UCL Uncovering Politics

Russian Discourses of Sovereignty

Episode Summary

This week, we’re looking at how Russian leaders talk about sovereignty. In particular, how do their ideas about sovereignty help them rationalise war in Ukraine?

Episode Notes

Analysts of Russia’s war in Ukraine have often – since its inception in 2014 – highlighted a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, Russia is violating the sovereignty of a neighbouring state in pursuit of its own interests. On the other, Russia simultaneously condemns Western interventions in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as Serbia back in 1999, on the basis that they breach the principle of non-interference in other states.

So are Russian leaders just being inconsistent? Or is there more going on? 

Dr Kalina Zhekova, Lecturer in Political Science here in the UCL Department of Political Science, joins us for this week's episode. A specialist in Russian approaches to military intervention and state sovereignty, Kalina’s latest paper looks at elite-level Russian discourse during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. 


Mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcription


russia, sovereignty, ukraine, discourse, russian, west, duma, western, kalina, meanings, debates, intervention, compatriots, putin, supported, states, rhetoric, russian foreign policy, interference, regime change


Kalina Zhekova, Alan Renwick


Alan Renwick  00:06

Hello. This is UCL Uncovering Politics. And this week we're looking at how Russian leaders talk about sovereignty. In particular, how do their ideas about sovereignty help them rationalise war in Ukraine?


Hello. My name is Alan Renwick. And welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics – the podcast of the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at University College London. 


Analysts of Russia's war in Ukraine have often – since its inception in 2014 – highlighted a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, Russia is violating the sovereignty of a neighbouring state in pursuit of its own interests. On the other hand, Russia simultaneously condemns Western interventions in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as well as Serbia back in 1999, on the basis that they breach the principle of non-interference in other states. 


So are Russian leaders just being inconsistent? Or is there more going on? And what are the implications of our answer to that question?


Well, the person who has investigated these matters is Dr Kalina Zhekova, Lecturer in Political Science here in the UCL Department of Political Science. A specialist in Russian approaches to military intervention and state sovereignty, Kalina's latest paper looks at elite-level Russian discourse during the 2014 Ukraine crisis. 


And I'm delighted to say that Kalina joins me now. 


Welcome, Kalina, to UCL Uncovering Politics. 


And let's get straight into it from the start. Do you want to explain for us where the existing scholarly literature is in its thinking about just how Russian political elites talk about sovereignty.


Kalina Zhekova  01:55

Thank you, Alan. 


As you noticed in the beginning, there are two conceptions of sovereignty that seem to be in circulation in Russian foreign policy discourse. 


On the one hand, we have what I would say is a traditional concept of Westphalian sovereignty that emphasises the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. And that has been a long-standing feature of Russian foreign policy [that] comes to the surface in debates on Ukraine and, previously, during the US intervention in Iraq, in NATO's intervention in Libya and the US coalition's intervention in Syria. So this insistence on non-intervention has been a central feature of Russian foreign policy discourse. 


And yet, in the context of Russia's war in Georgia in 2008 [and] its annexation of Crimea in 2014, what we've noticed is a different interpretation of sovereignty as Russia's moral responsibility for the protection of a broader ethno-civilizational community that extends beyond the borders of the states, or what is usually referred to by Russian officials as the need to protect compatriots abroad. And this refers to a completely different meaning of sovereignty as responsibility to protect an ethno-civilizational culturally affiliated community beyond the borders of the Russian state. 


And scholarship dealing with non-interference on the one hand and sovereignty as moral responsibility for Russian compatriots on the other hand, has seen these different meanings of sovereignty as contradictory. 


And the argument has been that Russia uses language on sovereignty for self-interested geopolitical goals, and this language is predominantly strategic. So Moscow would insist on protecting compatriots in Crimea for the purpose of annexing Crimean region. And these practices are, therefore, used to subordinate and hegemonize the post-Soviet space. 


And on the other hand, non-interference is just a way of criticizing Western interventions. 


So the idea is that in the majority of scholarship the argument has been that these two different concepts of sovereignty are contradictory and they are used selectively to justify strategic goals in the post-Soviet space. For instance, Ruth Deyermond, in a very popular article on Russian uses of sovereignty, has argued that Russia has a dual approach to sovereignty. So it uses Westphalian, traditional sovereignty outside of the region of the former Soviet Union, and a post-Soviet model inside of it. So within the post-Soviet space sovereignty is contingent and depends on Russian interest in this space.


