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The role of domestic factors in the foreign policy of competitive authoritarian regimes: the case of Putin's Russia

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Abstract
3
Introduction4
1.Russian foreign policy decision-making in Putin’s Russia9
2.Russo-Georgian conflict and its implications17
3.The annexation of Crimea and war in Eastern Ukraine33

3.1. The annexation of Crimea: geopolitics or diversionary war? Causes

and nature of the conflict33

3.2. War in Eastern Ukraine (Donbas): the root of the conflict and its


nature44
Conclusion54
References58
Appendix61

Abstract

This paper contributes to the debate on how foreign policy decisions are made and provides a variety of accounts on how Russian power “vertikal” is constructed. In order to achieve it, this work will analyze the case of Russia under the presidency of Vladimir Putin. To be more precise, it would be crucial to provide an account of the diversionary theory of war, which is considered to be inherent to authoritarian or hybrid regimes by IR scholars. This strategy was effectively used by the Kremlin in the 2000s in order to divert public attention from socio-economic problems inside the state. First of all, there are conflicts in Eastern Ukraine (Lugansk and Donbas regions) and annexation of Crimea in 2014. The second case is Russia’s involvement in the Georgia conflict, which purpose ostensibly was to defend the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and coerce Georgia to peace. However as well as in Ukrainian crisis the motivation of the Kremlin was two-dimensional. Firstly, it desired to distract its people’s attention from domestic problems. Secondly, Putin’s administration appeared to secure its geopolitical predominance in the CIS region once it is threatened.
 
Introduction
Recent scholarship about Moscow’s foreign policy has obsessively focused on external factors that shape it. It may seem that Russia’s behavior on the international stage is always influenced by Western developments or actions. From this point, it would be important to discuss the three levels of analysis in international relations and remember the work of Kenneth Waltz “Man, the State and War” written in 1959. Since that time scholars have been researching the reasons for war more actively not only on the international or systemic levels but also on the state level. It may be reasonable as there is an array of internal factors (regime type, geography, population) that influence the decisions which can result in wars, conflicts or coalition-building. The hypothesis of this work is the following: in the times of economic stability Russia pursues mostly geopolitical goals while during periods of internal problems it focuses more on diversion of its citizens’ attention.
In the first chapter, it would be important to show the structure of Russia’s power “vertikal” which allows the strong executive in the face of the president to implement an assertive foreign policy which could restore Russia’s superpower status. But one point has to be clarified. Even though, it may seem easy to consider Vladimir Putin a “rising tsar” of Russia as once the Time magazine did when it released a print run with the Russian president in the crown on the cover. Due to such effective propaganda by mass media, Vladimir Putin is considered to be the only person who is in charge of every aspect of the Russian foreign policy agenda.
However, it would be too hard to conduct a foreign policy nowadays alone as tsars did during the time of the Russian Empire. Instead, there is a balance between different forces in the President’s administration which reflects how foreign policy is conducted in the state. As specified by Treisman (2007) or Bremmer & Charap (2007), there are three factions, namely “technocrats”, “liberals” and “silovarchs”, which interact with each other. Their interaction and political weight reflect how the foreign policy of Russia will be arranged in a certain period of time. It is clear that the faction
 
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of “silovarchs” is predominant because of more assertive foreign policy which is conducted nowadays. On the contrary, at the beginning of the 2000-10’s when Putin conducted more friendly foreign policy and relied on open markets and cooperation with the West, clans of “technocrats” and “liberals” were taking the leading roles. Apart from discussing the design of organization of Putin’s “sistema” it is also important to provide an in-depth review of different periods of Russian foreign policy formulation in the beginning of the 21st century.
In order to provide a shred of empirical evidence, other chapters are going to be dedicated to case studies of contemporary Russian history. Each of these cases includes a certain degree of both diversion effect and geopolitical factor. Firstly, it is the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 which appeared to be the first military conflict in Russian contemporary history. The second is the annexation of Crimea by Russian in 2014, and the war in the Donbas region which are interconnected to some extent between each other. In the second chapter, the Russia-Georgia war will be analyzed as well as context to it. Along the same lines, in the third chapter the case of the Crimean annexation, as well as invasion in Eastern Ukraine, will be discussed. Then the conclusion will be provided where the brief summary of both cases will be outlined. Apart from discussing both conflicts, it would be vital to draw attention to previous researches dedicated to this topic.
To begin with, it is important to look through the scholarship which is dedicated to analyzing the interaction between internal factors and foreign policy under Putin’s rule. For many foreign policy analysis scholars, the most significant source of foreign policy is the domestic structure of the nature of the state political institutions, the features of society and the institutional arrangements linking state and society and channeling societal demands into the political system. Krasner, Risse-Kappen, and others provide descriptions of the relative advantages and downgrades governing relations between different state structures and society.
Conforming to Risse-Kappen the importance of the state structure resides in the fact that it is the crucial site of foreign policy decision making and, mediated through
 
