foreign and Domestic Politics Through Diversionary Warfare Against Ukraine
Earlier this year, The Strategy Bridge asked university and professional military education students to participate in our third annual student writing contest by sending us their thoughts on strategy.
Now, we are pleased to present this year’s winning essay by Rusudan Zabakhidze from the Erasmus Mundus International Master Programme in Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies.
Even though international relations scholarship has acknowledged the intersection of domestic and foreign policy areas, structural theories with emphasis on power distribution in the international system still dominate the discussions to explain the past or contemporary conflicts. Mansfield and Snyder’s work “Democratization and Danger of the War” is one of the prominent articles to study the domestic factors influencing foreign policy. Mansfield and Snyder argue that democratizing states are more war-prone because threatened elite groups develop parochial interests in war and tend to mobilize masses through nationalist appeals. To avoid the political cleavage, leaders often resort to using prestige strategies, understood as shoring up domestic prestige by seeking victories abroad. The authors note that prestige strategies are simple and effective; however, they are a risky choice as they make the state hypersensitive to slights to its reputation. War can produce great fears in the beginning, but national sentiment will soon “banish the domestic fright, emphasizing the heroic times and will reunite the parties under the mantle of glory.” In their 1995 article, Mansfield and Snyder suggest theory’s applicability to big democratizing states such as Russia and China, however not much corresponding research has followed. This essay attempts to contribute to the scholarly agenda on the interrelation of domestic and foreign politics by applying the theory to contemporary Russia and its strategy towards the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia has long demonstrated the need for the cohesiveness of the Russian state and the importance of deterring Western powers. Russian actions towards the conflicts in its so-called near abroad have been underlined by the messianic, nationalistic appeal of containing an influence zone. Simultaneously, Russian politics are equally contested internally, as international organizations have stressed the serious domestic challenges, not limited to abuse of human rights, demography, wealth distribution, and social services. Nevertheless, Russia’s active measures around the world, successfully diverting the attention of the domestic public to external threats, have promoted strong national self-image.
As the conflict in Ukraine remains unresolved after more than 5 years, finding the continuities and discontinuities in Russian prestige strategies can serve as one of the criteria that can be used to predict the future dynamics of the conflict. This essay aims to assess to what extent this conflict can be regarded as an outcome of a prestige strategy for Russia’s political-military leadership. In contrast to the general observation that the public is usually less prone to expensive foreign military interventions in light of domestic challenges, Russian actions in Ukraine are highly supported by the Russian population. Therefore it is also interesting to study the conditions that contributed to shifting public opinion towards more belligerent strategies.
The essay is based on a case-study method relying on both secondary and primary sources. The analyses of the nexus of the domestic and foreign politics in Russia are based on available thematic academic articles. However, to assess the causal relationship between these two environments, prestige is regarded as an intermediary variable. Statistical data and opinion poll results are used to analyze the interconnection of prestige, Russian actions in Ukraine, and domestic conditions supporting the assertive foreign strategy.
Before proceeding to analyze the extent to which the decision to wage war against Ukraine is an outcome of the prestige strategy, the essay first sets a theoretical framework with more focus on prestige in international relations and the conditions for diversionary warfare. The second part addresses the nexus between Russian domestic and foreign policy, outlining the key characteristics of Russian political culture, decision-making process, and ideational foundations engraved in political elites supporting external military activism. The third part sets the criteria to assess the extent to which the conflict in Ukraine can be regarded as an outcome of the prestige strategy, overviewing the shifts in public opinion and state of the economy. The final part elaborates on how Russia uses the conflict in Ukraine as a tool for increasing domestic legitimacy.
In current discourse on international affairs, policy decisions are often assessed as either strengthening or jeopardizing the prestige of the nations. On a theoretical level, however, the issue of prestige has been relatively neglected. The prestige scholars split between two academic camps. Those with an instrumental view argue prestige is sought solely as a means to an end, and actors might be willing to pay a high cost for prestige, sacrificing immediate economic benefits for long-term material goals. Others argue prestige is an end in itself, and those pursuing prestige strategies do not account the associated costs and benefits that much.
Since most of the scholarly literature studies prestige-seeking as either a psychological phenomenon or as a way of fostering international status, I suggest studying prestige under the theory of diversionary war. According to scapegoat or diversionary theory of war, political elites can use war to divert popular attention from internal social, economic and political problems. Politicians facing a decline in military strength or domestic divisions might become willing to gamble on war.
