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FACULTY OF ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL SCIENCES &
SOLVAY BUSINESS SCHOOL

Russia's Annexation of Crimea

Through the Lens of Neoclassical

Realism

Cyriel Ghekiere

0107315

Promotor: Bruno COPPIETERS

Jury: Mohammad SALMAN, Allan MULLER

Academic year 2015-2016

Master thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the diploma

Master of Science in Politieke wetenschappen
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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Content

Introduction ................................................................................................................................ 3

I.
Framework: neoclassical realism.......................................................................................4
A.
Fixed Variable.............................................................................................................6
B.
Intervening Variables..................................................................................................7
II.
The Case Crimean Annexation........................................................................................10
III.
The Independent variable: Changing Power Relations.................................................12
A.
The Unipolar system..................................................................................................13
B.
Bipolar Europe?.........................................................................................................15
IV.
Intervening Variables....................................................................................................17
A.
Identity: The Quest for the New Russianness...........................................................17
B.
Perceptions of the Russian State Leaders..................................................................20
C.
Institutions.................................................................................................................25
V.
The Valueof Neoclassical Realism.................................................................................27
Bibliography............................................................................................................................. 30
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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Introduction

Neoclassicalrealismisarelatively newtointernationalrelationstheorythatremains
relatively untested. The theory makes the claim that it can provide more explanatory power to
the realist analysis (Wohlforth 2008). It does so by adding unit level variables to the neorealist
analysis effectively opening theblack box”.This article will put the theory to the test by
analysing the Russian annexation of the Crimea. The general consensus was that Russia was a
marginal power. The world was perplexed when Russia intervened militarily and seized the
Crimea. Angela Merkel was reported to wonder out loud whether Putin was “livingin another
world”(Coalson 2014). There was a general consensus that the Russian leadership had acted
against its own interests, crippling its economy for a small peninsula in the black sea. As
Obamamentioned“Objectively speaking,PresidentPutinshouldwanttoresolvethis
diplomatically, to get these sanctions lifted” and continued to claim that Russian elites where
ignoring what should be their long-term interests” (Felsenthal2014 ). Considering the obvious
disparities in power, the question arises why Moscow would risk confronting both the US and
EU. Further questions arise as to why Russia chose to annex the Crimea as there were other
options available. Using a neoclassical realist toolset including domestic variables, this article
willtrytoprovideanexplanationhowthepressuresfromtheinternationalsystem
transformed into the foreign policy decision that shook up Europe.

This article will start off by explaining neoclassical realism and how it works by outlining the
fixed variable and the unit level intervening variables. Then, the toolset will be applied to the
foreign policy decision ofRussia’s annexation of Crimea. As the fixed variable, an analysis of
relative power distribution within the international system will be made. Further, a set of
intervening variables will be applied to the case, followed by an analysis of how this might
have affectRussia’s decision making process.The first variable identity is viewed as a mental
frame work for foreign policy makers used to vet policy options. The second variable are
perceptionswhichareheldbystateleadersregardingthepowerdistributioninthe
internationalsystemandthethreatsandincentivesthey perceive.Thethirdvariable,
institutions,refers to the state’s ability to extract power from its society which enables or
constrains state leaders in the formulation of their policy. Lastly, this article will evaluate the
value of neoclassical realism in terms of providing explanatory power.
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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I.Framework: neoclassical realism