Alan Renwick  05:34

But your argument is that that's too simple in a sense – that there isn't just a kind of the two concepts that are being used here, and there's just a contradiction between them, and we just have to accept there's a contradiction. You're suggesting that actually there's more subtle stuff going on, and if we understand that then we can understand better how the Russian political elite is really thinking about sovereignty? 


Kalina Zhekova  05:58

Yes, exactly. So I started by contextualising both of these ideas of sovereignty in the context of the 2014 Ukraine crisis to understand how it was possible that Russia annexed Crimea by insisting on its duty to protect compatriots in Crimea, and still insist on non-interference in the domestic affairs of states. 


So when I contextualised both of these concepts in the Russian debate on Ukraine in 2014, I found that there was more commonality than divergence between these different ideas of sovereignty – that there actually, at their core, is a shared conception of a Western danger. And by that, I mean a shared construct of a Western danger – not necessarily a reality. 


But both ideas – and as I approached him, both discourses – of sovereignty, are underpinned by this collective construct of the West as endangering either the Russian state or Russian compatriots in Ukraine. But essentially, what comes to the surface's seemingly opposing ideas of sovereignty is a common construction of the Western other as endangering Russia's own sovereignty and stability.


Alan Renwick  07:39

And so just spell out for us how that works. 


So I guess I can see very clearly that sort of anti-Western idea and the idea of the West as this entity that is pushing its own interests across the world. So that would clearly justify the focus on non-intervention and the opposition to Western intervention in the various places that you've mentioned. 


How does it also relate back to that other discourse of sovereignty in terms of protection of the compatriots within the sort of local sphere of influence? 


Kalina Zhekova  08:12

Yeah. That's a great question.


So what we need to understand, and what I think sometimes the scholarship overlooks, is that this idea of a fascist threat in Ukraine that has become quite commonplace to reiterate by different members of the Russian establishment and is now a known construct as part of the war justificatory rhetoric of the Kremlin. 


So the idea that there are so called fascists or Neo Nazis in Ukraine threatening Russian citizens is not separate from the West. The compatriot protection concept and discourse on sovereignty is based on the need for the Russian Federation to protect compatriots in Ukraine that are being threatened by West supported so called Neo Nazis in Ukraine. 


So the argument at the centre of the discourse is that Ukraine's Euromaidan revolution that started in November 2013 was instigated, orchestrated, and supported by the West – it wouldn't have happened without Western support. And actually, the Russian officials refer to that revolution as an anti-constitutional coup that was orchestrated by the West. So the anti-government – the oppositional movement – that was at the centre of the Euromaidan revolution arguably was only able to gain momentum because of its support for the West. And so these oppositional groups are then labelled as fascist and Neo Nazi by the Russian establishment. And these are the so-called Neo Nazi groups that then threaten Russian compatriots in Crimea. 


But at the centre of this discourse is that the 'Neo Nazi' – and again, in inverted commas, the 'Neo Nazi' – groups wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Western support. So it's a West link threat. It was a West-linked threat in Crimea rather than an independent sort of Neo Nazi fascist subject that threatened seemingly Russian compatriots.


Alan Renwick  10:37

I think you're saying that the starting point for Russian thinking on this is the West is already intervening in Ukraine. Therefore, it's legitimate for Russia to kind of counter intervene if you like. So it's not violating the principle of non-intervention because it's merely countering an existing intervention that has been done by the West. And that is the kind of central challenge. Is that fair? Or is that too simple?


Kalina Zhekova  11:06

Yes, exactly. I think that's fair. 


So there are two parts to this construct of the Western threat, right. 


So one is that the West intervened in Ukraine prior to the Euromaidan revolution to orchestrate it to support the oppositional groups, which led to the removal of the pro Russia president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. So the West orchestrated the Euromaidan revolution, which led to regime change. And that regime change – that strategy of regime change – could be replicated in Moscow if left unchecked. 


On the other hand, the result of the West-supported regime change produced this Neo Nazi threat in Ukraine that Russia responded to by annexing Crimea. 


So one is the threat of West supported regime change. And another one is the result of the West supported regime change – namely, the so-called Neo Nazi movement in Ukraine. 


And the Neo Nazi threat is then linked to the compatriot protection discourse whereas the need to prevent the replication of Euromaidan-style revolution in Russia is linked to the non-interference discourse. But at the heart of both discourses is a shared construct of a Western threat.


