The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 shattered numerous assumptions about the drivers of Russian foreign policy, posing a fundamental challenge to the Russia studies community. Against this backdrop, the article centers on the imperative to reflect how we think and examine Russian foreign policy amid considerable transformations in the country’s international as well as domestic realities. This contribution does so by reviewing and critically reassessing past accomplishments and shortcomings within the field of Russian foreign policy research, evaluating their pertinence in a post-2022 context. Focusing on the scholarly work done with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the study demonstrates that the literature suffers from the inertial tendency of offering old answers to new questions, suggesting potential avenues for further scholarly work on this topic.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 stunned many experts who had believed that Russia would not launch an all-out incursion into the neighboring state (Driedger and Polianskii 2023). When proven wrong, many found refuge in the idea that Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine was purely irrational and therefore cannot be subjected to reasonable comprehension, positing that no theory can ever properly explain Russian foreign policy (cf. Ganesh 2022). While acknowledging the challenges in studying Russian foreign policy (Kurnyshova and Makarychev 2022), this study contends that the field is still in the position to critically comprehend Russia’s international behavior. It argues, however, that established explanations in Russian foreign policy (RFP) research should reassess their fundamental assumptions, as many analysts continue to apply pre-war arguments to the post-2022 context, failing to acknowledge the country’s transformation after the war and its implications for analysis of its foreign policy.

The article is structured as follows. The first section examines geopolitical perspectives, emphasizing that Russia’s international actions are primarily driven by impulses from the international system. The second section explores regime-based explanations, highlighting how Russia’s domestic system influences its foreign policy decisions. Following this, constructivist perspectives are discussed, examining how Russia’s strategic code, imperial identity, and desire for great-power status shape its foreign policy. The final section focuses on the role of Vladimir Putin in Russia’s foreign policy decision-making and its execution. Each section discusses the main theoretical assumptions and their application to Russia’s invasions of Ukraine, and identifies analytical and methodological challenges faced by the literature in light of the 2022 attack, paving the way for future research. The study draws from various sources, including peer-reviewed publications, think-tank reports, official documents, commentaries, and interviews, totaling approximately 100 contributions, with an emphasis on English-language sources. Its aim is not to determine the best explanatory model but to demonstrate how established theories can help understand the roots of Russia’s foreign policy behavior, while also suggesting avenues for further research in light of emerging empirical evidence.

One of the most widely discussed explanations of the Kremlin’s international behavior argues that Russian foreign policy follows the necessary law-like regularities of great-power politics. Thinkers that ascribe to such reading of Russian foreign policy assert that the country behaves just as any major power would when confronted with similar external pressures and opportunities. As Charap and Colton (2018, 24) point out, “it should astonish no one that a country of Russia’s capabilities and ambitions will seek influence over its periphery: the US or China are no different in that respect.” Russia’s international behavior, the argument goes, is predominantly shaped by the concern of Russian leaders of protecting their country against foreign invaders that have been threatening Russia’s statehood since its foundation. The Kremlin aims to secure a “buffer zone” to other great powers, which at the current historical stage necessitates the creation of a safe distance between Russia's Eastern borders and NATO territory (Hansen 2016). As Götz (2016, 302) contends, Russia’s actions are “simply an attempt by a local great power to maintain a sphere of influence around its borders in the face of increasing external pressure.”

Applied to the Russian-Western competition over Ukraine, proponents of this view assert that the Kremlin’s concerns over Kyiv’s potential accession to NATO should be hardly surprising. As Mearsheimer (2014, 82) argues, “This is Geopolitics 101: great powers are always sensitive to potential threats near their home territory.” According to this logic, Putin’s seizure of Crimea as well as Russia’s involvement in the guerrilla war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 should be considered as defensive and reactive, being largely motivated by Russia’s “lingering fear” of NATO (Walt 2015). In other words, Russia is “a profoundly conservative power” whose actions are designed to maintain the status quo established at the end of the Cold War (Sakwa 2016, 117), whereas the United States is making drastic revisions to unilaterally revise it to maintain its global and regional dominance (Slobodchikoff 2017).

