ISSN 2330-717X

Praetorian Russian State And A La Carte Internationalism – OpEd

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Even as Vladimir Putin remained intransigent on the Ukraine issue, with his ruling coterie reining in limiting Russian cooperation to an indiscrete agenda—while militarily reasserting its geopolitical and geostrategic interests—Moscow’s commitment to international law, norms, and institutions would appear ephemeral. What worries the world more than Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council is a series of strategic hints made by Putin recently that would jeopardise international security. This, of course, includes his latest order putting Russia’s nuclear deterrence forces on high alert mode—“into special combat duty mode.” His order   fuelled speculations if Putin was actually contemplating a nuclear escalation scenario, with Belarus already offering Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in the country. 

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We may recall, in 2020, Putin had approved Russia’s nuclear doctrine, according to which, the possibility of nuclear weapons use by the country depends on one of four conditions (Para 19): 

a) arrival of reliable data on a launch of ballistic missiles attacking the territory of the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

b) use of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction by an adversary against the Russian Federation and/or its allies;

c) attack by adversary against critical governmental or military sites of the Russian Federation, disruption of which would undermine nuclear forces response actions;

d) aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy.

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However, Paragraph 4 of the document had generated some misgivings at that time: It states: “State policy on Nuclear Deterrence is defensive by nature, it is aimed at maintaining the nuclear forces potential at the level sufficient for nuclear deterrence, and guarantees protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State, and deterrence of a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies. In the event of a military conflict, this Policy provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies.” 

Does it mean that Russia’s nuclear apparatus would become an instrument of preventing or ending hostile military attacks against Russia and its allies? Western scholars were already debating whether Russia was actually after the notion of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ i.e., the employment of a limited nuclear strike to make the enemy halt a conventional strike. According to Petr Topychkanov, a SIPRI researcher, “Although the text of Article 4 does not unequivocally confirm or dismiss Russian adherence to this concept, it seems to describe non-nuclear scenarios in which Russia might rely on nuclear weapons to achieve its military goals.”

SIPRI estimated in 2021 that Russia is in possession of 6225 nukes of which 1625 are deployed warheads—nearly 50 per cent of the total nuclear weapons in the world. The SIPRI also mentioned that Ukraine “conflict will probably become another of Europe’s persistent unresolved conflicts.” Though Putin’s latest order has got to do with the emerging strategic situation in Ukraine, following a spate of Western sanctions imposed on Russia, the use of or threat of use of nuclear weapons depends on the ground situation and the responses of the international community. Even as Russia has been a signatory of many global regimes, including the NPT, its adherence to them is subject to the interpretation of Kremlin as perceived by defence experts. For example, while Putin’s nuclear doctrine was in place, many Russian officials also went on making statements about nuclear weapons even threatening “to potentially use them in situations that do not meet the conditions described.” According to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda

“Russia is in the late stages of a decades-long modernization of its strategic and nonstrategic nuclear forces to replace Soviet-era weapons with newer systems. In December 2021, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported that modern weapons and equipment now make up 89.1 percent of Russia’s nuclear triad, an increase from the previous year’s 86 percent.” Kristensen and Korda also quoted Russian sources to underline Putin’s stress on the need for Russia’s nuclear forces “to keep pace with Russia’s competitors.” Putin’s statement runs: “It is absolutely unacceptable to stand idle. The pace of change in all areas that are critical for the Armed Forces is unusually fast today. It is not even Formula 1 fast—it is supersonic fast. You stop for one second and you start falling behind immediately.” In his annual State of the Nation Address to the Federal Assembly in 2021, Putin also said that “Advanced weaponry in Russia’s nuclear triad that comprises strategic aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered missile-carrying submarines will top 88% this year.”

Though Putin may not think about destroying Ukraine, by using nuclear weapons, the threat of the use of nukes (in violation of its own global commitments) has the potential to revive the ‘logic of deterrence’ in international relations. Even countries like North Korea, Iran and Pakistan might revive a proliferation dynamic in their geopolitical contexts.  

Praetorian Russian State  

According to Jean-Robert Raviot, Putin “has set an overriding goal for post-Soviet Russia: that of returning the country to the centre of the world stage, once again taking its place among the great powers whose strategy and actions dictate world politics.” Citing Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict, Raviot says it was “the most prominent demonstration of this desire.” He also noted: “Languishing on the global periphery following a decade of reforms now judged as catastrophic for its economy and people, Russia must make its way back to the centre of affairs by strengthening its own centre. In the Russian political lexicon, there is only one ‘centre’: the Kremlin, seat of the Russian presidency and the reactor core of the federal state, the hard kernel of central authority… The dynamics of Putinism are hence centripetal—we may call them Kremlin-centric.” 

