In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
panelists at Fletcher-MGIMO conference

Experts Discuss Threats Shaping Russia's Alliances

April 08, 2019
Nini Arshakuni and Daniel Shapiro

What kind of alliances and partnerships is Russia building and what motivates great-power behavior? At a recent conference organized by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Russian and American scholars discussed theories of alliance formation and reflected on Russia’s reasons for seeking to establish alliances mainly in its own neighborhood, on ideology’s effects on alliance formation, on the nature of asymmetric alliances and on other related questions.

Russia’s focus on alliance formation in its “near abroad” is motivated by Russia’s key security objectives: “to diminish the number of attack directions and maintain buffer zones,” according to MGIMO’s Andrey Sushentsov. Distinguishing between continental and maritime powers, he noted that the latter’s key goals include overcoming isolation, controlling sea routes and forming alliances with distant powers, whereas continental powers prioritize maintaining allies in their neighborhood. Sushentsov claimed that Russia is “a continental power par excellence” and, thus, it tends to build alliances with states in its neighborhood and less frequently with distant countries. However, he added that if Russia were “pushed too hard” in its current confrontation with the West (referring to a hypothetical Western military presence close to Russia’s borders, for example in Ukraine), it would seek to move the battleground from its neighboring regions closer to its adversary’s borders and would work to cultivate alliances with far-off states like Cuba and Venezuela.

MGIMO’s Igor Istomin raised the point that Russia also seeks to establish alliances and partnerships to counter “ideational threats” coming from the West. Istomin argued that the U.S., in its efforts to promote liberal democracy, has created a binary system in which countries following the liberal model are considered to meet the “standards of appropriateness,” whereas countries deviating from this model in the West’s eyes are treated as “pariahs.” Istomin contended that through this stark delineation of “good” and “evil” regimes, the U.S. has pushed some countries from the latter category to establish closer partnerships to counter liberal ideology. “Russian-Turkish relations is a telling example,” according to Istomin. “We see that both [the] Russian and Turkish political regimes are very much challenged. That was especially evident after and during the coup [in Turkey] in 2016. So, despite many disagreements, Russia and Turkey came together.” Istomin concluded that alliances aimed at countering ideational threats are often described as simply “transactional,” but they are, in fact, “much more robust and stable” because the ideational threats will not fade away anytime soon.

Istomin’s model did not go unchallenged. The Fletcher School’s Monica Toft, one of two discussants on the panel, criticized the speaker’s portrayal of the United States as the only power in charge of advancing the liberal world order, arguing that U.S. allies are often deeply involved as well. Moreover, she noted that there is significant debate on whether the “liberal world order” exists at all. Toft also said that the warming relations between Russia and Turkey should be thought of as a defensive agenda or an “authoritarian collusion” to counter the U.S., its Western allies and its ideology. The second discussant, Mihaela Papa, also of the Fletcher School, argued in turn that the point of counter-ideology is to generate new processes that can lead to new ideas about the international system.

A third speaker, MGIMO’s vice rector Andrey Baykov, focused mainly on asymmetric alliances and the respective roles of their “major powers” and “junior partners.” The main tradeoff he described was the provision of a security guarantee to a junior partner by a major power in exchange for limitations on the former’s sovereignty. He also spoke of the public recognition and legitimation that asymmetric alliances give to the major power. Unfortunately, Baykov did not apply this theory to Russia and its allies. Toft called on him to expand his analysis of asymmetrical alliances to include states other than the U.S. and controversial issues other than the Iraq war and fighting ISIS. (Baykov used these two examples to illustrate that, in the U.N., U.S. allies’ support for Washington on controversial issues is much higher than that of the General Assembly as a whole, thus showing the “mobilization effect of asymmetric alliances.” However, Papa questioned Baykov’s methodology in analyzing U.N. voting patterns, saying that U.S. allies’ closer cooperation with Washington in international organizations may not necessarily be a direct result of alliance dynamics, but could stem from factors not covered in Baykov’s paper.)

The authors are graduate student associates at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and Russia Matters.

Photo courtesy of The Fletcher School's Russia and Eurasia Program. Pictured left to right: Monica Toft, Mihaela Papa, Andrey Baykov, Igor Istomin and Andrey Sushentsov.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.