Is Russia a state demonstrating a case of contemporary defensive realism?

Many political and security analysts are not hesitant to criticise the domestic and international strategies of the Russian Federation, particularly in the last year. Although I am not arguing that the methods of the Kremlin have always resulted in the best course of action, there is a part of me that believes the contemporary ‘Russian example’ is illustrating a country that believes employing elements of defensive realism is the way forward in a fluctuating international sphere.

Defensive realists are sceptical of international cooperation; they maintain that states will reject cooperation if there is a possibility that they will achieve less gains than competing states. Defensive realist theory argues that states are positional actors and that power is the ultimate guarantor for survival in an anarchic and competitive international system.[1] It could be argued that defensive realists are more pessimistic in their international outlook; however on the other hand their primary mission is to survive in an egocentric international environment. Unlike neo-liberals, structural realists do not claim that institutions will aid cooperation or benefit states in a case of national security. The developments in the modern world through globalization have intensified the dangers which state units are now threatened with. Lamy explains how defensive realists ‘do not think that globalization changes the game of international politics at all’[2], whilst Waltz further explains how ‘many globalisers underestimate the extent to which the new looks like the old’[3]. It is interesting how so many of us criticise Russia for its core values, when multiple countries have exhausted these strategies in a plethora of international events, and historical conflicts.

To survive in an anarchic international sphere, a strong and stable nation is a necessity. Domestic security was and will continue to be the main priority of Russian leaders. ‘The Soviet state reserved the right to deal quickly and summarily with perceived threats to its interests.’[4] This ‘right’ has continued to the modern day and in 2012 Putin promised to invest an equivalent of $800 billion over ten years for national Russian defence.[5] Such strategy is often justified because Russians their country is under threat, and that the use of terror is crucial to maintain internal security and stability. Hayoz argues that Russia needs a discourse to justify its actions and policies, its verbal and often real wars against its proclaimed internal and external enemies.[6] However, I argue that in some cases, the Russian government is carrying out justifiable tasks to safeguard its infrastructure and citizens. Structural realists advocate that the international system encourages states to act unilaterally and to promote self-help behaviour.[7] For any nation, it is of utmost importance to harbour state secrets, fight against internal dissent, and combat those willing to betray their country.

Although it is inappropriate to accept all outcomes as a product of defensive realism, or the effects of a goal of national stability in an anarchic international sphere, it is also important to consider why these factors have occurred. Of course, it is also not correct to suggest that Russian policy cannot present an offensive nature, either in a domestic or international setting. My point is that it is vital to understand a country’s intentions, and reflect upon the values and goals that these derive from.  I therefore believe that it might be useful to indulge in the ‘traditional’ theoretical framework in order to gain a deeper, yet more digestible understanding of Russian strategy.

By Phoebe Eloise

Phoebe Eloise Waters studied Russian and Slavonic Studies at Undergraduate level, and International Security and Terrorism at Postgraduate level, both at the University of Nottingham. She resides in London.


[1] Reus-Smitt, Christian (2009) ‘Constructivism’, in S. Burchill et al (ed.), Theories of International Relations, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan: 212-236

[2] Lamy, Steven, The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to International Relations,  p.125

[3] Waltz, Kenneth (1999) ‘Globalization and Governance’,, accessed 12/10/14.

[4] Thurston, R (1996) Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia 1934-41, London: Yale University Press, p4.

[5] Putin quoted by E, Shiraev (2013) Russian Government and Politics (Comparative Government and Politics) London: Palgrave Macmillan.p.303.

[6] Hayoz, N (2012) ‘Globalisation and Discursive Resistance’, in (eds.) Johnson L & White, S, p.21.

[7] Lamy, Steven (2011) ‘Contemporary mainstream approaches: neo-realism and neo-liberalism’ in J. Baylis, Smith, S & Owens, P (ed.), The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to International Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 115-129

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Categories: Europe

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