#act power thursdays: Foreign intervention, Russian style


“Polite people” – “little green men” – also known as Russian special forces hard at work during the armed annexation of Crimea Crimea in 2014. In May 2015, they got their own monument in Belogorsk, Russia. Image TASS Aleksandr Ryumin

Note: An updated version of this post has been published on linkedin.

The last entries on this blog have been on an apparent paradox of
our 21st century world: On the one hand, power is drifting away from
states limiting their capacity to act. On the other hand, the
necessity to stabilise fragile states, or to build states after they
have gone into crisis has not simply gone away – The UN estimates
that more than 130 million people currently need humanitarian help
following man-made and natural disasters, and that the number of
those forcibly displaced this year stands at 60 million.

Francis Fukuyama and his work on what makes a state stable was
followed by a mapping project monitoring fragile states around the
. Last Wednesday’s entry dealt with the current
disillusionment surrounding the very concept of foreign interventions
and state building
, after the reigning enthusiasm at the beginning of
the 2000s and consequent despair over the outcomes of war in Iraq and
Afghanistan, which reverberates until

Today, in my little series on states and intervention, I return
once more to my current case study in terms of smartly wielding
instruments of power – Russia, more specifically, how Russia
comprehends and interprets the concept of foreign intervention as a
power tool, internally, and externally.

Let’s start with how Russia perceives state stability and foreign
intervention internally, meaning in relation to itself. It is Russian
government policy to condone neither any kind of regime change, nor
any redrawing of borders via foreign intervention. Witness for
example Russian opposition to the founding of Kosovo as a state
post-1999, or the current insistence in the case of Syria that an
acting head of state/ government may not be deposed by force. Behind
this official government rhetoric hides the fear of domestic change
brought about by “foreign meddling”.

Through Russian eyes, recent protest movements, be it colour
revolutions for example in former Soviet Union countries (the Rose
Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution of 2004, or the
Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan, among others) or the Arab Spring
starting in 2010 (2011 what concerns Libya and Syria) are interpreted
a new form of warfare, where internal protest is instigated from
followed by some sort of military action, with the aim of
toppling anti-US governments. Such “campaigns” are seen as being
directed against Russia – Consequently, Russia condemns them abroad
and justifies a crack-down on civil-society organisations at home,
which are portrayed as Trojan horses for foreign interests.


Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National which has accepted
Russian money in Moscow this spring (Picture Kirill
Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

But what about Russia’s behavior abroad when it comes to foreign
intervention? Externally, it tries to influence the stability of
third countries, be it in its “near abroad” or further away, for
example, through
playing the Russian minority card
, by financing
political parties, think tanks and Russian media, or by
exerting pressure via its energy resources
, all the way to cyber,
covert or semi-covert military intervention, such as in the case of
Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine.

Another element is to discredit and/ or to
delegitimise countries by enlisting heroic struggles of the past,
preferably the gigantic Soviet human sacrifices made in WWII for that
purpose. On 9 May, Russia commemorates victory in the Second World
War. In the days before Victory Day this year, Russian media ran
stories branding the Baltic states as “fascist”, with Russians
suffering discrimination in these countries. The channel Rossiya 24
even aired a story about a major Victory Day parade in the
Russian-speaking Estonian town of Sillamäe that never took place. All this could be read as preparations for more direct Russian intervention


started in 2012 as a grass root movement to keep a personal link to
people who fought and died in the Second World War
, the marching
of “immortal regiments” has morphed from personal remembrance to
state-sanctioned mass events. This
year, “immortal marches” cropped up in US cities, in London or
in Berlin, but also in Kiev and in Riga, among others
. Again, the veterans, the dead, and their sacrifices seem to have become justifications for having a say in other countries’ destinies, while validating Russia’s role internationally.

To sum up, it appears that Russia would like to have it both ways.
Foreign intervention is officially ruled out, but unofficially, very much
part and parcel of the Russian power tool box. How to make sense of
such contradictory behavior? Lilia Shevtsova, Brookings Institution
coined the term “coercive diplomacy” to describe Russia’s foreign
policy approach
. Please find below salient parts of Shevtsova’s
article, as a prism through which to see Russia’s outwardly confusing stance on
state stability and intervention:

“The Russian regime is experimenting
with a three-pronged strategy against which the West is struggling to
react: “to be against the West; to be inside of the West; to be
with the West.”

…The Kremlin is pursuing a
post-post-modern policy which waters down the differences
between principles and norms, war and peace, right and wrong, reality
and imitation, ally and enemy, law and lawlessness, and internal and
external conflict. Using this strategy, a state which contributes to
conflict within another can also be the one to start the struggle for
peace. This is a version of the Hobbesian world order—it is based
not on international treaties and trust, but on uncertainty as to an
actor’s intentions and their readiness for surprise breakthroughs.”

… True, there are two traps into
which Russia and the West could fall while following this strategy.
The first is that the requirements of maintaining “Fortress Russia”
may prevent the Kremlin from achieving a grand bargain with the West.
The second trap is, from the West’s point of view, a catch
twenty-two: any bargain that would allow the Kremlin to interpret the
global rules of the game as it chooses would undermine the coherence
and unity of Western principles. But rejecting the bargain could
incite the Kremlin bull to wreck the Western china shop. The liberal
democracies of the West are hardly ready to clash with a nuclear

Clearly, there is nothing to worry about…At worst, a few people in green might show up. Wearing masks. Carrying weapons. Luckily, they are only there to hand cats back to their rightful owners. Right? Right.

Johanna M

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