Alan Renwick  12:46

This is so interesting because I guess I know very little about this, and from my ignorance standpoint I guess I had always just kind of assumed that Russia has this strong concept of sovereignty in terms of non-intervention, but it just thinks that that doesn't apply to Ukraine, because it thinks that Ukraine doesn't have sovereignty – that Ukraine is just within its own sphere and Russia is entitled to do what it wants in Ukraine. But that is an oversimplification, I think you're saying – that it's not the case that Russia has such a strong kind of rejection of sovereignty, the sovereignty of the former Soviet states, including Ukraine?


Kalina Zhekova  13:30

Well, it's not really an oversimplification. I think there is a lot of validity in that point because when Russia emphasises sovereignty, at the centre of the concept of sovereignty as domestic order – regime stability as non-interference – is the sovereignty of the Russian states. And the reverse side of that non-interference is a resistance to any form of Western interference in any other state. 


Now, that discourse, as you rightly pointed out, completely ignores Ukrainian sovereignty. So Ukrainian sovereignty is just absent from that discourse. It's also absent from the discourse on compatriot protection. 


And it has become erased in the context of the Ukraine war, because the Ukraine war now is represented as a proxy war between Russia and the West. And Ukraine is merely a battleground for that proxy war. 


So yes, it does erase Ukrainian sovereignty because it foregrounds Russian sovereignty and resists perceived Western forms of interference to protect the Russian regime.


Alan Renwick  14:56

Very interesting, very interesting. We've been talking about your findings having not talked about the research through which you actually get to those findings. 


And I guess one of the other really interesting aspects of what you do here, which we haven't mentioned so far, is that you're focusing on Russian elite discourses around the concept of sovereignty. But you don't just look at sort of Vladimir Putin and circle around him. You also look at the wider elite and discourses in the Duma – the Russian parliament – and so on. 


Do you want to say a little bit about, I guess, firstly, just what is the research that you were doing here? And secondly, also, why is it useful for us to focus on that wider elite rather than just focusing in on Putin himself?


Kalina Zhekova  15:40

Yes, so when I refer to discourses, I really mean collectively produced structures of meaning. So they're not just articulated by Russian officials, by the Kremlin, and by Vladimir Putin. They're actually dominant – already dominant – nationalist meanings that are in circulation in the broader domestic debate and in the Russian parliament. 


So when I contextualise these two concepts of sovereignty that I started with, what actually did was look at debates in the Russian parliament – the lower chamber of Parliament, the State Duma. 


And, initially, so my interest started from wanting to really explore nuances of these meanings. But I found two things. 


So first, because of the focus on instrumentality and the strategic use of rhetoric, the majority of scholarship tends to focus on Vladimir Putin and a small circle of government actors. 


And second, when I started going through the debates, I noticed that they provide very contextually rich data and that they remain largely organic and unfiltered. So official statements are much more filtered, much more kind of codified, following a standard template. Whereas debates in the Duma tend to be much more organic because they're not at the centre of domestic or international attention. 


Alan Renwick  17:18

So does that mean in a sense that we can be more confident that people are saying what they really believe? We're kind of getting inside people's heads? Whereas we have to be a bit sceptical with Putin because he might just be speaking strategically?


Kalina Zhekova  17:30

I try to stay away from assumptions about real or actual beliefs, because I believe that establishing the reality of people's thoughts is impossible to really study in a methodologically rigorous way, I would argue, because it is very difficult to distinguish by looking at linguistic data between true beliefs and strategic rhetoric, as you noted.


What we can, however, establish are the broader patterns of meaning that exist before they come to the surface in official statements. What is being recurrently iterated in parliamentary debates; what are the dominant notions that are nearly impossible to challenge without being labelled a traitor, a fifth columnist, an agent of the West and so on; what becomes impossible to articulate. 


And then we gain an insight into the discursive toolkit that the Kremlin can actually access and mobilise to justify particular actions because government rhetoric does not exist in a vacuum. Government statements do not occur in a vacuum – they draw on already accepted notions, meanings and ideas that are in circulation in the broader debates. 


And the way I think about that is as a discursive toolkit that Vladimir Putin and other government actors can use to then justify particular policies, because the way that policies are justified need to still be decipherable, they need to resonate with an audience domestically, and they need to be meaningful to that audience. So these policies and the meanings around them would not come out of nowhere. And my argument has been that a large part of them comes from debates in the Duma.


Alan Renwick  19:37

And do we find much variation in this discourse? I mean, I guess, across different parties within the Duma, potentially, are there different kinds of patterns that you find there, or over time? I mean, I know this study focuses on 2014 – the debates around that – but I think you're also doing work that looks at the more recent period as well. Do we see any variations of either of those kinds? 


