Russia: The hegemon that isn’t (I)

James Hamill |

12 May 2022

James Hamill says Putin’s savage Ukraine war has exposed the innate weaknesses of Russia as a Great Power

Given the savagery and criminality of its invasion of Ukraine and its previous deployment of troops in Kazakhstan to help ‘restore order’ – that stock phrase of authoritarians of every stripe – this might seem an inopportune moment to make the case for Russian regional and geopolitical weakness.

Paradoxically, however, the Ukraine war highlights, is rooted in and will further intensify, Russia’s innate weaknesses as a supposed great power, one reliant to an extreme degree on, threats, coercive diplomacy, and ultimately military force to secure its objectives. Moscow’s misfortune is that, unlike genuine great powers, it has nothing else in its foreign policy toolbox with which to draw neighbouring states into its orbit and to build voluntary and durable regional coalitions under a Russian umbrella.

In this respect, there is a striking continuity between contemporary Russian failings in its neighbourhood and those of its Soviet era counterpart during the Cold War. In Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union lacked the capacity to build enthusiastic and voluntary coalitions in support of its regional leadership. Instead, its dominance was achieved through the imposition of narrowly based, and largely despised, communist regimes and the threat to intervene with military force – what would become known as the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ – should those regimes be challenged by popular rebellion, as they were in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980.

So limited was the appeal of the Soviet Union and its ideology that once the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev rejected the possibility of using force to preserve those regimes – and replaced the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ with the so-called ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ allowing the states of Eastern Europe to do it ‘their way’[1] – they collapsed in a domino effect in a matter of months in 1989.

Although the rise of Vladimir Putin, and of a more aggressive Russian nationalism, is a response to what was perceived to be the country’s post-Soviet humiliation in the 1990s, in many respects Putin’s rule is replicating rather than overturning the pattern of the Soviet era. This is not to argue that Russia is enfeebled or irrelevant for it is neither. It continues to have a vast nuclear arsenal, is a serious military power in eastern Europe and central Asia and, as its aggression in Ukraine demonstrates, it is prepared to conduct its international relations through brute force if necessary.

It is also a veto wielding power on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and is a member of the BRICS forum although, as South Africans will appreciate, how much unity of purpose that group commands is questionable, but at least it gives the impression of power and influence.


Russia also has a ruthless and cynical leadership with a revanchist mindset determined to rebuild as much of Soviet power in its neighbourhood as is possible in its current reduced circumstances. It has re-established a presence in the Middle East through its extensive military campaign to prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria. In the process, however, it has inflicted enormous suffering on Syrian civilians by deploying tactics which the UN has labelled as war crimes, tactics which are now being repeated in Ukraine.[2]

It is also securing new footholds in Africa where the Soviet Union was once a very serious player in the Cold War era.[iii] However, while it is important to recognise Russian strength in specific areas – and to avoid rehashing the scornful dismissal of the Soviet Union as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’ which was fashionable in some American policy circles during the Cold War – the claim that Putin’s Russia has ‘become a great power once again’[iv] is unconvincing.

Any candid assessment of Russian power cannot but note just how little authority and appeal Moscow now has even within its own region, far less beyond, and its Ukrainian disaster is making that situation infinitely worse.


What makes a hegemonic power?

While military prowess, particularly the ability to project force well beyond its own borders, is a necessary condition for a state to be considered as a great or hegemonic power, it is not a sufficient condition. In addition to hard military power, a hegemon will also have substantial economic weight and considerable reserves of ‘soft power’ – the power of its ideas, an ideological and cultural appeal which exercises a gravitational pull on other states.[v]

In short, its values become shared or common values and a hegemon will be capable of mobilising states behind it and of building a constructive and consensual network of institutions, alliances and relationships with its partners. These arrangements will not be underpinned by crude threats, unilateralism and military coercion, all of which amount to a caricature of hegemony.

The hegemon will also be able to provide so-called ‘public goods’ for other states, namely, the provision of economic assistance and security at the regional, sub-regional or global level and a willingness to bear disproportionate burdens to help build and sustain alliances.