Since 2008, the Russian government conducted two invasions of sovereign territory in Eastern Europe prior to the current crisis in Ukraine. In 2008 Russian troops invaded Georgia, dramatically beginning a process of slowly dismantling the sovereignty of a self-identified European state. In 2014 Russia annexed Crimea and de facto established two pro-Russian independent oblasts inside Ukrainian territory. Throughout this process, and despite outrage, Western nations continued to interact favourably with Russia, allowing sanctions to lapse. However, the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed this standard interaction dramatically. But why was Russia unable to get away with this invasion? Using role theory, I shall show how the construction of the Russian ‘[co]compatriot defender’ role conception has been used to strategically mask contradictory foreign policy behaviour. By analysing UN Security Council speeches, I will show how the operationalisation of constructed role ambiguity was used to ‘shield’ this role from contradictions between Russia’s behaviour and western nations’ expectations. Constructed ambiguity was deployed with regards to passportisation and the liberal norms of R2P and humanitarian intervention, thus preventing role conflict between Russia and Western nations. However, since 2022 Western nations have ceased to buy into this role ambiguity.


role theory, role ambiguity, Russia-Ukraine conflict, United Nations Security Council, Russia-Georgia conflict


Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine did not happen in isolation. Russia invaded the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of Georgia in 2008, and the Crimean, Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in 2014. Despite the similarity in the fundamental aspects of each conflict, it is only the most recent conflict in 2022 that led to such opposition from the international community. This includes unprecedented action including Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT banking system (RadioFreeEurope 2022), multiple fossil fuel embargos (United States Government 2022; House of Commons Library 2022) and neutral nations like Switzerland (Reuters 2022) and San Marino (San Marino Rtv 2022) engaging in sanctions regimes. So how did Russia get away with previous invasions without suffering similar consequences? This is the question this paper looks to answer; why didn’t Russia get away with its 2022 invasion?

Using role theory to qualitatively analyse Security Council meetings will provide an explanation as to how Russia was able to conduct behaviour outside the expectations of its role, without escalating significant role conflict before 2022. Russia did this by constructing a situation in which ambiguity around significant aspects of its ‘[co]compatriot defender’ role allowed it to present invasions as appropriate humanitarian interventions. The lack of clarity in the fulfillment of foreign policy expectations not only gave Russia the ability to present justifications for previous invasions in 2008 and 2014, but similarly explains why these justifications didn’t work in 2022 escalating role conflict. 


Role theory

Foreign policy always takes two or more actors. It is therefore a fundamentally social interaction between individuals. However, it is rarely studied as an interaction. Foreign policy literature often studies individual country’s foreign policy – how one state acts and reacts to a given situation. Role theory, by contrast, theorises foreign policy as interactive and dynamic, where action, reaction and re-evaluation are analysed together. Role theory first emerged in behavioural science and psychology with the work of George Herbert Mead in the 1930s (Mead & Morris 2005). Role theory refers to a family of approaches that conceptualise social life (Biddle 1986; Mead & Morris 2005; Bruening 2017). It notes the centrality of the ‘role’, based upon status, value and involvement, as the core of social identity and personal interaction (Mead & Morris 2005; Bruening 2017).

Role theory holds a wealth of descriptive and analytical capability for analysing international relations. Holsti introduced role theory into foreign policy literature in 1970 (Holsti 1970; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Bruening 2017). Role theory conceptualises international relations as the interaction of roles. Roles are themselves the interaction between a state’s self-identity, status and expectations (Holsti 1970: 240). In these interactions, a state’s self-identity reflects how it sees its ‘self’ (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011: 9). This is secondarily interacted with the state’s self-perceived status within the international community (Holsti 1970). These two aspects interact to proscribe the sorts of behaviour the state sees as conducive with its position vis a vis other states. Behaviours refer to the actions taken by states. Thirdly this self-identity and status interact with the expectations of other states (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011: 11). This reflects the behaviour others expect to be conducive with its status and the other’s relative position and status. This will then guide ‘the general kind of decisions, commitments, rules and actions suitable to their state’ (Holsti 1970: 245). This combination of self-identity, status and expectations define the state’s ‘role’. This is known as a National Role Conception (NRC) (Holsti 1970; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Bruening 2017). This state will then interact with other states through this NRC (Holsti 1970; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Harnisch 2011; Beneš & Harnisch 2014; Bruening 2017). In short, foreign policy occurs as the interaction between the NRCs of one state and the expectations of an ‘other’. This theorises international relations through an interpersonal interactional metaphor, similar to that of individuals within society (Holsti 1970: 237; Bruening 2017).

