Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Diffusion-Proofing and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Diffusion-Proofing and the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Article excerpt

"War lurks in the background of international politics, just as revolution lurks in the background of domestic politics."1

"For Putin, the biggest threat to Russia 's stability and power is the marching of democracy closer to Russian borders and the unleashing of various 'orange viruses'."2

The purpose of this article is to analyze the Russian intervention in Ukraine - that is, the Russian decision to invade, then annex, Crimea in the spring of 2014, quickly followed by Russian aggression, again using covert means, to aid and abet popular rebellion in eastern Ukraine-as a prime example of autocratic diffusion-proofing. We draw two sets of conclusions.3 First, while we do not reject the realist claim that Russian intervention in Ukraine was influenced by concerns that Ukraine's possible turn to the West threatened Russian national security, we argue that such an interpretation is too thin.4 In particular, it overlooks the multiplicity of motives that were driving the Russian leadership; ignores the key role of regime-type-that is, authoritarian systems in general and competitive authoritarian regimes in particular-in shaping the Russian response to unrest and leadership change in Ukraine; fails to identify the underlying reasons why Ukraine was likely to seek closer ties with the West; and, finally, ignores the question of how Russia carried out its intervention. By contrast, our focus on diffusion-proofing, augmented by the concept of reputation-proofing, as the explanation for Russian intervention in Ukraine helps us address all of these important questions.

Second, we take some issue with the ways in which students of comparative and international politics have analyzed authoritarian regimes. Thus, we question their tendency to focus exclusively on either domestic or foreign policy, rather than recognizing the close ties between these two spheres, especially with respect to how authoritarian rulers address the problem of popular unrest in their neighborhood. We also urge specialists in international relations to pay more attention to types of authoritarian regimes, since differences among them-for example, those that have competitive elections and those that do not-help define domestic and international threats, the leader's sources of power, the constraints under which she operates, and, finally, the tools that the leader can use to exploit opportunities and manage threats.

Our analysis develops the case for the Russian intervention in Ukraine as a process of diffusion-proofing in three stages. First, we flesh out the relatively new concept of diffusion-proofing by providing some examples, most of which are drawn from Russian and Soviet history. Next, we review three bodies of literature in international relations and comparative politics-that is, studies of realism, competitive authoritarian regimes and the decision calculus of authoritarian rulers-in order to identify key elements driving the Russian decision to invade Ukraine. Finally, we switch our focus from the "why" of intervention to the "how;" that is, the ways in which the concept of diffusion-proofing relates to reputation-proofing providing insights into how the Russians designed their repertoire of intervention.


There are several recent examples we can provide of diffusion-proofing. One is the international and domestic behavior of Saudi Arabia, when confronting the threats posed by the cross-national spread of popular protests in the Middle East and North Africa from 2010-2011. Here, we refer to three sets of inter-related policies: the military intervention in Bahrain to preserve a monarchy facing popular unrest centered around Pearl Square, the decision to expand membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and a series of decisions at home meant to win popular support and preempt protest (such as a reaffirmation of cultural conservatism and significant expansion of new housing and jobs). Another example is China's elaborate responses at home and abroad to the color revolutions, a cross-national wave of popular mobilizations against authoritarian rulers during and after elections in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia that took place from 1998 to 2005. …

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