Simone Dossi is one of the few authors to acknowledge that politics of prestige takes place at the intersection of the international and domestic arena and is therefore a currency that can be spent on two tables. While it represents a goal to be pursued at the international level, prestige is often used as a tool in domestic politics. Thus, reputation acquired abroad can be exploited to legitimate the government’s actions to the domestic public. A well-conceived prestige strategy helps to increase space for maneuver by alerting the interlocutor’s perceptions. Dossi also adds that authoritarian regimes tend to identify the personal glory of the ruler with the political interests of the whole nation. This essay also widens the research agenda by including media studies, since to consolidate a domestic power through international prestige, the media, especially the outlets that have close links to the government, plays an important role to communicate the government’s messages to the public.
War can benefit challenged leaders by showing the domestic public they are competent and decisive in their actions. It can be framed as a preemptive measure against an enemy that could soon pose an unmanageable threat. Moreover, Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel suggest that conflict with an out-group promotes the public’s commitment to their in-group, leading to increased support for political leaders. However, while the strategy has the potential to solve internal and external problems simultaneously, in case of failure opposition groups can be further empowered.
Diversionary war can seem a more popular option for democratic leaders, because they seek public support; however, the opportunities to engage are fewer for such regimes due to the higher transparency. in contrast, decision-making in authoritarian regimes is in the hands of fewer authorities and is usually faced with little or no resistance, so the need for diversionary warfare diminishes. It can be argued that for anocracies, or for pseudo-democracies such as Russia, diversionary policies serve as a useful tool to gain the legitimacy of foreign actions within the domestic public.
The Nexus of the Domestic and Foreign Politics
Post-Soviet Dynamics and Regime Identification
As argued by Licinia Simao, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, re-centralization of decision making was accompanied by conservative turn regarding Russia’s historical identity and a new role. Additionally, international context and Russia’s quest for power within the international system was given more importance.
Russia is a good example of incipient or partial democracy, which can serve as an occasion for the rise of belligerent nationalism and war. The collapse of the Soviet Union and consecutive regime change has resulted in the creation of domestic political competition, where the old and new elites vie for power and survival. They often use all the available resources to mobilize the masses through nationalist appeals. When elites find it difficult to control the mobilized masses, war can result from nationalist prestige strategies to divert the public attention from unmanageable political coalitions. However, this does not mean the public is more prone to military adventures in democratizing states. As Jack Levy claims, public opinion is usually more dovish than hawkish. Nevertheless, elites tend to exploit their power and the imperfections of partial democracies to control the political agenda. They often use information to incite the belligerent ideas of pressure groups and the upwelling of militancy.
The extent to which Russia is a democratic state is a controversial matter. Taking into account the characteristics of Bruce Russet’s categorization, it can be placed among the so-called anocracies—a political system where democratic and autocratic features are mixed. Robert Gurr has defined a composite index of regime change that includes the openness of the recruitment procedure of the chief executive, the institutional measures to control the relations of the decision making powers of chief executives, and the level of political competitiveness. Taking into account the duration of President Vladimir Putin’s regime and his leadership style, there is a clear gap between what kind of regime Russia claims to be and what kind of regime it is in reality. As noted by Torbakov, in Russia democratic procedures are only used to camouflage a patently undemocratic system of power.
Neil Malcolm and Alex Pravda apply the hypothesis made by Mansfield and Snyder to the Russian case, concluding that effects on democratization are both mixed and limited. They add that party competition, a central characteristic of democratization, has polarized foreign policy views and tied them more tightly to domestic politics. They later argue that the close correspondence between opinions on internal and external issues has benefited assertive Russia-first policies. While voters only have a moderate influence over the decision to begin costly wars, politicians try to mobilize public opinion in support of aggressive prestige strategies. Consensus is can be found when it comes to defending Russian minorities or reversing the retreat of other former Soviet republics—understood as a threat to national security and damaging for the economy.
Russian Political Culture and Decision-making
Russia’s current bureaucratic and business elites are deeply intertwined, which feeds the unsurpassed economic strength of the ruling elite. Elites are often united in a desire to build up Russia’s security and military establishment, and policies represent an “untidy compromise” between different parties and their agendas. Marcin Kaczmarski uses the phrase “pluralism of the powerful” to describe the elites in Russia. Governance is challenged by the existence of conglomerate of actors who try to exploit state power in order to promote their parochial interests. Authoritarian politics, state-dominated economics, and a sense of strategic autonomy defining what elites perceive as national interests are the key characteristic of modern Russia.
The policy divisions were filled by election of Vladimir Putin in 1999 when the Soviet tradition of cumbersome administrative bargaining started to erode. However, as noted by Stephen Fortescue, there is a constant tension between “consultation and sign-off” and “hands-on management” in Putin’s governance. Policymaking in Russia is mostly centered on individuals and their networks rather than formal institutions. Putin has been intimately associated with power and policy-making in Russia. He is personally involved in decision-making over domestic and foreign policy issues. The group of key individuals shaping Russian policy is exclusive and based on the principle fewer is better as it ensures more cohesive, secure, and effective communication. As a result, Russian victories are directly connected to Putin’s personal triumph.
