Russia’s Geopolitical Vision: A Threat to European Security


On the 350th birthday of Peter the Great on 9 June 2022, Putin said to young Russian entrepreneurs and scientists that the tsar was not grabbing somebody else’s lands when he took Swedish territories; he was simply taking back what belonged to Russia. Comparing himself to the tsar, Putin argued in reference to his invasion of Ukraine that, similarly, “it has fallen to us [Russia] to fulfil our destiny” to return and strengthen the country through expansion1.
While this statement candidly expressed Russia’s current objectives, these ideas are hardly new. They precede Putin and are likely to survive him, too. Indeed, since the early days of the post–Cold War era, representatives of Russia’s top leadership have continued to express the belief that Moscow has special, historical rights to decide matters in European and world affairs, including the fate of other states, such as Ukraine, which Russia does not consider fully sovereign. Russia’s calls for a change in the European and broader international order are rooted in expansionist, neo-imperialist Soviet and tsarist political philosophy. These have hardly been the single cause of the 2022 Russian invasion; Russia’s relations with the West and Ukraine have influenced the dynamic. Nonetheless, these ideas have constituted an important framework for the Russian post–Cold War foreign policy. Irreconcilable with the current European order and transatlantic security system, they highlight some of the root causes of the clash between Russia and the West.
Central features in the Russian geopolitical vision
The Russian authorities have long postulated what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called “an acute need” for an alternative form of collective leadership by the great powers. Lavrov has made direct links to the nineteenth-century system based on the balance of power and non-confrontational mutual containment, which was established during the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after Napoleon’s defeat. He has called this a new “concert of the powers of the twenty-first century”2.
In a speech given in 2007, Lavrov envisioned a world order based on the leadership of the United States, the European Union, and Russia. This idea has been alive and popular within the circles close to the Russian ruling elite. With a slight variation, in 2017, Sergei Karaganov argued for the United States, Russia, and China to be the “twenty-first-century concert of nations”, the leading triumvirate that could be supported to include other "real” and “sovereign actors”3.
The Russian vision of an alternative international order stresses the elements of continuity in Russia’s foreign policy, partly deriving from the yearning for the nation’s past glory. As Lavrov put it in 2007: “Russia has borne a significant share of the burden of maintaining equilibrium in European and world politics for 300 years”4. He argued that in periods when Russia gave up this responsibility, it “tended to lead the continent to catastrophe”5. This also highlights another long-standing feature in Russia’s self-perception as a unique civilisation with a special, even messianic, mission—and corresponding rights—in world affairs.
A related major feature of the Russian worldview is the classical Westphalian order, with its traditionally defined state sovereignty, core principle of territoriality, and non-interference in internal affairs6. However, as the repeated Russian aggressions in neighbouring states have illustrated, these concepts come with an important caveat. To Russia, sovereignty is not so much a right that each state automatically gets, but rather a capacity for sufficient military strength, economic independence, and national and cultural identity that a state must have to be truly sovereign7. Seen from this perspective, neither Ukraine nor any other post-Soviet state except Russia (nor Baltic republics, Poland, Norway, or other small and medium-sized states) can be considered fully sovereign. They can be independent and self-governed, but their independence derives from relations they develop with great powers, not from their own strengths.
An illustrative example of this reasoning is President Boris Yeltsin’s confidential letter sent in 1993 to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany: he proposed to replace NATO enlargement to the Central European states with security guarantees essentially limiting these states’ sovereignty and making them dependent on guarantors8. Notably, Yeltsin also suggested making Russia’s relations with NATO “several degrees warmer”—that is, carrying more weight and importance than NATO’s relations with the Eastern European states.
A natural sequence to the Russian understanding of sovereignty is the concept of spheres of influence divided between great powers. Russia perceives them as a zero-sum game: the West’s or other great power’s win must inevitably mean Russia’s loss. Therefore, the process of NATO-enlargement—as if in a distorting mirror—is seen as an expansion of the “Western sphere of influence”. This also explains why Moscow dismisses the fact that NATO did not actually expand or actively compel any new members to join. Indeed, it was the other way around: NATO was initially less than enthusiastic about the prospect of enlargement after the Cold War9. Yet it opened its doors after years-long pressure from the Central and Eastern European nations seeking to avoid the repetition of history in a likely future domination by Russia.
