How can we understand the connection between identity and foreign policy? The Russian case

Written by Karina Nuratayeva

This essay will analyse the extent to which there is a connection between identity and foreign policy, investigating the evidence of its inseparability and answering the question by looking at factors, which have affected Vladimir Putin’s decision-making process.

One key focus on the studies of foreign policy is how decisions are made and what influences them. Therefore, in order to answer this question, it is crucially important to define what identity and foreign policy are and determine the evidence of its inseparability in the example of Russia.

According to Tsygankov (2014), the investigation of foreign policy must begin from understanding the context in which a policymaker acts and seeks to accomplish his or her goals. Hence, the beliefs and emotions of human beings often stay behind, and manifest into rational decisions made by politicians (Ibid, 2014). Evaluating this could mean that states’ leaders and policymakers make their decisions in a certain way because of their personal experience, background, and emotions (Abdelal et al, 2006). Therefore, foreign policy action could be defined as a social phenomenon, and cannot be fully examined without understanding the context in which it is formed (Ibid, 2014).

Karina Nuratayeva is pursuing a degree in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include identity, the former Soviet Union, Central Asia in global politics, international organisations, and international trade.

However, it is not the only factor that affects foreign policy. Politicians still choose a particular identity of the nation to explain and build up their foreign policy (Katzenstein, 1996). In the example of Russia, the exclusion of some identities could help to increase the power of its politicians, as in the case of Vladimir Putin. The concept of national essentialism is used by Vladimir Putin in order to increase the cultural and mental gap between Russians, and other pro-Western states, particularly with the United States. This essay will evaluate the idea of a direct linkage between identity and foreign policy, arguing that they could not be viewed without one another. It also will provide the explanation of different terms, which are used by politicians in order to construct Russian foreign policy.

Identity is one of the key factors in the process of building foreign policy

Foreign policy should be understood as a set of practices that constitute international politics. The way those practices are conducted and what influences them, can be understood by analysing identity (Kratochwill, 1989).

Scholars of international relations often define identity as the continuous reinterpretation of the pattern of values, memories, and traditions that compose the heritage of nations, and the identification of individuals with that particular pattern of heritage (Smith 2001). Arguably, Vladimir Putin acts and decides not only according to his deliberate actions but because of his own personal experience, that he have gained during the time of the Cold War.

“We must act in a way that is true to what we are” (Jervis, 2017, p.170). The logic of this quote can be explained by the connection between policymakers or state leaders and their identical background, which in its turn provides evidence that Vladimir Putin is making his decisions upon the fact that he is Russian. Additionally, Putin grew up in the proletariat society, thus pro-Russian identity was gained, as the result of anti-Western feelings among the society.

He also calls himself as Russia’s top nationalist and describes patriotism as Russia’s national idea (The Guardian, 2017). One of the possible factors, which could affect his background and, therefore, the future of foreign policy in Russia was shaped by the Cold War. According to Jervis (2010), Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Russian population still live in competitive nature of the Cold War and its core idea of competition with the United States. Legvold (2016) believes that the Cold War can be described as a historical event, which occurred because of several fundamental disagreements between two competing super-powers. Specifically, the conflict was based on the opposing cores of two nations, in terms of values and behaviour. This competing model should not have been finished until the failure of one or changed in another side (Ibid, 2016). The idea of constant competition with the United States spread among all minds of the USSR. Therefore, it could be stated now, that Putin’s relations with the West could be explained by his mentality of a Russian citizen, who lived in the time of the Cold War.  Moreover, the evidence of this argument will be exemplified in the section.

The effect of the Cold War on Putin’s identity

In current post-Cold war era, Russia continues this model of fundamentally opposite states. Evidence of this point can be seen in Putin’s view on the colour revolutions that happened in the former Soviet Union at the beginning of 2000’s.

While many people in Russia, including some members of the government, viewed these revolutions as a part of the United States’ plan to encircle Russia with pro-Western countries (Mitchell, 2012), Putin viewed Post-Soviet states, particularly Georgia, and Ukraine, as a part of Russia’s backyard, and interpreted the colour revolutions as a direct threat to Russia (Ibid, 2012).

In July 2014, Putin addressed this issue during the Security Council meeting, naming the purpose of these revolutions as a way to “weaken Russia in one way or another […] to strike at our weaker spots” (Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, 2014).

This could signify that Putin still views post-Soviet states as a part of n identity. Therefore, this suggests that he still maintains the Cold War perspective, where post-Soviet states together with Russia, were in constant competition with the United States. Therefore, influential factors such as personal emotions and background of policymakers do affect foreign policy of nations (Abdelal, et al, 2006). Bloom (1990) believed that national identity can be viewed as a resource of foreign policy, and thus, foreign policy can be seen as a tool for nation-building, which leads to the idea of the inseparability of these terms.

The changing nature of identity and its effect on foreign policy

On the other hand, it is important to establish the fact that identity has a capacity to change over time and it is not a stable concept. According to Tsygankov (2014), identity should be viewed as a variable and non-stopping product of an interaction between ideas and practices, and not as something constant. Therefore, if identity and foreign policy are connected to each other, it could be stated that foreign policy is a non-stopping process as well as identity (Cronin, 1990).

One of the examples could be a series of vacillations in Russian foreign policy since 1991. At the beginning, Russia’s foreign policy under president Yeltsin and foreign minister Kyzyrev was aimed to an extremely close relationship with the United States. This was due to chaotic environment in Russia, which required establishment of new system, such as democracy. The Kremlin wanted to break the decades’ conformation, yet, it did not work.