As Irina Busygina has noted, foreign policy plays an instrumental role in domestic consensus and mobilization. She adds that foreign policy has become the most powerful domestic policy tool, which revolves around the “philosophical interpretation of global trends and Russia’s role in the international system, as well as massive propaganda of the external successes targeting the domestic audience.” As noted by Ariel Cohen, elites in Russia perceive the outside world through the perspective of economic and military might. They exploit foreign policy as a method to increase domestic support and establish a general narrative that Russia is encircled by the adversaries.
However, domestic challenges are most severely felt by the Russian public. The researchers from the Centre for Strategic Research have noted that ideological differences within the Russian community, administrative barriers with high corruption and bulky bureaucratic architecture, hinder the economic growth. If diversionary and prestige strategies are not successful, the demand for reform is likely to be more pressing. Instead, the reforms are postponed and explanations for such behavior are found in the foreign policy. The portrayal of western powers as ideological rivals encourages Russians to rally around the flag or their president. Undertaking massive public reforms is likely to threaten the unity; the scale of the influence of those who will lose the existing benefits is so large that Putin’s regime cannot afford such changes. Thus, Mansfield and Snyder’s argument proves relevant in the Russian case, as elite groups feel threatened by the democratization process. It is in their interest to maintain the current economic model, as it provides benefits to the oligarchs who are at the same time key individuals behind real political leadership.
Russia manages to turn the external dimension of foreign policy into a tool to maintain domestic consensus. Foreign successes demonstrate that the state system is functional. And even if living standards are falling behind, popular discontent is usually avoided and overshadowed by narratives of great power status. Support to insurgents in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea remind the domestic public of glory of the leaders of the state.
Is Conflict in Ukraine a Diversionary War?
This chapter aims to assess to what extent the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine were acts of diversionary warfare. Many scholars and politicians argue that outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014 was a deliberate attempt by Russia to divert public attention from domestic problems to the external theatre where, according to President Putin, Russian national interests were threatened. As suggested by Anastasia Vlasenko, the decision to go into diversionary war is usually based on three conditions: motivation, domestic constraints, and opportunity. At the same time, political leadership must feel threatened enough by internal turmoil to opt for expensive foreign military intervention instead of other relatively cheap domestic policy optional responses. Weak democratic institutions and malfunction of the checks and balance mechanisms are exploited by the leader to enable the implementation of his agenda.
In order to assess the interrelation between the domestic environment and the decision to wage war, the state of the Russian economy in the pre-conflict period (expressed in GDP growth, inflation, budget reserves, and unemployment) and public approval ratings of President Putin and the ruling government can serve as two effective criteria. Pre-conflict attitudes are compared to those expressed shortly after the conflict started in order to identify the shifts in the dynamics. Statistical data used for the assessment of Russian economy are acquired from World Bank Economic Reports, while the results of opinion polls carried out by Levada Center are analyzed for tracking the approval rates .
As noted by Timothy Frye, events in Crimea had the potential to strengthen the security services, also state-owned enterprises which benefit from the inefficient economy and high corruption rates. Waging conflict outside could divert attention from the promises President Putin had made after being reelected in office. He had promised to increase investment by 25% of GDP by 2015 and privatize non-defense and non-oil sectors by 2016. He also aimed at 6% economic growth. In contrast to these ambitions, according to the World Bank Economic Report, the Russian economy started to stagnate due to structural impediments before the conflict. There was only 0.8% GDP growth in the first half of 2014 compared to 2% of the last quarter of 2013. Economic activities were already quite slow in 2013 due to lingering structural problems and the wait-and-see approach of the businesses and consumers. Investment rates also fell, declining from 4.3% in 2012 to 1.2% in 2013. Capital continued to fly out of the country. In this period, the government also rewarded influential political and economic elites with the government’s largesse. Organizing the Sochi Olympics also required $51 billion from the state budget. The unemployment rate increased in comparison to previous years. Inflation remained high, and the Central Bank had to tighten up control. However, regardless of the economic stagnation, Russia had about $500 billion in reserves that could allow the regime some space for maneuverability and time for adaption. Moreover, even though Russian ruble was at a significant low in early 2014, oil prices, which account for half of Russia’s federal revenue, were relatively stable.
