War and peace: How Russia’s domestic and foreign policies interact

Russian President Putin portrayed as a warmonger in Mainz, Germany carnival float
It may be too easy to portray Vladimir Putin as a warmonger, as this carnival float in Mainz, Germany does, without considering war rhetoric’s domestic aims (source: dpa)
  • Russia has historically alternated between harping on foreign and domestic enemies
  • In both cases, war rhetoric’s purpose is to stabilize the political system
  • Recent appointments suggest Mr. Putin is about to turn his political focus inward

Many believe that Russia is on the warpath – toward cyber war, hybrid war, a second Cold War, or even the Third World War. This may even be true in a way, but the real fighting will occur someplace unexpected: inside Russia. Events in Syria, the Baltic states, Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus – all this furious activity on land, sea, air and cyberspace – are merely sideshows, distractions from the main event. The exception is the war in Ukraine, because most Russians still perceive that country as part of their own backyard, unjustly fenced off from the main property.

Russian politics has long been dominated by the rhetoric of war and its attendant images of “enemies” and “heroes.” This language works well for politicians, lending legitimacy to those in power and their actions, mobilizing elites and masses alike, rallying the public behind the Kremlin and winning acceptance for painful budget cuts amid an economic crisis. Prioritizing guns is the one of best ways to justify a butter shortage.

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