With this repertoire of assumptions about the drivers of Russian foreign policy, the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine does not necessarily come as a surprise. Douthat (2022), in his piece in the New York Times, even argued that Mearsheimer and colleagues essentially predicted Russia’s attack. Indeed, with Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2022, many proponents of this viewpoint felt themselves confirmed in their vision of Russia’s foreign policy. Doris and Graham (2022) argued that NATO expansion played an “important role in producing the invasion” and that halting it (or at least imposing a moratorium) might have “persuaded Putin to pursue his goals through less violent means.” Poast (2022) also praised Mearsheimer’s vision of Russia’s foreign policy behavior as a useful frame for understanding the war’s onset. Walt (2022), along the same lines, argued that the United States failed to appreciate the importance of Ukraine’s geopolitical alignment as a vital interest for the Kremlin.

Even though geopolitics-centered explanations at first sight seem well-suited to explain the imperatives and calculations behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the war’s outbreak, proponents of this view found themselves caught in a political and academic crossfire (Smith and Dawson 2023). First, many believed that such a matter-of-fact reading of Russian foreign policy justifies Moscow’s aggressive behavior and even suggests its appeasement (Klein 2022; Chotiner 2022). According to this logic, the West should have abstained from making any political or military commitments to Kyiv and would be well-advised to consider backing away from its attempts to tie Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic structures (Tooze 2022).

Apart from its ignorance of the moral dimension of the conflict, proponents of this vision of Russian foreign policy remain certain about Russia’s defensive motivations, despite mounting counterevidence produced during the war. Mearsheimer, for one, argued that Putin’s invasion has been provoked by Ukraine’s drift toward NATO out of Russia’s zone of influence. And once the war started, he still insisted that Putin was “not interested in conquering and integrating Ukraine into Russia” assuming that Russia would likely create a buffer zone on the occupied territory (quoted in Chotiner 2022). Such reading of Russia’s motivations, however, bodes ill with observable reality. First, as of late 2021 to early 2022, Ukraine was not only ages away from accessing NATO, but some European leaders were even unofficially considering putting a moratorium on it in order to ease the tensions with Russia (Oltermann and Borger 2022). In other words, Russia’s attack was hardly provoked by NATO actions. Moreover, after the war’s outbreak in autumn 2022, Putin announced the annexation of the Donbas republics alongside two further occupied Ukrainian oblasts in Southern Ukraine that contradicts the assumption of Russia trying to create a “buffer zone” on the territory of occupied Ukrainian territories.

Further, if Putin is a master strategist who allegedly puts “signals” emanating from the international system front and center of his decision-making, why, in explaining Russia’s behavior, does he pay so much attention to concepts such as Russkii mir and historic unity with the Ukrainian people (Putin 2021)? These grand ideological notions go well beyond the classic geopolitical calculations concerned with NATO expansion and safeguarding Russia’s zone of influence. Moreover, despite numerous warnings by Putin’s own elites and Western countries prior to the war’s outbreak about most serious international repercussions and dubious benefits (Seddon and Ivanova 2022), he still moved on with the invasion ignoring seemingly inescapable facts. The fact that Putin believed he would be better off with the war option bodes ill with the existing rationality-based explanations that geopolitical studies heavily rely on.

The last major problem lies with explaining the timing of the invasion in 2022. While exploring the factors that explain historic regularities and persisting patterns of Russian great-power foreign policy, proponents of this RFP view are struggling to account for context-specific circumstances that led to concrete conflicts such as the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In other words, why did Russia attack Ukraine in 2022 and not two or three years earlier, even though the underlying “historic” conditions determining Moscow’s foreign policy remained intact?