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constitutional arrangements, is the area where state and society “negotiate” the country's IR. Moreover, the number of points of access between societal decision-makers determines the degree to which there is public input to state foreign policy. For example, France has very few access points to the executive and is “state-dominated” because the public plays only a limited role in foreign policymaking; in the US, there are multiple access points o the executive, foreign policy is “a society dominated'” and the public has many opportunities to influence it. The cases of authoritarian regimes differ much. Russia, in particular, is a different system, in which it is almost impossible for the public to influence the foreign policy agenda. Russia’s foreign policy decision-making process can be characterized by the
Another aspect of this paper that requires an analysis of literature is research of empirical cases. In particular, I would like to draw attention to the research dedicated to diversionary war theory and its derivatives. Firstly, we have to understand the logic of such assertive actions taken by Russia in the case of Georgia and Eastern Ukraine. Götz (2017) affirms that the growing amount of literature on the topic provides an account of four distinct types of reasons for Kremlin’s assertive foreign policy towards its neighbors. As stated by the author, the first explanation focuses on the personality of Vladimir Putin and his own views.
The second type is considering diversionary behavior which helps the current government to deflect Russia’s public opinion from internal social intention. The third argument highlights the structuralist approach because of explaining Russia’s assertiveness due to historic reasons and its desire to dominate in the post-Soviet region. Many scholars do not consider Russia-Georgia conflict to be diversionary as the incumbent of Russia was not under threat of impeachment (Dmitry Medvedev). Instead, he was elected only 6 months before the war started.
Therefore, it may be argued that Russia interfered only because of geopolitical factors. Filippov (2009) assumes that Georgia was a “virtual conflict” with the West for Russian citizens thanks to mass media. It should be kept in mind that even though Georgia started the war itself in August 2008, the government in Russia was only
 
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welcoming such action. This can be explained by the strategic interaction argument proposed by Smith (1996). He claims that “diversion-related domestic problems make a leader not only a willing initiator but also a problematic target”.
In the same manner, Margaret Thatcher found an excuse to wage a Falklands War in 1982. In the case of the annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, an answer to the question of why Russia started this crisis is harder to find. Moreover, it seems like researchers cannot reach a compromise. There are two types of scholars who analyze an intensified situation in Crimea, Lugansk, and Donetsk. On the one hand, there is a group of scholars who assume that war in Ukraine is only about geopolitics and security concerns. Gerstel (2015) claims that the strategic importance of Crimea for Russia and Eastern parts of Ukraine cannot be understated.
Vlasenko (2017) assumes, on the other hand, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a diversion of attention from internal problems. The author adds that the Kremlin’s agenda towards Lugansk and Donetsk are conducted at a slow pace because it allows prolonging the effect of rally around the flag for the Russian public. Additionally, Frye (2014) counters the importance of geopolitics concerning the Crimean peninsula. Thus, he claims that the main objective of armed conflicts in the post-Soviet space is to distract the population from pressing domestic problems. This research includes a great variety of empirical methods.
First of all, I use quantitative methods. To test my hypothesis, I observe different statistical data (economical indicators, the incumbent’s popularity level according to surveys), which would help to understand if the diversion war theory works in both cases. Such quantitative measures can be easily found on different websites. Also, it is important to use interpretive methods. In my work, I am going to look through various researches on that particular topic, which were conducted before to get contrasting opinions for a deeper realization of how foreign policy agenda is constructed in Russia.
Unfortunately, there are some limitations within research, mainly because there is limited literature particularly regarding diversion theory, also the war in the south-east

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of Ukraine is still ongoing and therefore it is impossible to discuss any conclusions regarding this. However, lots of researches have been made about the diversionary role of conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and Georgia and how it influenced the stability of Putin’s regime in Russia. This research will also concentrate on the state and individual levels of analysis. The main reason is that the international level of analysis of international relations tells only a part of a story. In order to clarify the topic many internal factors of Russia’s “sistema” such as economic performance, history, and culture should be included in the research.
This paper will contribute to the discussion on diversionary war theory. More specifically, it will analyze diversion theory provided by Oakes (2012) on the cases of the Crimean annexation, Eastern Ukraine conflict, and Russia-Georgia war. Apart from discussing geopolitical concerns that influenced assertive actions taken by Russia, this paper will provide state-level analysis and consider domestic factors that played a significant role. Earlier works on conflicts in Georgia and Eastern Ukraine did not pay enough attention to the territorial aspect of diversionary war theory.
This paper indicates that both conflicts differ from earlier papers on diversionary war theory which mainly concentrated on cases of the US or Israel. Furthermore, it is vital to highlight that these conflicts are influenced by the narrow interests of a small elite in the Russian government. Near abroad conflict is an easy instrument that Russia has implemented already twice in its contemporary history and these cases drastically differ from Syrian conflict in which Russia pursues only geopolitical interests.
 
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