Russia: The hegemon that isn’t (I)

James Hamill says Putin's savage Ukraine war has exposed the innate weaknesses of Russia as a Great Power

Given the savagery and criminality of its invasion of Ukraine and its previous deployment of troops in Kazakhstan to help ‘restore order’ – that stock phrase of authoritarians of every stripe – this might seem an inopportune moment to make the case for Russian regional and geopolitical weakness.

Paradoxically, however, the Ukraine war highlights, is rooted in and will further intensify, Russia’s innate weaknesses as a supposed great power, one reliant to an extreme degree on, threats, coercive diplomacy, and ultimately military force to secure its objectives. Moscow’s misfortune is that, unlike genuine great powers, it has nothing else in its foreign policy toolbox with which to draw neighbouring states into its orbit and to build voluntary and durable regional coalitions under a Russian umbrella.

In this respect, there is a striking continuity between contemporary Russian failings in its neighbourhood and those of its Soviet era counterpart during the Cold War. In Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union lacked the capacity to build enthusiastic and voluntary coalitions in support of its regional leadership. Instead, its dominance was achieved through the imposition of narrowly based, and largely despised, communist regimes and the threat to intervene with military force – what would become known as the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ – should those regimes be challenged by popular rebellion, as they were in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980.

So limited was the appeal of the Soviet Union and its ideology that once the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the possibility of using force to preserve those regimes – and replaced the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ with the so-called ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ allowing the states of Eastern Europe to do it ‘their way’[1] - they collapsed in a domino effect in a matter of months in 1989.

Although the rise of Vladimir Putin, and of a more aggressive Russian nationalism, is a response to what was perceived to be the country’s post-Soviet humiliation in the 1990s, in many respects Putin’s rule is replicating rather than overturning the pattern of the Soviet era. This is not to argue that Russia is enfeebled or irrelevant for it is neither. It continues to have a vast nuclear arsenal, is a serious military power in eastern Europe and central Asia and, as its aggression in Ukraine demonstrates, it is prepared to conduct its international relations through brute force if necessary.

It is also a veto wielding power on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and is a member of the BRICS forum although, as South Africans will appreciate, how much unity of purpose that group commands is questionable, but at least it gives the impression of power and influence.

Russia also has a ruthless and cynical leadership with a revanchist mindset determined to rebuild as much of Soviet power in its neighbourhood as is possible in its current reduced circumstances. It has re-established a presence in the Middle East through its extensive military campaign to prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. In the process, however, it has inflicted enormous suffering on Syrian civilians by deploying tactics which the UN has labelled as war crimes, tactics which are now being repeated in Ukraine.[2]

It is also securing new footholds in Africa where the Soviet Union was once a very serious player in the Cold War era.[iii] However, while it is important to recognise Russian strength in specific areas - and to avoid rehashing the scornful dismissal of the Soviet Union as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’ which was fashionable in some American policy circles during the Cold War - the claim that Putin’s Russia has ‘become a great power once again’[iv] is unconvincing.

Any candid assessment of Russian power cannot but note just how little authority and appeal Moscow now has even within its own region, far less beyond, and its Ukrainian disaster is making that situation infinitely worse.

What makes a hegemonic power?

While military prowess, particularly the ability to project force well beyond its own borders, is a necessary condition for a state to be considered as a great or hegemonic power, it is not a sufficient condition. In addition to hard military power, a hegemon will also have substantial economic weight and considerable reserves of ‘soft power’ – the power of its ideas, an ideological and cultural appeal which exercises a gravitational pull on other states.[v]

In short, its values become shared or common values and a hegemon will be capable of mobilising states behind it and of building a constructive and consensual network of institutions, alliances and relationships with its partners. These arrangements will not be underpinned by crude threats, unilateralism and military coercion, all of which amount to a caricature of hegemony.

The hegemon will also be able to provide so-called ‘public goods’ for other states, namely, the provision of economic assistance and security at the regional, sub-regional or global level and a willingness to bear disproportionate burdens to help build and sustain alliances.

Russia and hegemony

When judged against these benchmarks, Putin’s Russia is deficient in every area except the military and even there its laboured performance in Ukraine – particularly its inability to deliver the blitzkrieg victory anticipated by Putin at the outset, its retreat from Kyiv, and the sinking of the Moskva - does not suggest a first-class military capability.

Expert military analysts have described the Russian military in Ukraine as an ‘undisciplined rabble’ and the wider invasion as a ‘fiasco.’ [vi] However, on the broader criteria identified above, Russia’s failure is comprehensive. It is a state devoid of positive appeal to its democratic neighbours; it is not a coincidence that Moscow’s closest regional relationships are with other authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan rather than with governments deriving their authority from a democratic mandate, and, of these three, only the puppet regime in Belarus has provided unambiguous support for Putin’s Ukrainian aggression.

In the ultimate repudiation for any aspiring hegemon, the democratic states in Russia’s own region - far from being drawn into its orbit due to its appeal or ability to provide public goods - are actually seeking to place maximum distance between themselves and Russia. Instead, they are forging alliances in Western Europe and north America with the very states Putin considers his principal adversaries.

The thinking of these neighbouring states is not difficult to understand, however. It is rooted in their historic distrust of Russia which subjugated them either in the Soviet Union itself (Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) or as its satellite states in Eastern Europe (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia).

They are also very suspicious of current Russian ambitions, made explicit in the Putin era, to coerce them back into a revived Russian sphere of influence. Moscow appears to view this as an entitlement and the righting of a historical wrong – a pronounced sense of victimhood always stands at the centre of Putin’s worldview - rather than something which should rest upon the consent of its neighbours.[vii]

Russia’s ideology is also anathema to those neighbours; in so far as one can identify any core beliefs at the heart of Putinism, they amount to a toxic blend of aggressive nationalism, irredentism and territorial expansion. This approach to foreign policy inevitably repels neighbouring states as they are fully aware that they are likely to become its principal victims.

