The Russia Program at GW Online Papers, no. 14, May 2024

Sources and Trends in Russian Foreign Policy Discourse:

A Quantitative Text Analysis of Key Concepts

Iurii Agafonov

May 1, 2024
Ideology vs. Action in Russian Foreign Policy: Misleading Debate

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.

Although the Russian Duma is merely a rubber stamp in terms of policy-making, it is a very rich source of data and a powerful amplification tool for rhetoric. Concentrating on mainstream foreign-policy experts is also logical. Even though there are writings about the impact of Russian right-wing intellectuals (Alexander Dugin, Alexander Panarin) and conservative ideas on Russian foreign policy discourse (Laruelle 2008, Grek 2023), there are other groups of influencers among intellectuals. More liberal and centrist-oriented Russian foreign policy intellectuals (foreign policy analysts and experts, including those from academia) are usually much closer connected to and integrated into the agenda-setting and decision-making processes than their right-wing counterparts. They participate in Valday discussions, prepare policy papers, and publish their articles in Russia in Global Affairs.

This creates a certain intellectual context around the Kremlin, which is not always an echo chamber of right-wing conservative ideas. Policy papers and recommendations produced by such experts may not be enacted, as many studies show (Kaczmarska 2019, Barbashin and Graef 2019), while the blank rhetoric is often adopted. This scenario is particularly likely in the absence of a common and solid ideological base for foreign policy. This creates a deficit of ideas and stimuli to adopt convenient elements of different rhetoric to justify/validate existing policies. In essence, recommendations are not much needed. What is needed are the ideas and concepts behind those recommendations.

The potential of such analysis can be seen quite clearly in a (non-public) blog post by a Russian political scientist discussing the intellectual heritage of Gleb Pavlovsky. He claimed that Gleb Pavlovsky accidentally contributed to the creation of the myth of the Color Revolutions (one of the founding myths for the Kremlin). Pavlovsky’s ad hoc explanation of the failure to “elect” Yanukovich as the president of Ukraine in 2004 was co-opted by the Kremlin and developed into a full-scale conspiracy theory. The use of the Russian world (“Russkii mir”) concept represents an opposite example. Introduced to the public discourse for political technological reasons by the presidential administration, it quickly penetrated into foreign policy discourse. Both cases allow us to formulate several assumptions regarding the interrelation between the foreign policy rhetoric produced by the intellectuals and the Russian political elite.

Some concepts of contemporary Russian foreign policy discourse likely came from foreign policy intellectuals when the newborn Russian political elite of the 1990s and 2000s did not have any defined ideology or explicated foreign policy discourse. These intellectuals partially shaped the beliefs of Putin’s new political elite, who started their ascent to power in 1999. The Russian IR and political science community at that time was overwhelmed by the realist and neorealist papers written by Huntington, Brzezinski, Kissinger, and Nay that became available to the Russian public in the 1990s (Agafonov and Sokolov 2023). The combination of the Soviet intellectual background and the newly translated Western IR literature created the strange chimera of revisionist and status-quo foreign policy rhetoric, which was picked up by political leaders searching for simple formulas. In such cases, the rhetoric of foreign policy intellectuals in the IR and political science community effectively contributed to the formation of the foreign policy rhetoric of Putin’s political elite.

The opposite reasoning has equally valid points. Some of the ideas regarding foreign policy were roughly formulated by Putin and his inner circle, traveled to the broader political elite, and then were picked up by foreign policy intellectuals. The critical point was 2007 Putin’s Munich speech, where he outlined his plan to bring Russia back to the global arena as a proactive player with its interests based on some sort of ideology. This speech was followed by Russia’s turn to more aggressive behavior externally and more censorship internally. As a result, intellectuals picked up the rhetoric and started to use it as a tool (and a grand theory) rather than an object for analysis. In such cases, the political rhetoric virtually formed the intellectual one. The foreign policy intellectuals polished the concepts and ideas offered by political elites to form a more or less coherent ideology.

Both arguments are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

Assumptions and Hypotheses

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. Ukraine has been one of the fundamental concepts and subjects of foreign policy practically since the beginning of Putin’s tenure. Furthermore, the development of the rhetoric regarding Ukraine influences the formation of the ideological foundation of Russian foreign policy in general. If synchronization of rhetoric between foreign policy intellectuals and the political elite is to be expected at any point in time and content, the usage of “Ukraine” would be one of the most indicative cases.

The “Russian world” and “multipolar world” were chosen as key phrases to attempt to answer not only the question of the synchronization of rhetoric but also to uncover possible causal relationships and their characteristics. The Russian world, a concept developed by representatives of the Moscow Methodological Circle, later became a political technology idea introduced into Russian politics in the early 2000s as part of a political strategy to consolidate society and a component of the foreign policy doctrine justifying Russia’s more active role in the post-Soviet space. In other words, the “Russian world” is a convenient case to analyze how the concept introduced by representatives of the political elite affected the rhetoric of foreign policy intellectuals.

