Image credit: World Economic Forum
This feature is Part IV of a Symposium organized by the Simon Weil Center: Russia and the Question of Legitimacy
Political legitimacy is a subjective phenomenon. People often speak of it as if it has objective criteria, which in the discourse of modern liberalism are often associated with ideas such as free and fair elections and respect of human rights. In reality, though, a state is legitimate if people consider it legitimate, regardless of any such criteria. Indeed, legitimacy is precisely that – a measure of people’s subjective acceptance. This leads to an important conclusion – legitimacy is dependent on others. As Hegel put it, “a state is as little an actual individual without relations to other states as an individual is actually a person without rapport with other persons. … The legitimate authority of a state … is partly a purely domestic matter … however, it is no less essential that this authority should receive its full and final legitimation through its recognition by other states.“
States, however, do not always extend such recognition. When this happens, the result is conflict. Thus we may conclude, along with Hegel, that international conflict is very often a “struggle for recognition.” While issues of security, material loss or gain, and so on, may play a role, often they are not the underlying cause of international disputes, but merely the “points of honour” through which the struggle for recognition comes into the open.
This framework can shed some light on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Russian authorities, it seems, have come to the conclusion that the West is unwilling to recognize Russia as a legitimate actor on the international stage, and that the West will not under any circumstances recognize that Russia has legitimate interests that have to be taken into consideration. According to Hegel’s logic, the very legitimacy of the state depends on such foreign recognition, and the West’s denial of it thus strikes at the existence of the Russian state. Unable to gain this recognition by peaceful means, Russia’s leaders have determined to win it by force.
Russia’s method of resolving this struggle of recognition is counterproductive. But a good case can be made that the Russian authorities are correct in deciding that the West is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of Russian interests. And if that wasn’t the case before the invasion of Ukraine, it certainly is now. The West has struck Russia off its list of legitimate actors, giving it the status of an outlaw. Moreover, the demands it is making are such that it is almost impossible for Russia ever to lose this outlaw status. For instance, Western states are backing the Ukrainian government’s demand that Russia cede not just the territory it has conquered during the present war but also the whole of Donbass and Crimea. For multiple reasons, including the wishes of the locals, no Russian government could ever comply with this demand, no matter how keen it was to mend its relations with the West.
Paul Robinson is a Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.