Summarily, despite seemingly straightforward argumentation of geopolitical-leaning explanations, proponents of this RFP view struggle to account for several major factors that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their attention to great-power politics and systemic level does not only produce questionable policy suggestions, but also leaves some key questions unanswered. These mostly pertain to Putin and his lieutenants’ ability to clearly read the “signals” coming from the international system in the run-up to the invasion and his (their) inherent immunity to the utopias and illusions, such as Russkii mir, that are allegedly just a veil to advancing Russia’s hard-core national interests.

Another preeminent group of experts asserts that one should take account of Russia’s regime characteristics at large in order to understand the driving forces behind the country’s foreign policy. Specifically, this set of explanations emphasizes Russia’s authoritarian turn as the main source of Moscow’s aggressive international behavior (cf. Aron 2015; Efimova and Strebkov 2020).

A range of prominent Russia watchers argue that the country’s foreign policy became more assertive as its leaders “squeezed out democracy [at home]” (Tilly 2007, 137). They associate Russia’s progressing autocratization with the rise of the siloviki—that is, current or ex-members of secret services and the armed forces within the Russian political ranks—that Putin was closely affiliated with throughout his career (Lynch 2016; Kryshtanovskaya 2008). As siloviki, who were predominantly socialized into Russian governing structures during the Cold War times, managed to marginalize business-oriented “liberals” from the governing structures, Russia’s relations with Western countries soured (Yakovlev 2021). Given that the security forces affiliates were convinced that the West instigated color revolutions in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, Russia’s interventions in these countries became more frequent (Van Herpen 2015). In short, the fundamental change in the structure of Russian elites that transformed the country into an autocracy, according to this set of explanations, correlates heavily with Russia’s increased assertiveness in recent years.

Another mechanism in this subset of explanations focuses on Putin’s fear of losing power that is argued to come from the Kremlin’s wariness of the possible “democratic contagion” from neighboring countries that are similar to Russia (Ambrosio 2016). This idea rests upon the assumption that “democratic impulses spread across countries” (cf. Weyland 2010, 1151). Based on this idea, the Kremlin’s foreign policy is driven by the explicit objective to fend off democratization, which could otherwise spill over into Russia and endanger the regime’s stability (Silitski 2010). The Ukrainian crisis of 2014 is mentioned by Gorenburg (2014) as one of the most vivid examples of this theorem, as Russia’s geostrategic calculations were primarily determined by the objective to undermine the legitimacy of Ukraine’s popular revolution (i.e., by labeling it as “junta”), thereby trying to prevent the Russian population from developing similar sentiments to that of Maidan. As Mead (2016, 52) writes in this regard, “the loss of Ukraine to the West would have been intolerable to Putin, and the danger that a Westernizing Ukraine could infect Russians with belief that their future, too, could be brighter in a Westernizing Russia was a grave threat to his power at home.” To prevent the democratic contagion, Moscow consistently backed up autocratic regimes in its neighborhood (cf. Tolstrup 2015). In other words, Russian foreign policy scholars of the power retainment tradition discern a clear “worry about a ‘Maidan’ scenario” in the Russian establishment, which is reflected in its military and foreign policy doctrines aimed at shielding the Russian public from alternative views and opinions (Lagon and Moreland 2014; Owen and Inboden 2015).

The last subset of explanations that focuses on the elite’s obsession with power asserts that Russian governing elites seek external conflict to compensate for the domestic failures (Mendras 2015; Krastev and Holmes 2014; Shevtsova 2015). Against the growing economic and political contradictions inside Russia, the argument goes, Putin and his elites increasingly turned to diversionary conflicts (Gerstel 2016; Romanova 2018). As Ariel Cohen (2007, 1) eloquently put it, foreign policy eventually became a replacement of domestic politics for Putin and a key instrument for “buttressing domestic support.” With the progressing dismantlement of all residual checks and balances in the Russian political system, Putin developed a particular taste for diversion because it additionally turned out to be a cost-effective tool to delegitimize the opposition in the eyes of nationalistic supporters (Blank 2008). With this, the “diversionary war” mechanism proposes that the greater economic weakness and other domestic problems in Russia, the more likely Putin would resort to foreign aggression to compensate and distract the population from inner ills (Forsberg and Herd 2015).