Neoclassical realism is a sub school in the realist tradition which combines different
aspects of the tradition in a quest for more explanatory power (Wohlforth, Realism 2008, 140,
Rose 1998, 146). Employing the insights provided by structuralist theories without sacrificing
the practical knowledge and complexity of statecraft offered by classical realism (Rose 1998,
146). Neoclassical realism is often used to explain specific cases rather than trying to find a
universal explanatory theory (Wohlforth, Realism 2008, 140). Therefore, it is described as a
theory of foreign policy rather than of international outcomes (Lobell, Ripsman and Taliaferro
2009). Neoclassical realists tend to not burden themselves with attempts to construct large
overarching grand theories. Rather, they focus on specific foreign policy questions. In their
pursuit of explanatory power of the different sub schools of realism, they see them as tools in
their repertoire, applying them according to relevance (Wohlforth, Realism 2008, 140).
Neoclassical realism has been criticised for not being a coherent school of international
politics as it seems to incorporate elements from realism, constructivism and liberalism,
rendering it a more ad hoc theory. However, Rose (1998, 152-154 and 165-168) argues that it
does constitute a coherent school of foreign policy as it employs: a fixed variable in the form
of relative power and a set of intervening variables in the form of state structures and
perceptions of leaders. This article will add a third intervening variable, namely identity
which has been researched by neoclassical realist scholars like Sterling-Folker (2009, 76-99)
and Kitchen (2010, 117-143). The domestic intervening variables identity and perceptions
seem to be borrowed from constructivism and liberalism. However, neoclassical realists look
at the domestic intervening variables through a realist lens and employing realist causal
mechanisms (Lobell, Ripsman and Taliaferro, Introduction 2009). Therefore, while remaining
flexible, neoclassical realism remains deeply rooted in the realist tradition. For example,
domestic groups and how they influence foreign policy is generally connected to liberalism.
However, Sterling-Folker (2009, 99-138) explains in her writing how domestic groups
influence foreign policy as they compete for influence and resources, placing it well within
the bounds of the realist tradition. Therefore, the use of intervening variables cannot be seen
as a mere dilution of the theory in order to explain away anomalies of structural realism.
Neoclassical realism borrows insights from both classical and neorealism. The neoclassical
realist analysis starts from structural realist conceptions of the international system. In adding
the unit level variables, neoclassical realists focus on state power and statesmanship, thus
borrowing from classical realism.Neoclassical realism and neorealism share the same
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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assumptions that international politics is naturally conflictual, and that the importance of
power distribution and groups are at the centre of political life (Lobell, Ripsman and
Taliaferro 2009, 19). Neoclassical realists will agree with neorealists that the pressures of the
international system and the relative martial power of a nation are the dominant factors in
determining a state’s foreign policy.While neorealists such as Waltz (1996) avoid unit level
analysis due to its complexity, neoclassical realists open the “blackbox”. Neoclassical realists
argue that there is no link between relative power and foreign policy and that the translation
of such power into actual pressure is indirect and complex (Rose 1998, 147). They start from
the assumption that the international system poses constraints and offers incentives to the
differentunitsratherthandictatingforeignpolicy.Theyseethedomesticfactorsas
intervening variables that can explain differences in foreign policy outcomes. The systemic
pressures and relative national power ultimately need to be assessed and analysed through the
perceptions of foreign policy executives and then turned into policy. At the very end it is the
political elites who must judge power distribution and act upon it, the immediate issue being
that the political elites are not always able to judge and interpret the distribution of power
correctly. Thus, foreign policies might not always follow objective trends as they are based on
conceptions rather than truths (Rose 1998, 147). This is illustrated by the interwar period
where the European powers where faced with the rapid rise of Nazi-Germany. Although all
faced the same systemic pressures of the rising threat, we observe severe differences in their
respective foreign policies and all failed to credibly balance Nazi-Germany (Brawley 2009).
Even when foreign policy makers are assessing the pressures of the international system and
how to form foreign policy, they are constrained by their identity. These are a set of values,
beliefs and norms who filter which actions are suitable and in line with their identity and
which are not (Abdelal, et al. 2006).During the 19thand 20thcentury great powers like
France and Great Brittan used colonisation as a way to increase their power. For the United
States however, with its history as a former colony, this was never an option and the United
States preferred to extend its influence through different means. Another issue pointed out by
neoclassical realists is that it is not always possible for state leaders to mobilize the necessary
resources to conduct a foreign policy that adequately answers the systemic forces. As Rose
(1998, 147)points out “there is no transmission belt linking aggregate power and foreign
policy outcomes”. During the Napoleonic wars, French nationalism allowed France to
mobilizemoreresourcestooverrunEuropewhiletheconservativemonarchieswhere
constrainedbytheirowninstitutions(Taliaferro,NeoclassicalRealismandResource
Extraction: State Building for Future war 2009, 195). The relations between state and society
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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can thus pose considerable constraints on a nations foreign policy options. Therefore,
neoclassical realists are keenly interested in the links between power and policy and have
great interest in the context in which policies were formed.Having briefly explained
neoclassical realism and its logic, the next step is to explain both fixed and intervening
variables in more detail. The following chapters will be dedicated to elaborating how these
variables will be used to analyse the case of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