“Multipolar world,” in turn, is a concept introduced into the discourse by foreign policy experts and analysts. Coming from the papers of IR theorists amid discussions about the future world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it took on a life of its own and acquired additional meanings. This makes it a practical case to search for the impact of the foreign policy intellectuals on the Russian foreign policy discourse.

Russian Foreign Policy Discourse: Textual Analysis

When analyzing publications in RGA, only full-length articles and editorial materials by authors with Russian affiliations were considered. Frequency counting involved tallying the number of articles/materials in which the respective key term appeared at least once. Analysis of the context of usage of the corresponding key terms entailed including the context of five words before and after the analyzed key term. The analysis of the similarity of contexts in which the respective key term was used across different sources was performed by calculating the cosine similarity between vectors of words. TF-IDF weights were preliminarily calculated to make the assessment more conservative and underline the influence of those words considered more significant to the particular document. Before starting the analysis of the text corpus, standard preprocessing was applied, involving the removal of punctuation, symbols, digits and numbers, as well as stop words and tokenization into separate words.
Figure 1. Dynamics of the usage of the keyword “Ukraine” by months in three sources1

Although the graph in Figure 1 does not allow for a definitive conclusion about which group was the first to introduce the keyword into the discourse due to the general nature of the keyword itself, the graphs nevertheless clearly demonstrate synchronization of rhetoric over time, as the frequency of usage of the keyword “Ukraine” increases and reaches its maximum around two key events — the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.

It is interesting to note that the lines for the president and RGA on the graph showing annual dynamics are almost identical in shape after 2012. However, synchronization in time does not say anything about the synchronization of the rhetoric in their content.
Figure 2. Cosine similarity between contexts in which the keyword “Ukraine” was used, by years/sources2
Figure 2 contains a heatmap demonstrating the degree of similarity (cosine similarity) between contexts in which the keyword “Ukraine” was used in different sources. A number closer to 1 indicates greater similarity between contexts. The graph allows us to conclude that the synchronization of rhetoric in 2014 and 2022 occurred not only in terms of the frequency of usage of the keyword but also along the context in which it was used. The synchronization in 2014 was more significant.

The measures of similarity between the contexts of usage of the word “Ukraine” in different sources range from 0.2 to 0.4. In terms of correlation interpretation, these values would correspond to weak positive correlations. However, it is important to note that cosine similarity is a measure heavily dependent on the specific context. It is necessary to also consider the differences in genres of texts produced by different sources, the narrowness of the context (5 words before and 5 words after the keyword), and the discrepancy between lexical and semantic similarities. Considering these three circumstances, even low measures of context similarity indicate their synchronization, especially against the backdrop of lower indicators for other periods.
Figure 3. Clouds of words intersecting in all three sources and representing the context of usage of the keyword “Ukraine” in general (left) and broken down by sources (right) in 2014
The left graph in Figure 3 shows clouds of words co-occurring with the keyword “Ukraine” and intersecting in all three sources. By and large, this graph demonstrates a common mind map characteristic of all three sources. The graph on the right shows differences in the usage of these common words depending on the source. The contribution of each of the rhetoric to the overall discourse around Ukraine is well visible. While for the president this reflects a desire to take advantage of the situation and solve the “problem” of Crimea, then for the authors of the RGA journal, the issue is more framed through the lens of the conflict between Russia and the West, and for the MPs — through an appeal to the “Russianness” of Crimea and the presence of Russian citizens there.
Figure 4. Clouds of words intersecting in all three sources and representing the context of usage of the keyword “Ukraine” in general (left) and broken down by sources (right) in 2022
The year 2022 presents an even more vivid picture, as shown in Figure 4. The absence of clear patterns and explanations for the necessity of the invasion in Putin’s speeches catches the eye, which generally corresponds to the picture of the constantly changing goals of the “special military operation.” At the same time, it is clear that the idea of the conflict with the West is at the center of RGA authors’ rhetoric, and that territorial rhetoric dominates the discussions in the State Duma.
Figure 5. Dynamics of the usage of the key phrase “Russian world” by months in three sources
Russian world

The usage of the key phrase “Russian world” also shows some synchronization of rhetoric. However, two differences are noticeable. There is a weaker representation of the “Russian world” key phrase in the corpus of all texts (the maximum share almost reaches 0.5 only between 2021 and 2022 and only for MPs) and there is noticeably less enthusiasm for discussing this term among the foreign policy intellectuals. The increase in the frequency of the usage of key phrase in articles from RGA over time follows (rather than precedes) a similar increase in the frequency of usage of this term in two other sources. Synchronous dynamics and a clear increase in the frequency of usage of the key term in all three sources are observed only after 2020.
Figure 6. Cosine similarity between contexts in which the key phrase “Russian world” was used, by years/sources
The lagged synchronization in the usage of the term had an effect on the level of similarity between different rhetoric. The heatmap in Figure 6 demonstrates low measures of similarity between contexts in which the key phrase “Russian world” was used across different sources. This may indicate partial confirmation of the assumption — the term “Russian world,” introduced into the foreign policy discourse by Kremlin spin doctors, was received without enthusiasm among foreign policy analysts and experts and was discussed only in connection with the need to incorporate this concept and integrate it into a more academic discourse.