Kalina Zhekova  20:01

Yes, absolutely. 


So the variations are not the kind of variation that you may observe in a democracy, of course. But if we think about Russian foreign policy as existing on a spectrum from not so radical and not so militant to radically militant, the ruling party – so Vladimir Putin and the United Russia party – would be somewhere on the middle of that spectrum in the late 2013, beginning of 2014, when the Euromaidan started. 


So from the start of the Euromaidan, the nationalist parties in the Duma – and I use this term quite broadly to refer to the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party – so they and the Just Russia party represented the Euromaidan as a West-sponsored regime change that presents a direct threat to the Russian states. And Russia should therefore respond and prevent it. And that was something that I have observed since January 2014 – kind of the early start of the Euromaidan – and even before that. 


Now, this construct of the Western threat is potentially replicable in Moscow does not come to the surface in official statements – in United Russia statements – until later on during the Donbas rebellion and the clashes in southeast Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea. 


So, I have found that the official statements in the ruling United Russia party would not be at the radical end of that spectrum. And so these meanings of the need to counteract a Western threat through violent actions have emerged initially on the margins of the broader debate and gradually entered the centre of decision making during the Ukraine war that is unfolding.


Alan Renwick  22:15

And do we know what happens if we go further back in time? Because I mean if we think back to the 1990s, then of course there were lots of very different modes of discourse that were present in Russia, and much more pro-Western pro-European ideas were in the mix in Russia at that time. 


And whereas now, I think for many of us listening to Russian politicians talking about Ukraine and talking about the fascist presence and, you know, that incredibly heightened kind of rhetoric that you hear being used, just sounds slightly kind of bonkers, really – I mean, it just sounds to my ear certainly just a bit kind of detached from any reasonable conception of reality. So just understanding how a discourse takes that path of such radical change over just a couple of decades. How much do we know about that?


Kalina Zhekova  23:17

We know quite a lot if we look at that broader domestic context. 


So for instance, if we look at the statements by the former head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a known ultra nationalist, we'll see that in 2014 – and I'll go back to the earlier conflicts – but in the context of the Ukraine crisis, in the summer of 2014, Vladimir Zhirinovsky actually proposed and demanded that Russia should intervene in the Donbas – that Russia should recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as separatist regions, as independent states; that it should provide much greater military support for the rebels; and that it should even establish a no fly zone over the Donbas region. So these were the proposals are in circulation at the time. 


And if we go back further to the '90s and early 2000s, suddenly there were outspoken nationalists that advocated for greater resistance of the West that opposed any cooperative moves that Russia engaged in trying to join the club of western states, so to speak. 


So what now seems almost inconceivable is that in 2001, actually following 9/11 in the United States, Russia supported the US intervention in Afghanistan, and Putin supported the US intervention in Afghanistan by presenting it as a global Chechnya. 


And then fast forward to Syria, for instance. In early 2016, shortly after Russia intervened in Syria in support of the government of Bashar Al Assad, because of fears that Western and Russian forces being present in Syria could lead to a direct military conflict – because of those fears of military confrontation in Syria, there was a brief moment of military coordination between Western and Russian forces in Syria. But those kind of more accommodationist moves by the Russian government was severely criticised in the Duma by nationalists through the use of this sort of conspiratorial rhetoric that the West could replicate its strategy of regime change in Russia one day. 


This goes back to... This can be observed during the NATO-led intervention in Libya. At the time, Russia actually allowed a UN Security Council resolution authorising the Libyan intervention to pass. So Russia didn't abstain from voting, it didn't veto the resolution, and NATO intervened in Libya. That was severely criticized in the Duma – that if Russia allows for this intervention to go ahead, and it didn't go ahead, it is setting a precedent for Western interference to progress closer and closer to Moscow and one day be replicated in Moscow. 


So if we don't pay attention to these illiberal radical ideas that exist and circulate in the broader debate, yes, the official rhetoric is going to seem completely irrational and bonkers to use your word. But if we actually investigate the context of the broader debate and the meanings that become dominant and common sensical over time, we see how this radical sense of threat evolved and entered the mainstream of foreign policymaking. 


Alan Renwick  27:17

And feel free to tell me that I'm asking you impossible questions. But I guess what I'm really interested in response to that is: what's the role of agency in shaping these discourses? 


