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The real danger of “Thucydides Trap” in post-Soviet space

The ongoing war in Ukraine has unveiled more of Russian thinking on foreign policy to the world. Faced with a neighbourhood increasingly looking to the West, Moscow has turned to conflict in an attempt to maintain its power and influence in the region.

June 6, 2022 - Jozef Hrabina - Articles and Commentary

Friendship of Nations Fountain at the All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow, constructed in the years 1951-54. Photo: Vladj55 / Shutterstock

It is not the Russian quest to renew its long gone empire but a power transition in favour of the West that is key to understanding Russian motives in Ukraine. This is also important in understanding Moscow’s willingness to use hard power in its neighbourhood. Grasping this phenomenon is important if we are to foresee potential conflicts in Eurasia, especially in countries that wish to break away from the Russian sphere of influence.

Contrary to Russian popular opinion and official Kremlin communications, these ongoing wars in the region are not just a series of civil conflicts. In fact, one can attribute the conflicts in post-Soviet space to the fallout of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the subsequent redistribution of power in the area. As a result, instability in the region has become something of a “barometer” for Russian influence, which has been in continuous decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

To understand the conflicts’ dynamics, it is crucial to understand that the perceptions of the Russian great power are the most important. This is true regardless of our own (western) outlooks. The Kremlin’s waning grip on post-Soviet affairs can be attributed to a phenomenon first discussed in ancient Greece and known today as “Thucydides Trap”. As the ancient historian famously concluded: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this instilled in Sparta, that made war inevitable.”

Chasing the past

As the conventional wisdom goes, the redistribution of power creates tensions that foster state confrontation. In the cases of Ukraine or Georgia, the dynamic is obvious. Post-revolutionary Georgia decided to pursue a pro-western course that led to the souring of Russo-Georgian relations. The Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine broke out after Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU.

Both cases demonstrate the declining influence of Russia in its former dominions. The same logic of declining influence applies to Chechnya, Azerbaijan and Armenia, although Russia did not intervene in the last two cases.

Despite the resurgence of Russia’s great power status, the country failed to develop a “power of attraction” that would have kept the former Soviet sphere of influence focused on Moscow. The soft power of the West, based on a vibrant economy and the freedom to choose political representatives, naturally ended up competing with the corrupt crony capitalism of Russia.

Moscow has historically relied on hard power to project its influence and has failed to recognise the importance of local nationalism and the massive spread of information thanks to the internet and global media. In Ukraine, the Russian reliance on hard power, however, looks like it has finally met its match.

Despite the continued influence of the school of realism in international affairs, even its most hard-nosed adherents admit that campaigns of expansion in the style of the 19th century are now obsolete(as a matter of fact, most of the realists stood in the opposition to the wars in 21st century). This is due to the extreme costs of occupation, hardships of nation-building, and local nationalisms that often result in guerrilla resistance. Moreover, by granting independence to its former satellites, Russia has opened a “Pandora’s box” of free choice that will always lean towards economic prosperity.

This is a hard lesson to learn for Russia, which has completely lost its influence in Ukraine and stumbled across local resistance even in areas populated by a Russian-speaking majority. Moscow believed that there would be little to no resistance in these areas.

A deep-rooted problem

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is nevertheless just a symptom of a broader issue. This is namely the destabilising structural dynamic at play in the post-Soviet space. Regardless of mainstream western thought about its own non-threatening nature, or even its natural appeal and subsequent expansion, the other variable at play here is Russia’s perception. Viewing NATO expansion as a clear security threat and witnessing the decline of its own influence in its former dominions, Moscow reacts as a textbook declining power trying to reverse this trend.

The Kremlin’s reactionary policies in the face of its own decline do not really portray Russia as a neo-imperialist power. This is clear with regards to Russian meddling in western political affairs. Of course, there is a difference between actions aimed at increasing your influence over others’ decisions and meddling just to sow discord and keep your opponent busy in their own backyard. While both are dangerous, the second is not an expansionist policy. As a result, while Moscow poses an imminent physical threat to its non-NATO neighbours, the odds of further Russian expansion to the Baltic states or Finland are relatively low.

The real danger now is waning Russian influence in the remaining areas of post-Soviet space, such as Moldova, Georgia and Central Asia. In Ukraine, the danger of conflict will persist even with a peaceful solution. At the same time, Russian influence over Ukraine is now at a historic low. Ukraine will subsequently seek a revisionist course regarding its occupied territories. In contrast, if Russia is not able to achieve its major military aims and is forced to seek a truce, the odds of future conflict will substantially increase with its own dissatisfaction. Of course, Moscow has not currently achieved any of its military goals with regards to Ukraine or Europe’s wider security architecture.

Jozef Hrabina is Chief Analyst at the Council of Slovak Exporters, where he is responsible for in-house analytical studies and commentaries and provides strategic insights to the economic, political and geopolitical developments in the World. With almost a decade worth of academia focused in international relations, Jozef develops the think-tank section within the CSE.

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