The lagged synchronization in the usage of the term had an effect on the level of similarity between different rhetoric. The heatmap in Figure 6 demonstrates low measures of similarity between contexts in which the key phrase “Russian world” was used across different sources. This may indicate partial confirmation of the assumption — the term “Russian world,” introduced into the foreign policy discourse by Kremlin spin doctors, was received without enthusiasm among foreign policy analysts and experts and was discussed only in connection with the need to incorporate this concept and integrate it into a more academic discourse.
Figure 7. Word clouds representing the context surrounding the key phrase “Russian world” in 2008 (top left), 2014 (top right), and 2022 (bottom) with a breakdown by sources
The analysis of these word clouds also confirms the desynchronization of contexts in the usage of these terms, at least until 2020. This is indicated by the absence of intersecting words in 2008 (the first peak in the frequency of usage of the key phrase in three sources), very weak intersections in 2014 (the second peak), and another absence of intersecting terms in 2022 (the third peak). Figure 7 shows how rhetoric around the Russian world differs in different three sources. While the authors of RGA seek to fit this concept into theories of soft power and associate it with the concept of “compatriots abroad,” Putin and MPs rather see it in the context of justifying the uniqueness of the Russian civilization and forming some national idea and the idea of reunification of the divided people. This difference is clearly visible in the opposing use of the words “Russkii” (русский) and “Rossiiskii” (российский) (Blakkisrud 2023) by MPs and RGA authors respectively.

Multipolar world

A somewhat different picture emerges when we analyze the frequency and context of usage of the key phrase “multipolar world.”
Figure 8. Dynamics of the usage of the key phrase “multipolar world” by months in three sources
On the one hand, we observe a similar lagged synchronization of rhetoric over time. With a great deal of reserve, it can be said that the peaks in the frequency of usage in all three sources coincide only in 2009 and 2014. On the other hand, we see that the frequency of usage of the key phrase “multipolar world” in RGA was higher (although the frequency in all sources is much lower in comparison to the “Ukraine” keyword) than its frequency of usage in two other sources.

Moreover, the wave of increased usage of this key phrase was accompanied (rather than preceded) by waves of more frequent usage of the word in the other two sources.
Figure 9. Cosine similarity between contexts in which the key phrase “multipolar world” was used by years/sources
The exception is the dynamics after 2020, which are interesting in and of themselves. The sharp increase in the frequency of usage of “multipolar world” by Putin starting in 2020 is accompanied by a more gradual increase from the MPs and a decrease from the authors of the RGA journal. This increased usage by the president may signify his attempt to find arguments for confronting the West and reinforcing a more aggressive foreign policy rhetoric with the concept of a multipolar world. Additionally, it may be an attempt to appeal to the Global South and be part of the search for allies in an attempt to revise the global rules of the game and break out of international isolation and sanctions.

The lagged synchronization over time is accompanied by desynchronization in content. The heatmap in Figure 9 does not allow us to infer any significant synchronization of rhetoric between the three sources. Such synchronization is characteristic only within the same source (RGA) in different periods.
Figure 10. Word clouds representing the context surrounding the key phrase “multipolar world” in 2009 (top left), 2014 (top right), 2019 (bottom left), and 2022 (bottom right) with a breakdown by sources
Although the analysis of cosine similarity did not show matches in the contexts surrounding the “multipolar world,” the proximity of contexts cannot always be lexically determined. Studying the word clouds in Figure 10 from the years where there was a relative synchronization in the frequency of usage of the key phrase allows us to conclude that at least until 2019, the term in three different sources was used in comparable contexts. Although lexically, different words were used to describe these contexts, their meaning largely coincided, which is reflected in Figure 10.


Although the analysis conducted on the three key terms is rather exploratory in nature, it has partially confirmed the assumptions made. The interconnectedness of the rhetoric among three groups of the Russian foreign policy elite is evident both from the examination of the basic trends in key terms usage over time and from the analysis of the similarity of their rhetoric. Rhetoric tends to synchronize around key events almost always in frequency of usage of key terms and sometimes in content as well.

Some concepts, however, are initiated by specific groups — there might be synchronization in time but not in content. Thus, the conclusion on the causal relationship is somewhat banal. It is a two-way street. Some initiate, others pick up. Officials may not be overly concerned with the content but may use concepts as rhetorical devices. Conversely, they may introduce a symbolically charged concept, which intellectuals then refine and fit into existing theoretical concepts, albeit not always with great enthusiasm. This can be seen in the dynamics, which are tied to political events and lag behind compared to the dynamics specific to the rhetoric of the political elites. This is true for intellectuals as well. They may introduce the concept which then is picked up and reinterpreted by officials.

Certain events prompt usage of a key term, leading to synchronization in time, but different groups strive to imbue the term with different meanings based on their initial perceptions and current political objectives.
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  • Iurii Agafonov

    Research Fellow, Yerevan Center for International Education (YCIE) and at the Global Academy of the GW’s Russia Program
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