This reasoning was encapsulated in one of the core principles in Russia’s foreign policy concepts formulated since the mid-1990s. Their objective was a multipolar world order, which aimed, inter alia, to undermine US dominance in the international system, as well as to re-establish Russia’s dominant position in the post-Soviet space—objectives clearly emphasised with the choice of Yevgenii Primakov as a Foreign Minister in 199610.
Democratisation as a threat
An even larger problem for Russia than NATO-enlargement is, in fact, the process of democratisation. It is seen not only as a major obstacle to reverting the world order to the club of great powers ruling over the rest, but also as a direct security threat to the authoritarian Putinist regime.
The Russian authorities came to this conclusion after the first wave of pro-democracy movements, or “colour revolutions”, that swept away several governments in the post-Soviet countries in the early 2000s, including the 2003 Revolution of Roses in Georgia, the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. In 2006, Vladislav Surkov, a former influential ideologist and close associate of Putin, named “colour revolutions” one of four main threats to Russia’s sovereignty, along with international terrorism, lack of economic competitiveness, and direct military confrontation11.
The link between pro-democratic revolutions and a security threat to the Russian regime became even more striking to the ruling elite during the Arab Spring. This phenomenon coincided with massive anti-Putin protests that erupted in Russia in 2011-2012 in response to rigged elections. The lynching of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya made a particularly strong impression in Moscow. Since 2012, Putin has taken a number of steps to prevent democratisation at home and abroad. At the domestic level, the process of controlling the Russian population was stepped up with a series of new laws, including those limiting the freedom of speech and the right to protest, curbing freedoms of the internet, crushing and fragmenting political opposition, and expanding the legal definition of extremism and espionage, facilitating persecution of dissidents—to name but a few examples. Furthermore, the National Guard, formed from the Interior Troops, was strengthened to 340,000 men and made into Putin’s praetorian guard. Command was moved directly under Putin and given to his former bodyguard, General Viktor. This would ensure loyalty to Putin should the order to shoot be given.
Russia’s methods and means
Russia has attempted to push for a fundamental change of the European security order through political means, for instance when, in 2008-2009, president Dmitrii Medvedev presented a draft of the European Security Treaty. He proposed legally binding security guarantees for all participants, security centred around state and political-military power seen as playing a determining role in international relations 12. As the Russian proposition appeared rather anachronistic, it did not inspire a significant response.
In the following years, Russia stepped up its attacks on the security system and rules-based order using an extensive spectrum of increasingly aggressive means, at first below the threshold of open aggression, e.g. by launching information campaigns using fake news; interfering in electoral processes; exporting corruption to influence politicians across the Western world and beyond; providing economic and political support to various anti-democratic, anti-American, and anti-liberal forces in Europe, including in Austria, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Italy; initiating cyber-attacks against the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which investigated the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the conditions surrounding the poisoning of the former intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in England with the use of weapons of mass destruction (the military grade Novichok nerve agent); leading cyber-attacks against officials in the Netherlands who investigated the downing of the passenger plane NH17 by Russia over Ukraine in 2014; and conducting paramilitary operations, such as Russian military intelligence’s (GRU) failed 2016 attempt at a coup in Montenegro.
In 2014, Putin said “new rules” or no rules, summing up Russia’s willingness—and readiness—to step up the contest of the status quo13. As the large-scale military modernisation that was set in motion in 2008 has begun to deliver results, Russia has increasingly used the reformed armed forces to push back against the quest of the former Soviet satellites and republics to escape the “Russian sphere of influence” by a closer integration with Western democratic institutions. Successively, Russia has expanded the geographical scale of its ambitions to include operations in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and other parts of the world, in addition to joining the anti-Western partnership with China.
Impact on European and international security
Russia’s hegemonic ambitions and increasingly violent attacks on democratic values and institutions strike at the heart of the European project. Accepting the Russian demands and claims, e.g. to “legitimate security interests” in countries like Ukraine, and denying these states “real” sovereignty, has far-reaching consequences—as the military assault on Ukraine has brutally demonstrated. The implications of these policies reach far beyond Ukraine. They clash with and aim to weaken the foundations of the European and transatlantic security system based on multilateral security institutions, the rule of law, mutual interference, and the transfer of some of the sovereign rights of states to transnational institutions. This is a system that has rejected some of the key principles Russia is seeking to resurrect, including the hegemonic whims and ambitions of individual states, the balance of power principle, and hard-military power as the major currency and means to resolve disputes in international relations.
The threat Russia poses today to European and transatlantic security is larger than Putin and is likely to survive him, even though the possibility of a systemic change in Russia cannot—and should not—be discarded. However, as long as the Putinist state continues, also after his departure, an end to the invasion of Ukraine that would leave Russia in control of more Ukrainian territory would hardly end the conflict. It would merely afford Moscow a valuable pause to digest the lessons learned, to regroup and rearm. Unless a major political change occurs in Russia, it would likely resume the pursuit of its clearly stated, long-standing objectives and ambitions that not only aim to subjugate all Ukraine, but go well beyond it. Any such result would also provide other observers evidence that the use of conventional force supported by nuclear intimidation is a successful means of achieving foreign policy goals, in Europe and elsewhere.

Cover picture: Soldiers of the company of the guard of honor of the commandant's regiment carry the Victory banner and the Russian flag at a military parade on Moscow's Red Square, 9 May 2021.
Copyright Free Wind 2014 for Shutterstock

  • 1. “Вот Пётр Первый Северную войну 21 год вёл. Казалось бы, воевал со Швецией, что-то отторгал… Ничего он не отторгал, он возвращал! […] Чего полез туда? Возвращал и укреплял – вот что делал. Судя по всему, на нашу долю тоже выпало возвращать и укреплять. И если мы будем исходить из того, что вот эти базовые ценности составляют основу нашего существования, мы, безусловно, преуспеем в решении задач, которые перед нами стоят”, Vladimir Putin’s remarks on 9 June 2022, President of Russia, News, "Vstrecha z molodymi predprinimatelyami, inzhenerami i uchyonymi", [Meeting with young entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists]". Unless stated otherwise, translations from Russian are by the author. 
  • 2. Sergei Lavrov’s speech at MGIMO University, Moscow, 3 September 2007, School of Russian and Asian Studies.
  • 3. Sergey Karaganov, “Mutual Assured Deterrence”, Russia in Global Affairs, 22 February 2017.
  • 4. Sergei Lavrov, op. cit.
  • 5. Ibid.
  • 6. Adam D. Rotfeld, “Does Europe Need a New Security Architecture?”, OSCE Yearbook 2009, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, Baden-Baden, 2010, s. 40–41. See also Andrew Monaghan, Russian grand strategy in an era of global power competition, Manchester University Press, 2022.
  • 7. Katarzyna Zysk, “Managing Military Change in Russia”, in Security, Strategy and Military Change in the 21st Century. Cross-Regional Perspectives, eds. J.I. Bekkevold, I. Bowers, M. Raska (London and New York: Routledge, 2015); Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard, Dimitar Bechev, Jana Kobzova, Andrew Wilson, The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2010).
  • 8. J. Malczyk, "Europa Środkowa po liście Jelcyna” [Central Europe after Yeltsin’s letter], Gazeta Wyborcza, 2–3 October 1993; A. Jagodziński, "Sojusze według Moskwy” [Moscow’s alliances], Gazeta Wyborcza, 3 December 1994; Elzbieta Stadtmüller, Pożegnanie z nieufnością? Rozszerzenie NATO i UE a stosunki polsko-rosyjskie w kontekście bezpieczeństwa europejskiego [Farwell with distrust? The enlargement of NATO and EU and Polish–Russian relations in the context of European security], Wrocław 2003, p. 19.
  • 9. Katarzyna Zysk, Stanowisko Norwegii wobec rozszerzenia NATO na państwa Europy Środkowej, ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem Polski, w latach 1989–99 [Norway’s Approaches to NATO Enlargement to Central Europe, with Special Emphasis on Poland, 1989–1999] (Torun: Nicolaus Copernicus University and The Scientific Society of Torun Press, 2008).
  • 10. Ariel Cohen, The ‘Primakov Doctrine’: Russia's Zero Sum Game with the United States, The Heritage Foundation, 15 December 1997; Eugene Rumer, The Primakov (Not Gerasimov) Doctrine in Action, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 5 June 2019.
  • 11. Vladislav Surkov, Suverenitet – eto politicheskii sinonim konkurentosposobnosti [Sovereignty – this is a political synonym for competitiveness], remarks at the Education and Training Centre of the United Russia Party, 7 February 2006.
  • 12. The Draft of the European Security Treaty, 29 November 2009, President of Russia; Rotfeld, op. cit.
  • 13. Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai International Discussion Club. Transcript of the Final Plenary Session, 25 October 2014
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