What is more, Russia and the United States got involved at odds over the war in Bosnia (Ambrosio, 2005). As the result, in 1992 and 1993 Russia’s foreign policy started to look differently at the early promises of a close relationship between two states. Nevertheless, after 9/11, Russia shifted its foreign policy toward a close partnership with the United States again. However, these relations did not last long either  (Ibid, 2005), as the result of Putin’s foreign policy shift.

Evaluating this could mean that the revaluation of identity can cause a change in foreign policy of nations (Cronin, 1999). The changing relationship between two superpowers suggests that. This can be also explained by the rising power of Russia. Therefore, state leaders propose and shape the meanings of their nations (Bloom, 1990).

Referring to this could mean  that the dynamic of Russian national identity, as well as further changes in foreign policy can be explained by the change in its identical aspects  and moreover by Russian position in the international system (Kolsto and Blakkisrud, 2010). In the other words, the more Russia performs as a powerful actor within the international agenda, the more Putin focuses on Russian values underlining Russian’s nationalism (Ibid, 2016).

For example, in 2015 The Guardian published Putin’s popularity ratings among the Russian population. His rating had reached record levels while 9 out of 10 Russians had a positive view of his style of governance (The Guardian, 2015). This positive change (from a previous 60%) happened due to the events in Ukraine when 87% of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea. This shows that the Crimea events helped Vladimir Putin to rise his own ratings and therefore portray a more powerful image to the public.  Hence, it led to the raise of nationalism among Russian people.

The difference between the politics of identity and identity itself  (as the identity might be used as a tool/justification of actions by politicians)

In order to provide a better answer to this question, it is important to understand the difference between the politics of identity and identity itself. If identity and foreign policy can be studied in terms that are directly connected to each other, then politics of identity can be described as something different and separable from these terms.

A key point which can be drawn from this statement is that politicians often pick and choose particular sides of the national identities of their countries to articulate their foreign policies (Katzenstein,1996). Policy is a set of ideas or plan of actions which should be adhered in particular situations (Brink and Metze, 2006), where the national interest dictates what needs to be done for the benefit of a country (Ibid, 2006).

Therefore, despite identical aspects, which formulate foreign policy of state leaders, they still can adhere to chosen identity, which therefore helps them to pursue more power (Kopstein, et al, 2000).

The reason for such behavior is that politics itself contain contestation and interpretation (Ibid, 2000). There is no matter of values and norms, which cannot be uncontested because of national interest of states, it is rather the national interest itself, which is being a reason of political contestation (Katzenstein, 1996). While on the contrary, all countries often use national identity to build their foreign policy (Prizel, 2003). Hence, while some only view the national interest of countries, as having more to do with foreign policy rather than identity (Ibid, 2003). Others more convincingly argue that such attitude can be also explained by the concept of narrative highlights, where individuals and groups organize their historical background into a coherent story, and that story creates a collective understanding of how to see the past, understand the present and act in the future (Barnett, 1999).

Therefore, nations construct narratives about themselves and such narratives dictate where they have been back in the history and where they should go (Ibid,1999). In its turn, political leaders are not only constituted by these narratives but also aim to shape that narratives. Politicians are often attempting to guide that narratives in order to achieve a particular outcome which can help them to give a meaning to their actions (Ibid, 1999 ).

National essentialism as an instrument for politicians

From the perspective of psychological essentialism, there is a belief that people may understand their identity in terms of its fundamental nature and that such nature may be constructed from national heritage such as their national identity (Benet-Martinez and Hong, 2014).

From the second part of studies, national identity may also be constructed in terms of symbolism, such as national symbols or icons of nations. Looking at two studies, symbolic essentialism creates strong patriotism, while national essentialism affects people more (Ibid, 2014). It creates stronger nationalism and increases negative behavior towards migrants or those, who do not share their culture (Ibid, 2014). Therefore, it could be stated that experienced politicians such as Putin can possibly use national essentialism towards the Russian population in his own interests.

Russians always have had conservative values, which they were also supported by their current president who defended the anti-gay laws in Russia (The Guardian, 2013). He later explained his negative view on the propaganda of non-traditional relations by stating that Russia perceives itself as a defender of conservative values and therefore will represent its view on the international agenda (Ibid, 2013). This is further supported by Vladimir Putin’s strong advocacy for political sovereignty and hence, his support for autonomic political ideology. This is demonstrated in his disapproval of ideologically driven interventions in the Middle East and North Africa (Ibid, 2013). In doing so he creates a divide or a fine line between acceptable Western values and known Russian values. A key idea which can be drawn from this explanation is that policymakers often use national essentialism to construct the identity of their countries in a needed way (Hall and Gay, 1996).

To conclude, this essay discussed the connection between identity and foreign policy. It looked and the extent of this connection and proved the inseparability of these terms. It is crucial to study foreign policy from understanding the context in which policymaker acts and seek to achieve his/her goals because such context plays an important role in decision-making process. In their turn, the beliefs and emotions of policymakers can explain the direction of foreign policy.

Therefore, politicians make their decisions in that particular way because of their personal experience and background. Nevertheless, it is not the only factor which can impact foreign policy. Despite the personal identical factor, politicians still pick and choose the particular identity of their nations, in order to articulate foreign policy. National interest also plays an important role in the process of construction of the foreign policy, because it is the national interest which makes politicians adhere to chosen identity, which therefore helps them to raise their power. Different examples of Russia, particularly Vladimir Putin’s behavioral line, helped to analyze this question and showed that there is an inseparable linkage between identity and foreign policy. It also helped to show other aspects which can also affect foreign policy of nations. National essentialism, a personal interest of state’s leaders and national interest also do affect the construction of foreign policy.

Karina Nuratayeva is pursuing a degree in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research interests include identity, the former Soviet Union, Central Asia in global politics, international organisations, and international trade.


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