Russia & Global South

Sources and Trends in Russian Foreign Policy Discourse:

A Quantitative Text Analysis of Key Concepts

May 2, 2024
  • Iurii Agafonov

    Yerevan Center for International Education (YCIE)

Foreign policy expert Yurii Agafonov views Russian foreign policy ideology as a dynamic process shaped by the interplay among presidential rhetoric, State Duma members, and Kremlin-affiliated intellectuals. This allows for an effective analysis of trends and origins in contemporary Russian foreign policy discourse.
The beginning of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine once again raised the very ambiguous question about ideology in Russian foreign policy-making. This debate has a long and complex history, over which two major camps have formed, each with their own valid arguments.

The first claims that Russian foreign policy is driven by a certain type of ideology shared by both the elites and the public. This ideology has strong roots in Russian history. It is imperialistic in nature but is understood domestically as a defensive enterprise. The proponents of this perspective usually suggest that the Russian ideological position is connected to the messianic ideas more or less explicitly formulated in official documents, voiced by officials, and supported by their actions (Engström 2014).

The second is those who distinguish Russian political and intellectual elites from the public, as well as Russian foreign policy discourse from policy actions. They describe discourse as elite-driven, highly instrumental and opportunistic, and Russian actions as sufficiently rational, driven by realist logic, or dictated by rational calculation with a certain reference point in mind (Marandici 2022). The telling phrase for this approach is “Putin’s statements are not a good indicator of Russia’s actions” (Herd 2022: 138).
The discussion between the two camps is somewhat scholastic and resembles the chicken-and-egg dilemma. It can hardly be fully resolved, as the truth likely lies somewhere in between. The Kremlin, in its attempts to legitimize and retrospectively explain individual foreign policy actions that could have very specific motives, configure a discourse that gradually shapes into a semblance of ideology. At the same time, the socialization experience, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, norms, and worldviews of the Russian political elite create a framework for making foreign policy decisions. Each subsequent decision, especially irreversible ones like the start of military intervention or war, creates a point of no return and puts the foreign policy elite on a path toward developing foreign policy discourse to maintain its relative internal coherence and relevance to actions.

In this sense, it is much more interesting to focus on the discourse regarding foreign policy and attempt to disaggregate the Russian foreign policy elite to see how different rhetoric, as well as different concepts coming from IR or introduced by spin doctors, circulate and shape the foreign policy discourse. If one considers the ideology behind Russian foreign policy not as a finished and unchangeable result, but as an iterative process at the intersection of the rhetoric of the president, State Duma members, and representatives of the foreign policy intellectuals close to the Kremlin, one can feasibly analyze the trends and sources of various elements of the modern Russian foreign policy discourse.

I argue that instead of dwelling on the scholastic dispute over the primacy of ideology or foreign policy action, we should begin with two consecutive steps. First, disaggregate the foreign policy elite (and its discourse) to include the president, MPs, and the mainstream foreign policy intellectuals. Second, examine the interrelation of the rhetoric between these three groups.

To verify these assumptions, I translated them into the language of hypotheses. If we anticipate a mutual influence between political and intellectual rhetoric on foreign policy, we should observe synchronization of these rhetoric both temporally, likely around significant foreign policy events or decisions, and in terms of content. In other words, the rhetoric of intellectuals and political elites should converge in both the frequency of and context in which certain keywords and key phrases are used. Additionally, if we expect one rhetoric (political or intellectual) to influence the other — raising the question of causality — besides the synchronization of rhetoric at key moments in time, we might also anticipate more frequent usage of certain key terms by one group prior to the other. In essence, if we anticipate the influence of the rhetoric of foreign policy intellectuals on that of the political elite, we might expect the key terms to be used much earlier in the rhetoric of the former compared to the latter, with their usage frequency significantly higher throughout the period under consideration.

One of the possible ways to test these hypotheses is to select three sources of rhetoric in Russian foreign policy discourse and three key terms. As a source of foreign policy rhetoric produced by the foreign policy intellectuals, I utilized the journal Russia in Global Affairs (RGA), as it stands as the largest and most prominent platform where representatives of various think tanks close to the Kremlin and the Russian political elite publish their articles. In my analysis of the rhetoric of political elites, I examined speeches, articles, and interviews of Putin and Medvedev published under the section “Statements on Key Issues" on the official website While these documents do not form an exhaustive list of statements, they include the most important ones from the Kremlin’s perspective. As for the rhetoric of the Russian political elite in a broader sense, I examined transcripts of sessions of the State Duma of the Russian Federation. Due to data availability, the time frame covers the period from 2002 to 2022.

Three key terms — “Ukraine” (Украина), “Russian world” (русский мир), and “multipolar world” (многополярный мир) — were chosen to analyze the frequency and context of usage to test hypotheses and validate assumptions.
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