The pronounced deficit of legitimacy within the Putin system was found to be the primary catalyst behind the escalating tensions with Ukraine (Klotz 2017). Against the background of mounting problems in Russia in the early 2010s, Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, according to Mandelbaum (2019, 31), offered a way for Putin to both “distract the Russian public from the economic difficulties at home and rebuild his personal public support.” When Russia again invaded Ukraine eight years later, several pundits asserted that the seeming irrationality of Putin’s decision to launch the attack can be explained by the processes within Putin’s regime. They asserted that Putin’s progressing authoritarian turn played a grave role in producing the invasion (Colton 2022). Kolesnikov (2022) contends that during the COVID-19 pandemic the isolation of the autocrat became particularly chronic, as Putin lived in the info-bubble and “the distance between him and the public became enormous.” Around 2022, Putin finally arrived at a moment where he would “hear only what he wants to hear and says only what corresponds to his specific picture of the world, which he then imposes on the population.” Bäcker and Rak (2022) argued along similar lines that the quality of the decision-making elite in the Russian autocratic regime deteriorated to the extent that no one really could challenge Putin’s fixation on conquering Ukraine.

When on February 24, Putin gave the order to launch the invasion of Ukraine, several researchers contended that Putin’s aggression was aimed not only at saving his own personalist regime (Morin 2022; Gomza 2022), but was also viewed as a means to root out democracy in Ukraine. As Person and McFaul (2022) argue, Kyiv’s increasing pro-Western (and pro-NATO) orientation was associated in the Kremlin’s eyes with the rise of Ukrainian pro-democratic forces that came to power after the Maidan Revolution of 2014. With this, democracy in Ukraine was seen as a clear threat for Putin’s regime and thus a legitimate military goal. Following on the “democratic contagion” theorem, Delanty (2023, 7) also asserted that “the Kremlin would not settle with a democratic Ukraine since it would undermine the power structure in Russia.” Anne Applebaum (quoted in Ketlerienė 2022) agreed, assuming that the “fear of the success of democratic Ukraine was one of the key rationales” for Putin to begin the conflict. Lastly, in his detailed account of how Putin’s turned to force in Ukraine, Treisman (2022) asserts that the wholesale invasion of Ukraine should be understood in light of perceived threats of the wave of domestic protests in Russia after Putin lost confidence in his ability to control society using sophisticated manipulating methods and turned to warfare as the ultimate means to justify domestic repression.

Upon a closer look, the “authoritarian” view as the root cause of Russia’s foreign policy, albeit its initial appeal, also faces several analytical challenges. First, by arguing that siloviki completely usurped power in Putin’s Russia by 2022, this account conveniently ignores ongoing elite competition in the country both before and after the war’s outbreak (Barkanov 2014). For lack of space, I cannot go into much detail of intricacies of inner-Kremlin squabbles, but just consider the mutiny of Evgenii Prigozhin, Putin’s once-loyal lieutenant and oligarch, who openly challenged Russia’s military and political top brass and, in the summer of 2023, headed a military revolt amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Second, as far as the “diversionary war” and related “democratic contagion” theories’ application to Russia’s foreign policy are concerned, one cannot avoid stumbling upon several inconsistencies of these explanations with observable reality. First, it seems puzzling why Putin would believe that he could use the full-scale invasion of Ukraine (which, even in the optimistic scenario, would cost dearly in blood and treasure) as a way of averting domestic attention from everyday problems. Moreover, why do Russia’s military losses not seem to affect the domestic political trajectory of Russia that much, if the foreign policy allegedly has such a strong bearing on the inner politics in Russia? Lastly, as far as the employment of foreign policy to stay in power theorem is concerned, it remains equally questionable why Putin would need a wholesale war in 2022 to remain president if he ensured himself “presidency for life” in constitutional amendments two years prior to that. In other words, the timing of the attack through this lens seems somewhat puzzling.