Role theory uses Mead’s terminology to describe the interactional positions of respective actors in foreign policy (Mead & Morris 2005). ‘Ego’ refers to the combination of self-identity and status that makes up an NRC (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Harnisch 2011; Beneš & Harnisch 2014). Ego’s self-conceptions, defined as NRCs, are in turn identified by repeat patterns of behaviour (Holsti 1970: 254). ‘Alter’ refers to an ‘other’ the actor interacts with. This ‘Alter’ has its own expectations of Ego’s behaviour and status (Walker 1987; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Harnisch 2011; Beneš & Harnisch 2014, Holsti 1970).

Alter can be defined both by Alter’s expectations of Ego and by Alter’s status. Holsti describes Alter through its expectations of Ego (Holsti 1970: 239-240). Where ‘Ego’ defines behaviours in terms of NRC prescriptions, ‘Alter’ defines the expectations of Ego’s role (Holsti 1970: 239). Role prescriptions are the expected behaviours associated with the role from Ego’s perspective. Role expectations are expected behaviours associated with Ego’s role from Alter’s perspective (Holsti 1970: 239).

This initial assessment of ‘Alter’ was expanded upon by Harnsich and others (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Harnisch 2011; Beneš & Harnisch 2014). Harnisch developed ‘Alter’ through the notion of ‘others’(Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Harnisch 2011). This combined Holsti’s understanding with a notion of Alter’s status vis a vis Ego (Holsti 1970; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011: 11). This allowed Harnisch to split the ‘alter’ by its socialising effect upon the ego, noting three distinct types of ‘other’; Significant, Generalised and Organising others. Socialisation is the effect of Alter changing Ego’s behavioural prescription to better align with Alter’s behavioural expectations (Harnish 2011; Maull 2011). For this paper, Significant and Generalised others are key. Significant others have a direct impact upon the ego by interacting through behaviours with Ego’s role (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011: 12). Generalised others, by contrast, have the effect of structuring the prescriptions of the ego; however, where the significant other is a concrete actor acting through behaviours, the generalised other is used as a referential frame (Harnisch, Frank & Maull, 2011: 12; Harnisch 2011; Beneš & Harnisch 2014). The combination of these two perspectives defines ‘Alter’ based on its expectations of Ego’s role and its own status.

The combination of these generalised and significant others theorises two key aspects of Russian role enaction. First, there is the interaction that Russia undertakes directly with actors like the United States or Ukraine. This is theorised within the realms of the significant other. Second, there is the referential space in which the Russian ego interacts with but never meets, generalised others. Alters, such as the United States, can be used as both a reference and an audience for Russian behaviours. Therefore, the US can exist as both a significant and generalised other. This leads to an Ego interacting with an Alter as a significant other, through Ego’s prescriptions and Alter’s expectations, whilst referencing that same Alter as a generalised other, referring to historical behaviours.


Role conflict

One such interaction between states is role conflict. Role conflict comes broadly in two forms: conflict within roles (Tewes 1998; Demirduzen & Thies 2021) and conflict between roles (Malici & Walker 2017). Conflict within roles can occur when an actor performs contradictory behaviours associated with differing role conceptions (Holsti 1970; Tewes 1998; Kaarbo & Cantir 2013; Wehner & Thies 2014; Demirduzen & Thies 2021). Tewes has noted conflict within Germany’s EU role conception, between behaviours associated with deepening or widening the EU (Tewes 1998). Conflict between roles occurs when more than one actor holds differing behavioural expectations of a single role (Malici & Walker 2017). Malici and Walker have noted role conflict between the behavioural expectations the United States and Iran have regarding Iran’s ‘revolutionary’ NRCs (Malici & Walker 2017). This paper will focus on the conflict between the behaviour(s) associated with the role prescriptions of Ego and the behaviour(s) associated with the role expectations of Alter (Holsti 1970). Therefore, this work will both follow and go beyond the inter-state role conflict framework developed by Malici and Walker (Malici & Walker 2017). This describes role conflict as a situation in which the socialising attempts of Alter have failed. This creates a situation in which two competing and antagonistic conceptions of behavioural expectations occur. In this form of role conflict, the role prescriptions of the Ego are different and antagonistic to the expectations Alter has of the role. The foreign policy conflict between the US and Iran, for example, is continually reproduced as Iranian revolutionary role prescriptions clash with role expectations the US has of Iran (Malici & Walker 2017). This framework understands role conflict, between the prescriptions Ego has of the role and the expectations Alter has of that role, becoming consistently (re)produced antagonistically. This framework holds a lot of untapped promise in understanding Russia’s foreign policy, especially Russia where it seeks to justify behaviour to the international community.