These economic impediments had the potential to increase public dissatisfaction. In previous years, the country’s economic development and Putin’s approval rates were in a positive correlation. Therefore, worsening social-economic conditions could eventually lead to a decreased rating of the President and the whole government. Taking into account the oil prices and reserve budget, it is controversial to what extent waging an expensive military intervention in Ukraine can be justified by the regime’s survival instincts in a given case.
Starting in 2011, anti-government demonstrations increased in Russia. This was also caused by upcoming elections, an opportunity for the regime change. Putin accused the United States of interfering in its domestic politics by empowering opposition parties. The signs of disappearing elite consensus, economic recession, more vocal anti-government public, and pressure to control forced the ruling regime to look for new sources of legitimacy. Putin’s election campaign in 2012 was dominated by a higher emphasis on foreign policy issues, portraying the West as the main security threat undermining Russia’s domestic and external strategic interests. The government increased its efforts to use social media to spread a favorable narrative in public. As a result of the government’s successful campaign, the Russians started to attribute their problems to external powers rather than shortcomings of their own government.
According to Michael Kofman, direct conflict with Ukraine and ideological confrontation with the West serves as a paradoxical success story for Russia. During 2013, Putin’s approval ratings were quite low but relatively stable. According to Gallup, the rating was 54% in 2012 and 2013. In parallel to Russia’s hard approach towards the Maidan events in Ukraine, the domestic popularity of Putin grew from 61% (late 2013) to 69% (2014). However, these figures can seem low compared to his previous approval rates as high as 86%. After the annexation of Crimea, approval rating increased up to 80% and after subsequent developments in Eastern Ukraine rating reached 88%.
While two out of the earlier outlined conditions, namely the motivation and domestic constraints were in favor of waging diversionary war, the resignation of Ukraine’s president Yanukovych also provided an opportunity for Russia to use the transition period for the purposes of distracting the Russian population’s attention from everyday economic and social problems. Military actions in Crimea were successfully used by Putin to satisfy both military elites and the public, because the defense of ethnic Russians is understood to be one of the central areas of consensus among diverging domestic interest-groups.
Even though statistics show that the ruling regime’s popularity was low compared to previous years, many argue that present conditions would not be enough to wage expensive war if not for other intentions involved. In response to this claim, Gerstel assumes that Putin took a preemptive measure to prevent the ratings falling even lower. However, given the fact that approval rates were still higher than 50% and the economic situation was not very hopeless due to oil prices and budget reserves, the given statistics do not provide enough evidence to argue that Putin’s decision was motivated by the benefits of diversion only. Instead, the annexation of Crimea and conflict in Eastern regions of Ukraine were an expression of Russia’s strategic concerns and nationalist appeals that were deemed to be threatened by Ukraine’s interest in joining the European Union and NATO. On the other hand, this does not mean that the mentioned conflict is not diversionary in character. To support this argument, it is important to analyze the post-conflict situation expressed in changes of political ratings.
According to polls in February of 2014, 75% of the Russian public opposed military intervention in Ukraine. However, the support for Russia’s actions increased significantly following the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s approval rates grew to 88% in October 2014 and the government’s support reached 64% in the same period. Putin’s hybrid strategy and intensified pro-Russia media campaigns resulted in Crimea’s swift return to Russia. The increased popularity of the government was directly tied to the developments in Ukraine, where the ruling elite successfully managed to use the conflict to shore up its prestige. The following chapter will identify how the Russian government turned the external military campaign into a tool for reuniting the divided society.
Transformation of the Conflict into Diversionary Warfare
Russian annexation of Crimea and support for insurgents in Eastern Ukraine was deemed as a clear violation of international law by the international community. While the West’s reaction was certainly negative, the domestic environment was dominated by the opposite attitude. Russian leadership’s hybrid warfare and information campaigns successfully exploited the vulnerabilities of society. Government-controlled media framed the annexation as heroic in protecting Russian minorities. President Putin personally was placed in the center of the political-military successes. He was presented as a defender of the nation. His portrayal as a brave, patriotic, strong, and masculine character intensified, bringing him more credibility and power.
As outlined earlier, leaders often try to promote negative feelings, such as distrust, hatred, feelings of humiliation towards outgroups. Othering the European Union and the United States was accompanied by emphasis on the special nature of Russian culture and the values it represents. As a result of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s illegal behavior, the Russian economy became exposed to even more challenges than before. Instead of increasing public dissatisfaction, however, the government managed to turn the narrative upside down, placing the Western countries at the head of all the problems Russia faces. Even in 2014, the Pew Global Attitudes survey showed 73% of the Russian public believed Russia deserved more respect from other countries. Intensified government campaigns after the breakout of the conflict made Russians believe western sanctions were disproportionately hurting the civilian population. Sanctions were deemed a retaliatory strategy to force Russians to play according to rules set by the U.S. As a result, all the domestic problems were blamed on western sanctions without doubting the behavior of a national government. As a result of successful propaganda campaigns, 66% of Russians believe sanctions are targeted to humiliate Russia, while only 5% believe they are meant to help to resolve the Ukrainian conflict.