Summarily, even though the regime-based accounts of Russia’s foreign policy offer differentiated and nuanced explanations arguing that autocratic tendencies within Russia defined foreign policy decisions of Putin’s regime in various ways, a lot of open questions with regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still exist. The problem with the aggressiveness of the “authoritarian Russia” explanation is that it brackets out inner-elite competition within Russia, assuming that Putin has full control over the entire political system. Why would Putin then need a televised meeting of the Security Council in 2022 where he publicly made every one of his lieutenants endorse his decision if he is Russia’s sole proprietor? The ability of this theoretical lens in Russia’s foreign policy research to deliver consistent answers to this and other related questions mentioned above to a large extent will define the dynamics of the regime-based explanations in RFP in the foreseeable future.

The third group of prominent explanations focuses on the salience of cultural- and identity-related factors in the formation of Russian foreign policy. Moving away from structure vs. agency debates in Russian politics, it attempts to meaningfully include both, arguing that the Kremlin’s reaction to geopolitical incentives and elites’ behavior is conditioned by the country’s identity, prevailing narratives, and strategic culture (cf. Kanet and Moulioukova 2022).

Even though there is no consensus in the scholarly community about the exact ingredients of Russia’s strategic identity, most researchers in this strand of literature note that the country is internationally guided by the feeling of “[being] a great power, preferring bilateralism, emphasizing traditional elements of national might and desiring equal status with the most powerful members” (Lo 2015, 194). As far as the first component is concerned, researchers argue that for the Russian leadership, being a great power is synonymous with the very foundations of Russia’s existence (Schmitt 2020). Recovery of great-powerness, which has been forfeited with the collapse of the Soviet Union, is therefore a central motivation for many Russian leaders (Clunan 2014; Tsygankov 2014). As Larson and Shevchenko (2019, 244) assert, Putin’s foreign policy is largely driven by his determination “to ultimately restore Russia to great power status with [its own] sphere of influence.”

The West, being the most “significant other” for Moscow and thus the main enabler of these status claims, denied what Russia believed to be a deserved place in the European and global order in the late 2000s, which led to the Kremlin’s irritation and ensuing tensions between the two (Leichtova 2016; Polianskii 2021). White and Feklyunina (2014) point out that the conflict over status recognition particularly worsened as Russia increasingly started viewing itself as normatively and morally superior vis-à-vis the “decadent” West in the early 2010s. In this reading, Moscow’s increased opposition toward the West since the mid-2000s comes from Moscow’s self-perception as a great power and the urge to make others recognize it as such (Polianskii 2022). This mechanism suggests that when Russia’s status concerns have been met, its foreign policy becomes more cooperative, whereas when they are ignored, the Kremlin becomes increasingly aggressive.

Another group of researchers in this strand of literature note that modern Russian decision-makers have been heavily influenced by the “imperial” urge to exercise greater control over its former “protectorates” (Schoen 2017). The tendency to suggest that Russia is predisposed to seek territorial expansion is argued to come from Russia’s cultural trauma and its “entrapment in history” (Smith and Mayer 2019). Toal (2017, 41), in his seminal study of Russia’s near-abroad policies, points out that Russia’s “inertia of imperialist and nationalist impulses” comes from the national narration of history where Russia’s control over Eurasia is presented as self-evident. With regard to Ukraine in particular, Moscow insisted that this territory was “historically Russian,” which made its opposition toward Euro-Atlantic expansion in the area particularly pronounced (Larson and Shevchenko 2019). Kyivan Rus' is widely regarded as the birthplace of modern Russian statehood, which makes Ukraine, in Barkanov’s (2014) words, “the very heart of the origin myth of the Russian nation and civilization.” Ukrainians themselves, in this view, were consistently portrayed as backward, indolent, and selfish—and thus in need of imperial guidance (Oksamytna 2023). Ukraine, as a country, was not considered as a “real state” and its population “temporarily suffer[ed] from false consciousness” (Sonevytsky 2022, 28). Against this background, as Plokhy (2023) argues, Putin believed that the invasion would be welcomed by a local population living under the constant threat from Ukrainian nationalists.

When Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, the range of authors argued that Russia, as in 2014, was driven by the desire to re-create the Russian Empire (Kuzio 2023; Young 2022). Conviction in the necessity of resurrecting the old empire was fueled by the Kremlin’s “idiosyncratic reading” of Russian history according to which Ukraine (novorossiia) along with Belarus (malorossiia) belong to the imperial core and, together with Russians, constitute one people that are destined to rule the sprawling Eurasian empire (Torbakov 2023). Such an understanding of Russia’s “cultural exceptionalism” and “messianic identity,” as Zafar (2023, 21) contends, played a central role in producing Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2022. Moreover, Russia’s self-portrayal as the innocent victim of outside powers tasked with liberating the other similarly oppressed countries from the global evil, also played an important part (Kassymbekova and Marat 2022). The attack on Ukraine, which was allegedly fully controlled by Western “curators,” has been represented in Russia as a way of liberating the oppressed Ukrainian people from their Western “masters.”

Placing Russia’s history, imperial identity, and ideas underpinning it front and center of the analysis, however, comes with certain methodological and conceptual challenges. First, it remains puzzling why ideas of Russian imperial superiority manifested themselves in such a brutal fashion precisely in 2022 and not earlier. In other words, the timing of the attack, similar to all other dominant explanations in the RFP research discussed above, stays underexplored. Second, this approach bodes ill with the pace of changes in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. Assuming that the differences in identity and discourses do matter, and they are indeed centuries-long persistent constructs, how can one explain several shifts in Russia’s behavior in late 2021 to early 2022 (from military drills, to negotiations, to the invasion), if Russia’s strategic code has remained practically unchanged for hundreds of years?

Furthermore, if Russia’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine was and still is driven by its ever-pervasive imperial mindset, why is the Kremlin so selective in pursuing its imperial ambitions? Why did Russia, for instance, not annex parts of Kazakhstan, also an integrative part of the Russian Empire, in early 2022 when Russian troops were invited to clamp down on the protests and promptly left the country after fulfilling their task? Lastly, with the absent theoretical model that would establish a clear causal connection to how identity defines Russian foreign policy, one additionally faces an endogeneity issue. How does one prove that shifts in Russia’s identity brought about significant change in its international behavior, and possibly the invasion of Ukraine, and not the other way around? Could Russia’s loss in the war in Ukraine, for instance, bring about any substantial changes to Russia’s imperial identity?

Status reading of Russian foreign policy equally leaves several essential questions unaddressed. For instance, Russia’s choice of instruments to back up its status claims remains quite baffling. Why did the Kremlin resort to brute military force in Ukraine in 2022 but not in 2005, when the first pro-Western Ukrainian president came to power with the aim of getting Ukraine to join NATO? If one assumes that this can be explained by the rise and fall of status claims coming from Moscow, how does one explain such sudden fluctuations if they are also believed to be something that Russia always felt entitled to? Furthermore, Moscow’s overall approach in achieving its status ambitions also remains unanswered. Why did Russia first pursue cooperation with the West to get its recognition and then shift to direct confrontation with it?

Summarily, cultural and identity-centered explanations, despite uniting under their umbrella a wide variety of causal mechanisms, are also united by common challenges. By underlining persistent ideational patterns that determine Russia’s international behavior, more often than not they fall short in explaining a more dynamic and nuanced picture of the country’s foreign policy, especially against the background of Russia’s invasion in 2022. Moving forward, those who uphold this set of explanations would be well-advised to adopt a more flexible approach to account for Russia’s oftentimes rapid changes in the foreign policy course and to not extrapolate single, albeit salient, patterns on the entire universe of cases.

The fourth major set of explanations that can be discerned in the RFP research connects Russia’s foreign policy to the personality of Vladimir Putin and his idiosyncrasies (Roxburgh 2012; Hill and Gaddy 2015). Resting on the theoretical assumptions of the so-called “first image” approach in international studies (Waltz 2018), this subfield scholarship traces Russia’s international behavior back to Putin’s mental characteristics and ailments (Nechepurenko 2015).

Albeit with some variation, explanations in this tradition try to decipher Putin’s psychological code, analyzing in detail his personal attributes and beliefs (Belton 2020; McFaul 2020). In so doing, numerous studies often underline Putin’s formative experiences in security services during the Cold War as a KGB agent. In the view of Bowen and Galeotti (2014), Putin’s personal story contributed to his view of being a defender of Russian civilization against the Western “chaotic darkness” preventing “encirclement and cultural colonization by Western values at home.” Meister (2019) notes in particular that, due to his personal story, Putin looks at the world in a clear zero-sum game with no red lines, unless the price for action is seen as too high in his cost–benefit calculation. According to this group of researchers, Putin is considered to be a decision-maker who operates under the belief of “everything is permissible” and no country is an enemy or ally, firmly believing in reciprocity in foreign relations (Dyson and Parent 2018).

Equipped with this theoretical lens, some researchers argue that the visible shift in the trajectory of Russia’s foreign policy in the early 2010s comes precisely with Putin’s return to the presidential office in 2012. His “great power pragmatism” (Tsygankov 2010, 129) comes as a replacement of Medvedev’s modernization and the “re-starting” of relations with the West. Accordingly, Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine that came two years later can be explained by Putin’s zero-sum attitude, which has led him to perceive the EU’s Association Agreement offer to Kyiv as a potential threat and loss to Russia’s economic and political position in the region (Hill 2014). This accounted for Putin’s increased readiness to take risks, most notably by annexing Crimea and supporting the insurgence in Donbas. Several other researchers argued that Putin’s reaction to the events of 2014 can be traced down to his “spy” personality that informed his interpretation of the political developments in Ukraine as the conspiracy of Western powers (Shinar 2018). Forsberg and Pursiainen (2017), analyzing the case of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, additionally underlined the key factor of Putin being a “satisfier” type of decision-maker, who stopped considering alternatives in reacting to the Maidan Revolution when he believed that he found a satisfactory solution. With this hindsight, one can explain why Russia under Putin has become increasingly risk-tolerant in comparison to Medvedev times.

With regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, numerous researchers similarly argued that Putin’s views and beliefs played a key role in its run-up (Cohen 2022; Short 2022). Anton Troianovski (2022) even argued that the decision to invade Ukraine was likely based on Putin’s plain “gut feeling.” Kucher (2022) similarly contended that Putin’s heightened perception of sacred duty was to connect Russian-speaking peoples across states, which he explicitly formulated in his article of 2021 on the “Sacred Unity of Russian and Ukrainian People.” In a complex and mutually reinforcing interplay with the imperialist ethos, Putin’s “mafia moral” that he obtained in the 1990s working in St. Petersburg contributed to the criminal decision to attack Ukraine (Van Herpen 2022). Waller (2023) similarly argues that as of early 2022 Putin was “uniquely isolated, uniquely obsessed, and uniquely empowered to make a personal decision” that significantly contributed to the war’s outbreak.

With that said, the tendency to ascribe Russia’s assertiveness to Putin’s worldviews is telling us only part of the story. One of its major drawbacks concerns the tendency of this approach to focus solely on Russia’s leader, downplaying the agency of Russia’s elites in foreign policy decision-making. Concentrating squarely on Putin’s personality in the context of Russia’s invasion in 2022 can turn out to be misleading, as without the militarist consensus of Russian elites, the attack on Ukraine would be hard to imagine (Baev 2022; Stratievski 2022). Second, by treating the Russian state as an individual where the president embodies the entire country, researchers oftentimes ignore the complexity of the Russian contemporary state, ascribing Putin all-encompassing power that he likely does not possess (cf. Wood 2020; Galeotti 2019). Third, and perhaps most importantly, much of first-image inspired accounts is largely based on second-guessing what is going on in Putin’s head based on retelling his personal story or using what they call “reliable contact close to the Kremlin” with no reliable way to prove it. As Monaghan (2016) contends, most of such accounts are based on “hearsay, gossip and unchecked rumor which with time tend to take on lives of their own.”