A.Fixed Variable

As mentioned before, neorealists take relative power as their fixed variable, arguing that it
sets the broad parameters of a nation’s foreign policy(Lobell, Ripsman and Taliaferro 2009,
17, Rose 1998, 146). Ritterberg (2001, 42) describes the relative power position of a state as
the share of capabilities it has compared to the sum of capabilities in the entire system. In Paul
Kennedy’s popular book “The Rise and fall of the GreatPowers”(Kennedy 1987, 536), he
argues for the use of relative material power when analysing the international system. The
argument for using relative power is quite simple as nations can only be considered powerful
if their armies and economies are stronger compared to their rivals, and when their growth is
faster than the growth of other nations. In order to analyse the foreign policy decisions of a
particular state, this article will start from the structure of the international system and
subsequently analyse the power distribution on the regional level, mainly of the nations
involved in the lead up to Russia’s foreign policy decision. This approach has been used by
neoclassical realist author Ross Smith (Smith 2015). Other neoclassical realists have also
argued that, subordinate to the global system, are regions with distinct characteristics (Lobell
2009, 49-50, Binder 1958). These regions are not independent of the international system.
However, they do have internal dynamics which cannot be fully explained by the former. As
Binder (1958, 414) illustrates, post-World War II developments in the Middle East cannot be
explained by the bipolar world system alone. These polar structures at both the international
and regional level present the states and their leaders with constraints and incentives they
need to interpret and act upon. To that end, this article will firstly look at the polarity of the
international system and then at the European level. Further, this article will attempt to
measureRussia’s power compared to the international and regional system.Establishing
Russia’s relative power position on the international and regional level allows analysis of the
constraints and incentives it leadership needed to interpret before it decided to annex the
Crimea.
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The next element this chapter needs to define is how power will be analysed in this article.
In political science, power is traditionally described as the ability of one party to make
another party do wat it wills even when the latter party does not wish to do so (Dahl 1957,
202-203). Neoclassical realist Rose (1998, 155) argues for a material conception of power.
Like neorealists, they distinguish military power and latent power. The latter refers to a set of
socio economic assets which can be transferred into military power among which: population
size, technology, wealth...(Rathbun 2008). In their conception of power, they are in line with
offensive realists like Mearsheimer (2014, 57-60) who points out that the traditional way of
describing power allows only for it to be measured after it is used. The traditional method can
thus only measure power after it is used and is only able to confirm that the state which has
won a conflict was indeed the most powerful. Therefore, assessing the material assets and
resources of a particular state and how these compare to their rivals allows for analysis of the
power distribution leading up to the conflict. This article will mainly focus on military power
as in any realist conception, this is the most important pillar of power. The Crimean
annexation involved a military operation, therefore the balance of military power must have
been the primary concern for the Russian leadership. Latent power will be briefly discussed in
terms of economic power as the most important element to the production of military power.

B.Intervening Variables

While power distribution is a main driver of foreign policy, neoclassical realists believe
there is no direct link connecting them to foreign policy making. Bradley (2009, 75-99)
observes how France, Britain and the Soviet Union applied different strategies towards
Germany leading up to the Second World War. While the allied states where facing similar
pressures from the international system, they all pursued a different foreign policy. A set of
domestic variables makes the translation of such power into actual pressure indirect and
complex and therefore, causes divergent foreign policies (Rose 1998, 147). To that end, in
this chapter, a set of intervening variables will be defined that will be used to further analyse
Russia’s foreign policy actions in the Ukraine.Rose describes these domestic variables as
leaders’interpretations, conceptions and calculations of relative power as well as the states
institutions ability to mobilize power. A further intervening variable added in this article will
be identity as advocated by neoclassical realist author Sterling-Folker (Sterling-Folker 2009).
These three intervening variables should provide greater explanatory power to the case of
Russian annexation of the Crimea.
Russia's Annexation of Crimea Through the Lens of Neoclassical Realism
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The first intervening variable which we will discuss is also the most elusive and most
difficult to gauge, namely identity. Neoclassical realism differs from neorealism in its unit of
analysis as the latter employs the state while the former uses human collectives as a broad
category. Neoclassical realists believe that identity is a set of norms, values, religion,
conceptions,idea’s...thatbindsindividualsintogroups(Sterling-Folker2009,110).
However, these groups remain subject to the realist principles of competition, a concern with
relative power, and a tendency to emulate successful social practices (Lobell, Ripsman and
Taliaferro, Introduction 2009). There is great variety in types of groups: ethnic, national,
religious,..., groups, and membership of one group does not necessarily exclude membership
of another (Ferguson and Mansbach 1996). Neoclassical realists will point out that within
states, sub groups are competing for control of the state as it is the primary institution to
allocate resources (Barrington 1997). Taking into account a host of different subgroups would
complicate the analysis and is beyond the scope of this article. Russia under Putin slowly
turneditsbackonwesternstyledemocracyandmovedtowardsastrongcentralized
authoritarian regime (Åslund and Kuchins 2009, 11). Therefore, this article will focus on how
the Russian leadership views Russian identity. While there are many sub groups in Russia
who strive for a different conception of the Russian identity, this article will focus on the
identity discourse of the political elite. While it is difficult to confine the evolution of
identities to a specific time period, this articlewill focus on changes in Russia’s identity
conception,during Putin’s third termstarting from 2012. Once Russian identity discourse is
established, this article will discuss howRussia’s identityis connected to its foreign policy,
more specifically in relation to the annexation of the Crimea. Constructivists and neoclassical
realists believe that groups bind and shape the individuals through institutions, social practices
andcommonidentities(Sterling-Folker2009,110).Neoclassicalrealists,contraryto
constructivists, do not believe identity to be a driving force in foreign policy. Rather, they
argue that identity should be viewed as a mental framework for decision makers which filters
international pressures (Smith 2015, 5). Thus, through the lens of identity, realities of
international politics are interpreted and conceived. The norms, values, and assumptions
shape the different foreign policy responses available to the decision maker as they determine
which are appropriate and which are not (Juneau 2015, 25-35). Neorealists argue that the
decision makers respond to pressures from the international system with the most optimal
foreign policy. Neoclassical realists, however, believe that the decision makers do not have
the full range of policy options available because identity blocks incompatible responses out.
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