Putin has long believed that Russia deserves great power status. But the US didn’t see it that way. Sure, Russia inherited the weapons, tanks, nuclear weapons and territory of a superpower. But post-Cold War Russia never received the same appreciation as the Soviet Union.
When states and their leaders feel they are not getting the recognition they deserve, they bicker, argue and shout about it. Because they care about what others think of them. When shouting doesn’t help, states go to war. Yes, states are still fighting for prestige in the 21st century. And depending on the audience, sometimes it works.
The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of eastern Ukraine are examples of this. These actions received mixed reactions. Groups like the G8 avoid Russia. US Secretary of State John Kerry said that if “Russia wants to be a G8 country, it must act like a G8 country.” Other leaders soon followed suit. Russia was kicked out of the club. The G8 became the G7 and Russia’s status within the club disappeared.
The United Nations Security Council also criticized Russia. But unlike the G8, members here have to use all the veto power to get things done. As one diplomat told me, “Even though we were bombarding Russia with Ukraine in the morning, the Security Council was still busy with other matters in the afternoon.” In short, Russia’s status within the UN Security Council remained the same.
Putin’s attempt to achieve great power status was more successful. After the 2014 annexation, President Obama initially dismissed Russia as a “regional power.” But he was later criticized for failing to recognize the rise of great power rivalry. Even Senator John McCain, who once mocked Russia as just a “gas station run by a corrupt, autocratic regime,” later acknowledged the era of “great power competition with Russia and China.”
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy reaffirmed the era of great power competition with Russia and China. And President Biden echoed his predecessor’s sentiment by calling Russia and the United States “two great powers.”
According to conventional wisdom in the West, Russia’s status in world politics has declined since the country invaded Ukraine last year. Russia’s poor military performance, the argument goes, negates Putin’s aspirations for greater respect and recognition as a great power.
However, early responses do not accurately predict future status. Russia faced ridicule and outrage when it annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine in 2014. But Russia’s status only took hold a few years after the annexation of Crimea. It is fair to say that Russia’s reputation has been tarnished by the all-out war with Ukraine. But it is premature to say that the country has lost all status.
Moreover, the status of a nation is complex because there is no single overarching ranking in a single global hierarchy. The 2014 conflict and the annexation of Crimea had mixed consequences for Russia’s position among the great powers, in the G8 and in the UN Security Council. Different clubs, each with their own status systems, react differently to the war.
Finally, military blunders do not guarantee a loss of status, even among the great powers. Certainly, poor military performance could damage Russia’s position as a great power. The Soviet Union’s failed war in Afghanistan and its 1989 withdrawal contributed to the country’s loss of its superpower status. But the United States maintained its status despite losing the Vietnam War. And although the Suez crisis damaged Britain’s reputation, the country is still considered a major power.
The search for prestige and status in global politics is complex. But one thing is clear: both Putin and Russia care about status, and the war in Ukraine is directly related to their concern for prestige. This begs the question: If states recognize Russia’s claim to status, can the ongoing bloodshed in Ukraine stop?
No. Giving status to appease is a bad and dangerous strategy. Rewarding belligerence will only encourage further conflict and signal to other rising powers – such as China, India, Brazil, Japan and Germany – that waging war is an effective means of building prestige.
Instead, the best long-term strategy is not to repeat the mistake of recognizing Russia’s pursuit of great power status after its 2014 annexation of Crimea. This means breaking with the established rhetoric that links war to status of great power.
This is a challenging task. The connection between great power status and war has developed over the centuries. Breaking it will take time, energy and perseverance from state leaders. Chances are we won’t be able to replace them before the war in Ukraine ends. But international society will be better off in the future if the great powers do not gain prestige by fighting.
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