Even though there’s currently no reliable way of knowing what exactly shapes Putin’s thinking at the current stage, analyzing the president’s role is still key to understanding the overall dynamic of Russia’s international behavior. Yet, if Putin was indeed single-handedly responsible for starting the war in 2022, it is very unlikely that we will know it before he steps down. Moving forward, this set of explanations should develop a transparent methodological approach with discernible causal mechanisms linking Putin’s personality to specific foreign policy decisions. Constantly referring to unverified “sources close to the Kremlin” or simply asserting that Putin turned “crazy” does not do justice to this approach.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 once again reinvigorated debates regarding the driving forces of Russian foreign politics across all established theoretical approaches. The primary aim of the study was to demonstrate how major explanatory models coped with the analytical shock of Russia’s attack of Ukraine in 2022 and the blind spots that were revealed by the invasion. The overview shows that most of the established explanations suggest the very same answers to the new questions, largely ignoring Russia’s transformation following the war’s outbreak as well as the implications it has for methods and tools of the analysis. In the concluding remarks, the study lists three main suggestions as to what RFP researchers across all established theoretical approaches should keep in mind in their post-2022 analysis of Russian foreign policy against the background of the country’s changing international as well as domestic realities.

First, analysts should acknowledge the fact that studying Russian foreign policy is now methodologically more challenging than before the invasion, as the country is increasingly self-isolating from the outside world. Since the war forced to flee Russia hundreds of scholars and journalists opening the country to the world, the access to the field that enabled our understanding of the country’s foreign policy is also likely to significantly narrow. Against this background, those approaches that rely on personal contact with decision-makers and ethnographic field research in the country, should carefully review the data, sources, and methods that they now employ in studying Russian foreign policy. In so doing, the field is well-advised to explore methods and sets of data that formerly were disregarded due to the relatively easy access to the field.

Second, most of the discerned causal mechanisms trace Russia’s foreign policy back to its alleged centuries-long traditions and patterns, be it its imperial “entrapment” or preference for autocratic governance. In talking about Russia’s invasion in such a matter-of-fact way, these explanations make Russia’s invasion in 2022 look inevitable, suggesting that their theory has all along predicted the invasion and post factum can explain the causes behind Putin’s decision to go to war. Albeit explaining some strategic enduring patterns in Russia’s foreign policy, however, more often than not they struggle to account for Moscow’s frequently changing choice of tactics, various instruments, targets, and ways of pursuing its foreign policy goals. In other words, while covering certain dimensions of Russian politics, authors often conveniently ignore those instances where the suggested mechanisms either predict a different outcome or dismiss certain parts of observable reality as secondary. Adopting a more flexible and fine-grained approach, possibly borrowing insights from other approaches in causally coherent ways, would benefit all the explanations to account for what so far constitutes “inconvenient truths” for them.

Last but not least, given the enduring “fog” of the war, the scholarly community would be ill- advised to dismiss some explanations in favor of others. We still do not know what exactly produced Russia’s invasion, as the hard evidence regarding decision-making processes and considerations inside the Kremlin is difficult to come by. The underlying drivers and causes of the war most likely will be discussed for years, if not decades, to come. Against this background, all the explanations should be revised and updated with equal attention as the new facts and empirical observations of the war in Ukraine come to light. Employing such a nuanced and eclectic approach has the potential of not only enriching the academic debate, but also being beneficial for the public discussion on the topic.

The author would like to thank Matthias Dembinski, Hans-Joachim Spanger, and Dirk Peters for their invaluable support and individual comments on various drafts of the article.

Published online: March 22, 2024

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