Research Review: Is Russia a Black Knight?

New research on autocracy promotion confirms an old finding: Moscow is more concerned with what it gets, than how it gets it.

Introducing Research Review, a new TL;DRussia rubric, delving into the most important new research on Russia and the region.

The Kremlin is coming for your democracy, right? Right?

Maybe not.

The supposition that because Putin doesn’t want to see democracy at home means that he’d prefer not to see it elsewhere is one of the biggest zombie ideas1 in the study of Russian politics. The idea has been used to explain everything from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and Putin’s backing of Aleksander Lukashenka in Belarus, to the activity of Russian social media agents in US and other elections, and has been endorsed by Garry Kasparov himself.

Putin, the theory goes, believes both that autocracies are more natural allies for rulers like him, and that the persistence of democracy abroad — particularly on Russia’s borders — puts ideas in the heads of Russian citizens.

The problem is, as Pål Kolstø points out in a new article in Europe-Asia Studies, there is very little evidence that Russia actually promotes autocracy abroad.

The growing realization in the mid-2000s among many political scientists that autocratic regimes were bucking and in an increasing number of cases reversing the earlier trend towards democratization led — among other things — to the idea that powerful authoritarian governments in places like Beijing, Caracas and Moscow might be ‘Black Knights’, countering the ‘White-Knight’ democracy-promotion activities of Washington et al with their own autocracy-promotion activities. Indeed, the vociferousness with which Moscow in particular responded to the so-called ‘color revolutions’ in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and later to the Arab Spring, hinged in large measure on the Kremlin’s accusation that Washington was behind all of these potentially democratizing uprisings. It would thus clearly be in Moscow’s interests to resist them.

The first systematic attempt to test this idea came in a 2015 article in the European Journal of Political Research, by University of Toronto politics professor Lucan Way. Back then — in a piece researched and written largely before the aftermath of the 2014 Euromaidan was clear — Way argued that while no one could accuse Moscow of promoting democracy in its ‘near abroad’, its approach was too inconsistent and too self-centered to amount to autocracy promotion. He wrote:

Russia has been inconsistent in its support for autocracy – supporting opposition in some cases and incumbent autocrats in others. At the same time, Russia’s narrow concentration on its own identity and welfare has significantly limited the country’s influence — fostering a strong counter reaction in countries where anti-Russian national identities are prevalent.

And yet — perhaps because Moscow went on to seize Crimea, prosecute a war in the Donbas and engage in one way or another in the 2016 US presidential election — the zombie refused to die.

Enter Kolstø. Professor of Russian studies at the University of Oslo, Kolstø decided to narrow the analysis to those cases in which Moscow undoubtedly had the means to impose more or less whatever system of governance it saw fit: namely, the de facto states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Surely, if the Kremlin saw the imposition of autocracy as an important part of its foreign policy, it would have no trouble getting its way in three largely unrecognized statelets, entirely dependent for their economies and security on Russia.

And yet, Kolstø finds:

Russia’s de facto client states have not developed into model liberal democracies; there have been elements of both mob rule and use of illicit political technologies, but election outcomes have been remarkably open and unpredictable. Russian reactions have varied, but the trend has been for an increasingly passive and detached role, letting the de facto state leaders sort out matters by themselves.

What gives? In Kolstø’s analysis, Moscow cares more about the relationships it has with its neighbors’ leaders, than about the relationships those leaders have with their people. He writes:

Under conditions where the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests remain secure, it apparently feels less impelled to intervene in the domestic politics of a client state. These findings lend support to the interpretation of the foreign policy of Russia — and, by extension, of autocratic states in general —as driven basically by state interest, not by any compulsion to reproduce themselves in small clones among their neighbours.

There are, of course, things to quibble with. For one, whether the interests pursued by the Kremlin really amount to “state interests” — or where the boundaries lie between regime and state interests — is subject to debate. For another, the Kremlin’s perception of its geopolitical interests is remarkably changeable: it was equally confident in its Black Sea Fleet basing arrangements in Ukrainian Crimea with the pro-democratic Viktor Yushchenko and the anti-democratic Viktor Yanukovych, until, of course, it wasn’t.

Kolstø’s broad argument, though, seems sound, and it has important implications for understanding the Kremlin’s relatively cautious approach to developments in Armenia and Belarus. Whether it will be enough to kill the zombie, alas, is another question entirely.


As defined by Paul Krugman, a zombie idea is a view that has very little basis in fact, stubbornly refuses to die, and threatens to eat the brains of otherwise intelligent people.