I mean, it sounds just speaking to you as though we have a tendency to overestimate Putin's agency in determining the path that has been taken in recent years. But I guess I'm also wondering, is someone else's agency responsible for that path? Can we identify – is Zhirinovsky, has he kind of had a strategic plan? Or did he have a strategic plan to move Russia in this direction, which he succeeded in enacting? Or are there kind of deeper forces in operation here that no one is really in charge of?


Kalina Zhekova  28:04

I think that it will be very helpful if it was possible to identify a main culprit or a few main culprits that are responsible for the militant orientation in Russian foreign policy – that would be very useful for the international community in terms of knowing how to deal with Russia. 


But unfortunately, I think that there are deeper forces and tendencies at play. So the way that I think about agency is as embedded in a preexisting discursive structure that is collectively produced. 


Yes, some agents certainly have more authority than others, mostly because people would listen, such as Vladimir Putin. [They] would have more power and rhetorical power than some kind of more marginal oppositional figures. 


But any agent needs to mobilise meanings that would be supported, and that will resonate with a particular domestic audience. 


For instance, in a Duma resolution that was debated on the 15th of February 2022 calling for the recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, party members of the New People party that entered parliament in September 2021 argued for diplomatic solutions to the crisis at the time. They were very briefly marginalised and ridiculed in the Duma simply by articulating the possibility that a diplomatic solution through pursuing the Minsk Agreement could still be achieved. And their proposals were labelled as nonsensical, unreasonable and impossible, because there were already dominant constructs of the Western threat that were impossible to ignore. 


So, in this sense, even if agents tried to diverge from the dominant discursive structure, the meanings that they articulate that are divergent would simply not resonate and not be supported. And the government is particularly sensitive of that because there is something that we know about autocratic states – is that autocratic states have very paranoid leaders. And usually the fear of coup comes from within. So governments tend to be sensitive to these dominant meanings.


Alan Renwick  30:59

Yeah. We're coming towards the end of our time, alas, because there's so much more that I could ask about this. But I'm wondering if there are policy implications of this research that listeners should be aware of.


Kalina Zhekova  31:13

So something that I've heard quite often and read quite often since the start of the Ukraine war and Russia's invasion on the 24th of February 2022 was that regime change in Russia could be a solution to the war, could bring peace in Ukraine, could stabilise the region. And I think, unfortunately, what I found is that this is simply not the case. 


I tend not to go into predictions about what will happen in the future. But something that I've observed so far is that given that United Russia and Putin are not the most radical thinkers in Russia, and that there are a lot of very popular populist, ultra nationalist figures – not least, the leader of the Communist Party, Genadii Ziuganov. The fact that these figures already exist and are much more militant than the Russian establishment means that even if Putin was to leave the presidency, Putin's successor is likely going to be more radical than he is – is likely going to engage in even more drastic policies and actions in Ukraine, unless I suppose there is a complete and utter democratic revolution in Russia, which seems unlikely at present. 


So my pessimistic policy recommendation, I suppose, is to move away and to really stop thinking about regime change in Russia as a solution to Ukraine because removing Putin is just not going to bring peace in Ukraine, I think.


Alan Renwick  33:10

Well, that's a dispiriting point on which to end, but that is the nature of the story that we're exploring here. 


Thank you so much, Kalina. That's been really, really interesting. I've learned a huge amount and hopefully our listeners have as well. 


We have been discussing Kalina Zhekova's article, 'The West in Russian Discourses of Sovereignty during the 2014 Ukraine Crisis: Between 'Compatriot Protection' and 'Non-Interference''. And that article was published earlier this year in the journal Europe-Asia Studies. As ever, you will find full details in the show notes for this episode. 


Next week, for our last episode of 2023, we will be celebrating the inaugural lecture of our colleague, Mark Esteve, Professor of Public Management. We'll be exploring his research focusing particularly on how different organisational structures can help or hinder the delivery of high-quality public services. 


Remember, to make sure you don't miss out on that or other future episodes of UCL Uncovering Politics, all you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts, or whatever podcast provider you use. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could take a moment of time to rate or review us too. 


I'm Alan Renwick. This episode was researched by Alice Hart and produced by Eleanor Kingwell-Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. 


This has been UCL Uncovering Politics. Thank you for listening.



Article mentioned during the episode 

Ruth Deyermond (2016) The Uses of Sovereignty in Twenty-first Century Russian Foreign Policy, Europe-Asia Studies, 68:6, 957-984, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2016.1204985