November 1, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 334

Russia's 'Real Sovereignty' In Foreign Policy Is Just A Means Of Consolidating Its 'Domestic Sovereign Powers'

November 1, 2021 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 334

On October 21, 2021, addressing the annual session of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his old leitmotif saying, that "the international order is structured around nation states and only sovereign states can effectively respond to the challenges of the times and the demands of the citizens."[1] There was nothing new in his words, as everyone knows that for decades he has been praising "the state" as the most valuable creation of the human spirit. Since his time in power, Putin acts as the only representative of the state, and behaving as the "owner" of Russia.

In his numerous speeches and interviews, Putin constantly criticizes the idea of supranationalism as well as the policies of globalization. He seems to believe in the omnipotence of the state and its unchallenged position in the coming centuries, not only decades.

(Source: Twitter)

The Russian Ruling Elite And Its Ideologues' Definition Of "Sovereignty"

Sovereignty has been the most important element of the theory of the state for around 500 years. Hence, the "resurgence" of Russian statehood in the early 21st century came alongside the recreation of the notion of sovereignty. This looks a bit tricky since the decades that passed after the collapse of the Soviet Union were marked by an unprecedented process of globalization in Russia. The country has opened to the world economy, with its foreign trade rising from 4.5% to around 50% of its GDP.[2] With the free internet, massive information flows, and the active reception of new social practices, Russia culturally became a part of the world. Even socially, Russia became a global nation, with around three million Russian citizens living abroad and up to 50 million crossing borders into foreign countries (excluding Belarus) annually, as happened before the pandemic.[3] Never being so economically globalized as nowadays, Russia nevertheless accepts the most conservative notion of sovereignty, which is directly linked to its "Westphalian" origins.

For the Russian ruling elite and its ideologues, "to be sovereign" means to be free in making decisions and in choosing one's actions. Hence, sovereignty, in its strict sense, is seen as the capacity to act voluntarily in any circumstances. As anti-liberal Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin says: "Sovereign is the one over whom there is no one and nothing at all," thus "sovereignty can be seen as the ultimate expression of freedom."[4] This notion can be called a "dictatorial," or "imperial" vision of sovereignty, and it contradicts the basic element of any contemporary developed society, which takes for granted (at least nominally) that sovereignty resides in the people, and not in the ruler, as was thought in the past.

However, in 2006, the then-favorite of the Kremlin and former aide to Putin, Vladislav Surkov, developed the notion of "sovereign democracy." According to this concept, Russia is free to select the form of democracy that it prefers, drawing a line between a "democracy" that sets the direction of its development and its leadership, and a "democracy" that legitimizes the existing state institutions and serves the current elite. It differentiated between the "sovereign" and the "managed" political development of the state[5] and stressed the idea that states are by no means equal in their sovereignty.[6]

Alexander Dugin claimed several times that sovereignty is "the great power's privilege,"[7] as he believed that those nations that have little voice in global affairs cannot be called sovereign even if they are independent countries (in the early 1990s, the Russian politicians used to say that most of the post-Soviet states were "sovereign" but not "independent"). Speaking at the Valdai International Discussion Club in 2007, Putin voiced a similar opinion: "There are not so many countries in the world today that have the good fortune to say they are sovereign. You can count them on your fingers: China, India, Russia and a few other countries. All other countries are to a large extent dependent either on each other or on bloc leaders... Sovereignty is therefore something very precious today, something exclusive, you could even say."[8]

In 2006, Andrey Kokoshin, a former State Duma member and deputy defense minister, published a book titled "The Real Sovereignty In The Contemporary World-Political System," in which he distinguished between what he called a "real sovereignty" and other forms of political self-rule. Once again, Kokoshin insisted that many nation-states, including the members of the European Union that are subjugated to supranational institutions or even Japan being militarily dependent on the Unites States, possess no "real sovereignty."[9] According to this worldview, Putin's greatness is linked to the restoration of Russia's "real sovereignty," giving to the leadership of the country the freedom to choose any path in domestic and foreign policy.

Russia Believes Itself To Be "Sovereign Enough" To Act As It Wishes Towards Any Country Lacking "Real Sovereignty"

The contemporary Russian concept of "sovereignty" serves the Kremlin's two major aims.

First: Sovereignty secures the unaccountability of the elites for numerous violations of human rights in the country.

The very point that there is no one above "the sovereign State" results naturally in creating laws and rules that have no relation to the contemporary human rights framework. In fact, the new version of the Russian Constitution prioritizes national legislation vis-à-vis the bilateral treaties with other countries, rulings by the international courts, and other elements of international legislation.

Acting in accordance with the old Westphalian rules, Russian officials adopted de facto the principle "cuius regio, euis religio [whose realm, their religion]." Consequently, they banned many internationally recognized confessions under the notorious "anti-extremism law" (e.g., the Administrative Center of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia was declared an extremist organization in 2017),[10] while the Russian Orthodox Church enjoys large-scale privileges under Putin's rule.