Propaganda reminds Russians every day of the glory of their nation and its leadership. Screening of foreign policy issues through the interpretation of the ruling government promoting a positive self-image for Russia and Russians, the strength of its military, and the power of its political leadership has led the domestic public to rally around President Putin.
This essay attempted to contribute to the research agenda on the interrelation of domestic and foreign politics by applying the diversionary theory of war to contemporary Russia and its assertive strategy towards Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine. Regardless of the fact that Russia is one of the world’s largest economies, it is vulnerable to capital flows, low GDP growth, and high unemployment. Moreover, governance is challenged by the existence of a conglomerate of actors who try to exploit state power in order to promote parochial interests. The cleavages have decreased in light of the personalization of politics, namely the strong leadership style demonstrated by Vladimir Putin, who is a key decision-maker, along with a very small and tight group of associates.
Russian annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine that followed negatively affected Russia’s international prestige. However, in contrast to the external reaction, the domestic population demonstrated higher support for national policies. Not only did the Russian public perceive the return of Crimea as a glorious military victory, the government-controlled narrative also managed to spread the effects of such success to positively perceiving the domestic situation as well.
This essay analyzed the economic and political trends in the pre-conflict period, taking into account inflation, GDP growth, and unemployment, along with the outcomes of opinion polls showing the mass support for Putin himself and the government in general. Even though statistics show the ruling regime’s popularity was low compared to previous years, one could argue present conditions would not be enough to create an incentive to wage an expensive war if other intentions were absent. In counter-argument, it can be asserted that the regime could have taken preemptive action to prevent the declining rating, knowing the government could not deliver on its promises in the long run. Considering that the situation was not critical enough to threaten the regime's survival, the decision of annexing Crimea and waging conflict in the eastern regions of Ukraine were further influenced by Russia’s strategic concerns and nationalist appeals that were threatened by Ukraine’s interest in joining the European Union and NATO. On the other hand, this does not mean the conflict is not diversionary in character. Opinion polls carried out after the conflict broke out show not only that the Russian public became more supportive of an aggressive strategy towards Ukraine, but their support towards the national government reached the record high performance as well.
The theoretical foundations of the Scapegoat or diversionary theory of war proved to be present and powerful in this case. Military intervention abroad encouraged Russians to identify more strongly with representatives of their in-group. Accumulation of the positive in-group emotions can lead to boosting the support for the group leader as well. Promotion of anti-out-group attitudes towards the United States and the EU was accompanied by the government’s propaganda tools. The effects of diversionary warfare can be visible very quickly, but maintaining the acquired prestige requires the government’s constant commitment to continue pressing national ideals. The ratings of Putin and his government have decreased in recent years. Tight control the media platforms enabled the regime to keep reminding its audience of the glory of the nation and strength of its political-military leadership. Military actions in Crimea were successfully used by President Putin to satisfy both military elites and public because the defense of ethnic Russians is understood to be one of the central areas of consensus among diverging domestic interest-groups. Thus, for anocracies, or for pseudo-democracies, such as Russia, diversionary policy serves as a useful tool to gain the legitimacy of foreign actions within the domestic public.
Rusudan Zabakhidze is enrolled in Erasmus Mundus International Master Programme in Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies (IMSISS). The programme is run by a consortium of the University of Glasgow, Dublin City University, and Charles University in Prague. Her research focuses on civil-military relations and security sector reform in post-Soviet space. Rusudan holds a BA in international relations from Tbilisi State University.
This article appeared orginally at Strategy Bridge.
 Edward D. Mansfield and Jack Snyder, "Democratization and War," Foreign Affairs 74, no. 3 (1995): 31-34
 Ibid, 33
 Ibid, 34
 Licínia Simão, "The Ukrainian conflict in Russian foreign policy: Rethinking the interconnections between domestic and foreign policy strategies." Small wars & insurgencies 27, no. 3 (2016): 494
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Dylan Gerstel, "Motivations of the Kremlin: The Crimean Annexation as a Diversionary Conflict." Swarthmore International Relations Journal 1, no. 1 (2017): 34
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 Dylan Gerstel, "Motivations of the Kremlin: The Crimean Annexation as a Diversionary Conflict." Swarthmore International Relations Journal 1, no. 1 (2017): 34