Think of Russia as an ordinary petrostate, not an extraordinary superpower

By Maria Snegovaya

The Kremlin’s motivation in the Ukrainian conflict has split scholars. Is Russia a greedy state ideologically driven to expand or a declining insecure superpower defending itself against NATO? Realist scholars (for example, see these recent pieces by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt) argue that the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict was provoked by NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine, which were a part of Russia’s strategic zones of influence. The opponents tend to blame Russia for the conflict. To a large extent the divide is methodological: following the publication of Mearsheimer’s piece, Foreign Affairs surveyed scholars on “who is to blame for the conflict?” and discovered that scholars of international relations predominantly mentioned NATO and regional specialists tended to blame Russia.

Along with the multiple leaps in the realist argument outlined by Alexander Motyl in his recent Monkey Cage post, it also fails to explain the timing of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Since NATO expanded into the Baltic region in 2004, Russia’s land border with NATO countries has been more than twice as large as its land border with Georgia, and yet somehow Russia waited until 2008 to react. Likewise in his response to MearsheimerMichael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, points out that in multiple meetings between President Obama, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev over a five-year period, the issue of NATO expansion never came up. Moreover, throughout most of Putin’s rule Russia engaged in numerous joint projects with NATO (including joint military exercises and peacekeeping operations) while apparently completely neglecting the existential threats it was facing from the Alliance.

The larger problem with approaches that treat “Russia,” or “the Kremlin,” or “Putin” as something monolithic and unchangeable over time is just that – neither Russia nor Putin have been unchanged nor monolithic over the 15 years of his rule. Had Russia been a coherent unity, the Soviet Union would never have collapsed to begin with. But the observed inconsistency in the Kremlin’s behavior that realist theories struggle to explain is easily understood if we remember that rather than being “an insecure superpower” Russia is first and foremost a petrostate. Petrostates are empirically shown to become aggressive against their neighbors when oil prices skyrocket. In a study of 153 country cases in the last 50 years, political scientist Cullen Hendrix shows that high oil prices consistently make oil-exporters more aggressive toward their immediate neighbors, while they don’t affect the behavior of non-exporters. On average if the oil price hits a threshold of $77 per barrel in constant 2008 dollars, petrostates get 30 percent more aggressive than non-exporters.

Jeff Colgan of Brown University analyzed militarized interstate disputes in 170 countries between 1945 and 2001 and found that countries where net oil export revenues constitute over 10 percent of GDP were among the most violent states in the world. Such petrostates showed a remarkable propensity for militarized interstate disputes on average and engaged in militarized conflicts about 50 percent more often than non-petrostates in the post-World War II era. Examples include Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez expelling their U.S. ambassadors, Venezuela’s mobilization for war against Colombia and Iran backing Hamas attacks against Israel during the 2008 oil price peak. Likewise Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 and Libya’s repeated incursions into Chad also happened during the peaks of the oil prices in the 1970s and 1980s. The mechanism is simple: High oil revenues lower leaders’ domestic political accountability and responsibility for policy decisions while increasing risks of international adventurism. Oil revenues also increase states’ military capability by providing them with larger and more fungible pools of funding for military expenditures.

From this perspective, Russia is not so much an insecure superpower as it is a typical petrostate with a short-term horizon that gets aggressive and ambitious once it accumulates substantive oil revenues. Back in the early 2000s when the price of oil was $25 a barrel, Putin was a friend of the United States and didn’t mind NATO enlargement in 2004. According to Hendrix’s research, this is exactly how petrostates behave when the oil prices are low: In fact, at oil prices below $33 a barrel, oil exporters become much more peaceful than even non-petrostates. Back in 2002 when the Urals price was around $20, in his Address to the Federal Assembly Putinenumerated multiple steps to European integration and active collaboration aimed at creating a single economic space with the European Union among Russia’s top priorities. In 2014 – with the price of oil price around $110 – Putin invaded Ukraine to punish it for the attempts to create that same single economic space with the E.U.

In 2007, soon after oil prices hit their first peak at $75 a barrel (near the threshold of $77 a barrel in constant 2008 dollars that Hendrix underlined), Putin gave his famous Munich speech where he first challenged the U.S. hegemony but was still hopeful about prospects of a meaningful partnership with the United States and Europe. By 2014 – with oil priced above $100 – Putin in his Valdai speech completely rejected prospects of any meaningful cooperation with the U.S.

When the Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the oil price was at that period’s peak of $101 a barrel. Russia’s recent adventures in Georgia in 2008 took place when the price of oil hit its highest point since 1980 ($105), and in Ukraine in 2014 when oil prices overcame even their 2008 levels, just as the theory of aggressive petrostate’s behavior would predict. From this perspective, the NATO position on Georgia’s and Ukraine’s accession really didn’t matter much to Russia’s aggressive stance on the two countries, except for serving as a useful pretext to its rising ambitions.

While Russia may seem an “aging, depopulating and declining great power” to outside observers, the Kremlin elites who have accumulated a substantive amount of reserves definitely don’t perceive themselves as such. Instead they repeatedly name Russia among the three main world superpowers along with the United States and China, and keep referencing Russia as an energy superpower, ranking second in the world on arms supply, etc. Russia’s state channels regularly hint that the Russian army could potentially march up to Eastern Europe, Berlin or London within a few days.

Robert Jervis has famously pointed out that the individual perceptions of decision-makers and ways in which they distort reality matter much more than is often acknowledged. Such distortion of reality might matter even more in the case of the leaders of petrostates, regardless of what NATO wants and thinks.


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