Moreover, the internal political system in Russia provides a grim and unappealing spectacle. As a highly personalised and repressive kleptocracy – one which imprisons, murders and banishes its opponents whether in politics, the media or wider civil society - it is swimming against the post-Cold War currents of democratisation in Europe, even if progress in that area has been frustrated in recent years by the rise of authoritarian populism in Orban’s Hungary and Erdogan’s Turkey.

Economically Russia is a power of the second rank with an economy in GDP terms smaller than that of Canada and South Korea with the US economy being almost 13 times larger. It is also a one-dimensional economy highly skewed towards the extraction of natural resources as well as being riddled with corruption.

The comprehensive Western sanctions imposed in response to the Ukraine invasion will weaken that economy greatly by restricting, and in some cases ending, its access to investment, credit, trade and technology. Simply put, to promote their own wellbeing, the natural inclination of Russia’s Eastern European neighbours is to foster deepening economic, political and security ties to the West, including membership of the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Indeed, a key point is consistently missing from the discourse of those adopting a pro-Russian position in the West who invariably blame NATO as the source of the current crisis. Admittedly this is now a diminishing group but it still embraces the European and American neo-fascist right, for whom Putin has become a cult hero, and the so-called ‘anti-imperialist left’, which is a misnomer given how relentlessly indulgent so many of them are of Russian imperialism.[viii]

That elephant in the room is the obvious enthusiasm of the newly independent states arising from the ashes of the Soviet Union, and those states previously under its yoke in Eastern Europe, for a very close alignment with the West. They actively want to be in NATO and the EU and have made a sovereign, voluntary and democratic decision to join, the polar opposite of their experience with the old Moscow-dominated Warsaw Pact in which they were compelled to participate.

Indeed, the fate of Ukraine, a non-NATO state, and victim of the most egregious aggression in Europe since the Nazi era, can only have confirmed those states in the wisdom of their decision. Because this does not fit with an ‘aggressive NATO expansion’ or ‘US imperialism’ narrative it is routinely ignored by this pro-Russian commentariat thereby, as the Estonian Prime Minister, Kaja Kallas, notes, denying these states their own agency, autonomy, and right to self-determination.[ix]

Putin views this steady gravitation away from Russia as a humiliation as its writ no longer runs in a neighbourhood which it once controlled unquestioningly. But if Russia is not even admired or respected in its own region, cannot build enduring alliances and partnerships with its closest neighbours, and has recourse only to threats and military force to intimidate them, then what remains of its claim to be a great power?

Putin’s limited options

Putin’s actions in recent years demonstrate his awareness of these realities but also his inability to change them, at least diplomatically. Some of the horses had already bolted by the time he arrived in power in 2000 with Poland, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining NATO in 1999 with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia following in 2004, although this list did not include Ukraine.

Putin was bitter at these slights to Russian prestige, but in truth it was merely a case of sovereign states pursuing their national interests and choosing their own path, a reality to which he – steeped as he is in the political culture of Russian and Soviet imperialism - remains wholly unreconciled.

Putin is acutely aware of Russia’s limitations and its lack of the resources - political, ideological, or economic – to entice neighbouring states and draw them away from an alliance with the West. As reconstituting as much of the Russian and Soviet empires as possible remains his overriding goal, and as this obviously cannot be achieved by consent, this only leaves coercive diplomacy or, should that fail, military aggression as his instruments to bring his errant neighbours to heel.

This enforced compliance with Moscow is a transparent attempt to revive the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ of limited Eastern European sovereignty for a new era. However, Putin’s problem is twofold: first, as noted above, the three Baltic states and the former Eastern European satellite states anticipated a revival of Russian militarism and aggression and had sought protection from it by joining NATO in the 1999 and 2004 expansions.

This ensured that firm security guarantees were in place, ideally to prevent a Russian attack from happening in the first place but allowing them to invoke NATO’s doctrine of collective security if it did. They are hardly going to change their view on that now having witnessed the invasion and attempted liquidation of Ukraine, leaving Putin with the unpalatable prospect of a war with NATO if he seeks to force some of those states back into the Russian fold.

Second, for those states not under the NATO umbrella like Ukraine, or other peoples and states in the post-Soviet space, Russian aggression will only produce a fake compliance, one bristling with resentment and generating resistance and permanent instability. It is also likely to require frequent Russian military interventions to prop up beleaguered authoritarian allies facing popular insurrections.


[1] The phrase was coined by Gennady Gerasimov, a key Gorbachev aide

[2] Emma Graham-Harrison and Joe Dyke ‘How Russia is using tactic from the Syrian playbook in Ukraine’, The Guardian, 24 March 2022

[iii] Carien du Plessis, ‘Why Moscow Needs Africa’, Financial Mail, 3 March 2022

[iv] Niall Ferguson, ‘Tsar Vladimir’, The Spectator, 26 February 2022, p.13

[v] Walter Russell Mead ‘America’s Sticky Power’, Foreign Policy, 29 October 2009

[vi] ‘How deep does the rot in the Russian army go?’ The Economist, 30 April 2022

[vii] James Nixey, ‘The West must face down Putin’, The World Today, February/March 2022, p. 11

[viii] Dorian Lynskey, ‘Why the left is split over Ukraine’, UnHerd, 18 March 2022

[ix] ‘Kaja Kallas on the atrocities in Ukraine’, The Economist, 9 April 2022