The Kremlin uses the idea of full "sovereignty" not only for constantly changing rules and laws, but also for adopting regulations that can be defined as fundamentally illegal. For example, in the political domain, the "anti-extremism law" can ban people from participation in electoral campaigns even before the court rules that they are "involved" in "extremist" activities. In the economic field, Russia is empowering state-owned monopolies. For example, the state-owned monopoly for waste management pretends to have contracts with local firms that produce waste. In recent months, arbitration courts have been charging these local companies in favor of the monopoly, even while they never had any kind of formalized relations with it.

Furthermore, one can add to all this the new "foreign agent" status with which opposition politicians and journalists are being awarded, which underlies not so much the fact that they "act on behalf of" foreign governments but rather that they have no respect for "the sovereignty" of the state.

It is worth noting that at the core of the current Russian notion of "sovereignty" lies the idea of the "sovereign's ownership," or, at least, possession, of its subjects. This idea completely contradicts both the notion of people's sovereignty and the concept of human rights and democracy. The state is seen as something superior to the citizens and therefore more valuable and important than anything else.

Second: The Russian elite notion of sovereignty opens unprecedented horizons in foreign policy.

Believing itself to be a "real sovereign" country, today's Russia is ready to question all its foreign obligations and treaties, especially those that were taken or concluded in the times it was not so sovereign. The disrespect for these obligations and treaties was expressed when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 (Putin himself said several times that the former Soviet republics, now independent states, got parts of their territory as a "gift" from Russia, since the borders inside the USSR were drawn in an "unjust" manner),[11] or when it sent killers to Berlin and London, etc.

Addressing the Security Council in July 2014, Putin said: "Russia is fortunately not a member of any alliance. This is also a guarantee of our sovereignty"[12] (it is worth noting that, at that time, the Russian Federation was the founding member of the Eurasian Economic Union, the Organization of the Collective Security Treaty, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and many others, not to mention the "Union State of Russia and Belarus").

Putin's words reflect the general attitude of the Russian leadership to international relations: Russia is believed to be "sovereign enough" to act as it wishes toward any country lacking "real sovereignty."

For years, the main topic of the Valdai Discussion Club's debates was the topic of the establishment of a "new world order" as a "game without rules."[13] In fact, the Russian leadership tried not only to foster its agenda but also to persuade its partners that the concept of "sovereign democracy" is almost universal and therefore must be adopted by other great powers. It is also worth noting that the distinction between States that possess "real sovereignty" and those that lack it makes Russia's foreign policy unpredictable and poses great challenges for its potential partners.

The two uses of "sovereignty" as a tool to achieve the Kremlin's major goals (the independence of its foreign policy and an absence of accountability for the elites for numerous violations of human rights inside Russia and) are tightly linked. To be more precise, the domestic use of sovereignty dominates the use of sovereignty in foreign policy.

Already in 2006, Vladislav Surkov argued that "the concept of sovereign democracy claims to express the strength and dignity of the Russian people through the development of the civil society, a reliable state, a competitive economy, and an effective mechanism for influencing international politics."[14]

In more recent times, this point became much clearer: Russia does not want to gain from the interactions with other countries; the Kremlin is instead obsessed with the way these relations are projected onto the mindset of its subjects. The "real sovereignty" on the international scene is nothing but a means of consolidating domestic sovereign power. In this precise sense, I had argued already several years ago, Putin's Russia does not have a foreign policy, since the latter is simply a lever of the domestic one,[15] and will remain this way until Putin's rule ends.


The inquiry into the contemporary Russian notion of sovereignty would not deserve much attention if it was not useful to explain the often-addressed rift between Russia and the West. Many Western analysts tried to understand "who lost Russia."[16] However, a much more important question would be: "How was Russia lost?'

I would argue that the dialogue between Putin's Russia and the developed nations (i.e., the West) ended at the very time Russia started to believe in its "real sovereignty" – one that could be used for jailing oligarchs, killing political opponents, disregarding democratic procedures and human rights laws, and, in the end, invading foreign countries. As early as 2003-2004, Putin realized that he could do all the above while Western lea­ders are scrutinized and bound with conformities.

Today, Russia and the West speak different languages, pursue different goals, and are driven by different beliefs. To reconcile with Russia, the Kremlin pretends that the West should not only make several important concessions to Putin (like lifting sanctions or terminating its support to Ukraine) but rather change its own modus operandi to the degree that it will lose its own political and social identity. Hence, both "fully" and "partially" sovereign Western nations will never find their ways to become friends once again with this "real sovereign" Russia.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor


[1], October 21, 2021.


[3], February 17, 2021.

[4], May 31, 2016.

[5], June 28, 2006.

[6], November 20, 2006.

[7], May 31, 2016.

[8], September 14, 2007.

[9] Кокошин, Андрей. Реальный суверенитет в современной миропо-литической системе, Москва: Издательство «Европа», 2006, pp. 54-55, 36 (Kokoshin, Andrey. The Real Sovereignty in Contemporary World-Political System, Moscow: Evropa Publishing House, 2006, pp. 54-55, 36, in Russian).


[11], March 18, 2021.

[12], July 22, 2014.

[13], October 22, 2021.

[14], November 20, 2006.

[15] Inosemzew, Wladislaw. "Der russische Kreisel," Internationale Politik, 2018, No. 2, March-April, pp. 50–57.

[16] Conradi, Peter. Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War, New York: Oneworld Publications, 2018.

Share this Report: