Inside the Russian geopolitical mind: Pseudo-justifications behind the war in Ukraine

Russia sees two types of sovereignty in its civilisational space. Full Westphalian sovereignty – which it believes it has and Ukraine does not. This means that defending Ukraine means defending its sovereignty in full.

A map is seen on a wall inside a school that was bombed in Kramatorsk, as the evacuation of the city residents is almost complete, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A map is seen on a wall inside a school that was bombed in Kramatorsk, as the evacuation of the city residents is almost complete, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine April 2
Image by picture alliance / REUTERS | Jorge Silva
©

As the Russian war against Ukraine gets ever more brutal, it is not only appropriate but vital to discuss the intellectual justification, or pseudo-justification, behind it. So-called peace negotiations are led on the Russian side by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s court ‘historian’ Vladimir Medinsky, who has regularly denied Ukraine’s very existence. He is not a real historian, but part of Russia’s propaganda state. His books have titles such as “Particularities of national PR” and “Scoundrels and geniuses of PR. From Rurik to Ivan the Terrible”. He has been accused of plagiarising both of his dissertations.

As well as history-as-PR, Russia has a notorious addiction to geopolitics. For the intellectual background to Russia’s otherwise irrational aggression, I highly recommend the recent book Russia’s New Authoritarianism: Putin and the Politics of Order by David G Lewis, which looks at the influence of German philosopher Carl Schmitt on modern Russia. Schmitt’s reduction of all politics to a “friend-enemy” distinction is at the heart of Russian “political technology”. Putin has glorified his personal autocracy as Schmitt’s “state of exception”. But biggest of all is Schmitt’s impact on geopolitical thinkers such as Aleksandr Dugin and Vadym Tsymbursky: the former towards aggressive expansionism, the latter towards a gathering of lands then retreating into “Island Russia”. All of this is deeply worrying, as Schmitt was a prominent member of the Nazi Party from 1933. One key analysis of his work is called A Dangerous Mind.

I paraphrase what Lewis says. For Schmitt, the world is divided into different Großräume (“Great Spaces”); Russia prefers to talk of “civilisations”. The relevant civilisation for Russia and Ukraine is the “Russian World”. This is sometimes defined as the whole post-Soviet space; sometimes as the east Slavic core of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; sometimes the Orthodox world; sometimes the Russian Orthodox world; sometimes the world of Russian-speakers; sometimes the “Russian-thinking” world. The imprecision is part of the definition; Russia likes to make sliding claims on all its neighbours. Civilisations may have messy edges, which Tsymbursky called the “limitrophe” – the areas in between.

For Carl Schmitt, the world is divided into different Großräume (“Great Spaces”); Russia prefers to talk of “civilisations”. The relevant civilisation for Russia and Ukraine is the “Russian World”.

Each civilisation has a “hegemon”. Hegemons are equal to each other – Russia should talk to the United States, not to Ukraine. Each civilisation or Großraum is consolidated by a great Political Idea, devised by and emanating from the hegemon. The hegemons therefore understand the unique nature of their own civilisation; outside powers do not. These outsiders are “raumfremde Mächte or “powers alien to the space”. Hegemons have full sovereignty; other states have only legal, external sovereignty. The latter therefore cannot choose their friend or enemy, or alliances. Hegemons are superior to the other, limited-sovereignty, states in their civilisational space. The job of the hegemon is to police the Großraum; both internally, to prevent the limitrophe states being pulled in different directions and destabilising the “civilisation”; and externally, to keep out the alien powers whose interventions would also destabilise the civilisational space; and to make correct decisions for the limited-sovereignty states.   

“Abstract legal concepts of self-determination and sovereignty”, as Schmitt called them, were only instruments of the United Kingdom and the US to expand their influence at the expense of Germany. The Treaty of Versailles was just a Trojan horse for the machtpolitik of the victorious allies. Putin thinks in very similar terms about the Charter of Paris in 1990, or the SCCE becoming the OSCE in 1994 – just as instruments to destroy the Soviet Union. The narrative of supposed maltreatment of Russians in the post-Soviet states after 1991, as with that of Germans in the Slavic countries created in 1918, shows why ‘abstract Western international law’ is inadequate to guarantee true security and peace.

Sound familiar? This was Schmitt’s justification for the German invasion of Poland in his 1939 book “Völkerrechtliche Großraumordnung, mit Interventionsverbot für raumfremde Mächte. Ein Beitrag zum Reichsbegriff im Völkerrecht” (“Large-scale international order, with a ban on intervention for powers alien to the space. A contribution to the concept of empire in international law”). And it is also how Russia thinks about Ukraine, and its ‘sphere of influence’. As Ruth Deyermond writes in another excellent piece, The Uses of Sovereignty in Twenty-first Century Russian Foreign Policy, Russia sees two types of sovereignty in its civilisational space. Full Westphalian sovereignty has to be earned; it is only available to those with konkurentnosposobnost – the “ability to compete” – which Russia has and Ukraine does not. The post-Soviet sovereignty of minor states is only nominal. They are not equal to hegemons. In fact they are an irritant to the free action of hegemons. The West claims to believe that there is only one type of sovereignty. There may well be the benefits of pooled sovereignty, and the restraints of international law and the responsibility to protect. But there are no geographical distinctions, no “civilisations” or Großräume. Ukraine, however, knows that the threats to its sovereignty are manifold: to its foreign policy choices, its internal politics, its cultural heritage, to the lives of ordinary Ukrainians. Medinsky’s contempt for Ukraine is only one obstacle in the negotiations. If Ukraine concedes on one point, such as NATO membership, Russia will go to the next item on the list. If Russia wins the war, it will move on to attacking the sovereignty of other states in its supposed Großraum. Defending Ukraine and its neighbours means defending Ukraine’s sovereignty in full.


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