Raviot says that Putin’s “centralizing tendency, which has been a reality ever since Vladimir Putin took over as head of state in 1999-2000, is often reduced to certain specific slogans that the Russian president himself formulated to qualify his actions: the “reestablishment of the power vertical” and the “dictatorship of the law.” He calls this as a “shift towards a certain sort of authoritarianism” which “has been reconciled with other political processes marking the start of the twenty-first century, in particular the manifestation of a new model of a strong, non-liberal state.” He also pointed out that “a praetorian guard” emerged in Moscow, “coalesced around the leader in the Kremlin, comprising the heads of the major offices of state, all of whom were close to the president.” Since 2004 they had taken “control of the strategic sectors judged to be vital to the Russian economy (energy, arms, aeronautics, leading-edge technology, transportation, and telecommunications and networks), which consolidated Vladimir Putin’s position as captain of the Russian ship on the sea of globalization.” 

Raviot defines the Kremlin’s “praetorian guard” as “a non-institutionalized network that operates as a sort of deadbolt within the ruling élite.” Though not palpable, this coterie “directs the major strategic decisions, keeps an eye on influence peddling and settles any major conflicts of interest.” He says that this “praetorian lock started to form around the Kremlin in the earliest years of Putin’s presidency” and “Russian praetorianism” could be “viewed as an essential driver” of the revival of Putinism. 

a la carte Internationalism  

The main task for the Praetorian state, under Putin, is to re-claim the power of Russia as a significant force in international relations, like its predecessor socialist state.  Philip Remler, in a Carnegie study, says that the notion of “a multipolar oligarchy leads to the Russian concept that true sovereignty is possessed by only a few great powers; the sovereignty of states it views as dependent on great powers is limited. The territory of true sovereigns and those states under Russian protection is sacrosanct and can be defended by force; for the others, it is impermissible to regain territory that is ‘in dispute’ by force.” 

Remler cites the example of how “Russia has gone to protect Syria’s use of armed force against its own population, whereas the sovereignty of former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine must be negotiated.” He further writes: “…after the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared, “We don’t have to guarantee anything to anyone, because we never took on any commitments concerning this.” Remler said that Medvedev “drew a clear distinction between the international law that Russia felt bound to observe and the rules-based order that did not bind Russia.” 

The Carnegie study highlights how “Russia extends its distinction more broadly and universally. To Russia, international law is UN-based and narrow but universally applied; while the rules-based order with its supposed double standards is expansive and extraterritorial, covering a wide field of issues. This distinction also applies to Russia’s view of sovereignty itself and pervades Russian behaviour at the UN.” Remler also draws our attention to a joint declaration made by Russia and China in 2016. It contains “a list of things the two countries support (international law based on the UN Charter, sovereign equality, dispute settlement through agreed mechanisms, collective action against terrorism) and oppose (unilateral military interventions, intervention in the affairs of other states, unilateral sanctions, ‘violating the immunity of states,’ and interpretations of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that ‘impair rights and legitimate interests of States Parties’).”

Russia’s Ukraine military expedition, as well as its justification of intervention, is a classic instance of how the praetorian state is struggling with a la carte Internationalism—a contradiction in itself between its support (?) of a “strictly UN-based international law” and opportunistic adventures in pursuit of geopolitical gains and strategic hegemony. 

The aim of the praetorian state in Ukraine, as declared by Putin, is “demilitarisation’ and ‘denazification.” Moscow cannot apply its commitment to ‘Internationalism” here, as the task is nothing short of ‘protecting’ Ukraine from NATO’s eastward expansion. But Putin cannot hide his geoeconomic objectives insofar as the energy circuits of Russia pass through these terrains. How does Putin justify his recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk—the eastern territories in Ukraine? Yes, the argument is that Russian-speaking people in these provinces have a trying time under the hegemony of Volodymyr Zelensky.  This is what U.S. President Biden calleda staged political theater in Moscow.”  Here also Putin has a different set of notions regarding ‘sovereignty’ of states, particularly those of its immediate neighbours and extended neighbours. The resulting situation is a self-defining ‘Hobbesian anarchy’—the cost of which must be born by people of all sorts. 

The author is ICSSR Senior Fellow and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for ‘Global South Colloquy.’ He can be contacted at [email protected]

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