Role ambiguity

Role ambiguity is a term often used in management or psychology (Jackson & Schuler 1984; Maden-Eyiusta 2021). Role ambiguity is usually defined in terms of clarity of role expectations. Role ambiguity describes a lack of clarity, certainty or predictability with regards to behaviour of a given role (King & King 1990: 49). This is often due to ill-defined or ambiguous role descriptions and/or uncertain objectives (King & King 1990: 50). In management and psychology literature, role ambiguity describes this uncertainty toward an individual directed from the organisation and structures which define their role. If role conflict comes from a search for validity between competing role expectations, then role ambiguity can lead to such conflict (King & King 1990).

Translating this to international relations presents some issues. The first deals with who defines the role. Within IR, roles are often self-defined by Ego and interacted with Alter. In other words, there is no overarching structure or organisation that defines the role and the acceptable boundaries. Absent such structure, it is the iterative process of foreign policy interaction that defines appropriate behaviour. States must define for themselves the acceptability of foreign policy associated with a role. Moreover, if states define the boundaries of acceptable foreign policy, then they can also attempt to push the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour. Whilst Bruening notes this behavioural incongruity as a form of role conflict, this paper notes the behavioural ambiguity within a singular NRC (Breuning & Pechenina 2019). In this, states themselves can attempt to create role ambiguity. This means Ego pushing the boundaries of acceptable behaviour whilst preventing role conflict with Alters. This means the construction of ill-defined or ambiguous role prescriptions. Far from creating role conflict, role ambiguity notes Ego’s attempt to create uncertainty as to whether Alter’s socialised behavioural expectations are being met. This reduces role conflict by more closely aligning Ego’s behaviour to Alter’s expectations.

In this sense, new behaviours can be framed as reflecting the previous behaviours of an Alter. This infers validity because Alter’s previous behaviours come from its prescriptions. These are presented as acceptable behaviour already socialised within the role. For example, Russia uses the previous acceptability of humanitarian intervention by the US to justify its own interventions. This validates ego’s behaviour based on Alter’s past behaviour. In short, role ambiguity becomes constructed by the Ego (Russia) through referencing the behaviour of a significant other (US) through reference to a generalised other (previous US humanitarian interventions). In engaging with historical expectations of a significant other through this generalised other, Ego creates uncertainty about whether particular behaviours it seeks to introduce as acceptable already match socialised Alter expectations. This creates role ambiguity that can be used to shield itself from perceived role conflict between Ego’s new behaviour and the Alter’s expectations whilst avoiding the socialising process.  


The Russian ‘[co]compatriot defender’

Historically, roles have been and continue to be used by policy makers (Holsti 1970; Jönsson & Westerlund 1982). Russia is no exception. Russian policy makers are no exception, using a myriad of roles to frame their foreign policy actions in the 20th and 21st centuries. Previously, scholars have pointed to Russia’s attempts to construct an ‘imperialist’ role (Malici & Walker 2017: 7), Cold War role (Holsti 1970) and post-Soviet role (Breuning & Pechenina 2019). This imperialist role has morphed into an anti-hegemonic role as described by a number of scholars (Grossman 2005; Engström 2014; Akin 2019). Role theory’s use to describe conflict within anti-hegemonic roles is shown by Akin (Akin 2019).

One such prominent role that this paper will explore is Russia’s NRC as a ‘[co]compatriot defender’(Chafetz 1996; Souleimanov, Abrahamyan & Aliyev 2017; Strycharz 2020, 2022). This role, synonymous with the notion of a Russian protector, is a role that can be traced back decades. It was used to justify Russian support for Slavic nations during the first and second Balkan Wars (Boeckh 2016: 109). The result of this support was a protective alliance system between Imperial Russia and other Slavic nations (Boeckh 2016). Pan-Slavism ideologically justified a Russian sphere of influence over large tracks of eastern Europe, politicising the Russian populous and framing Russian foreign policy on the eve of the First World War (Gulseyen 2017). Furthermore, as Engstrom notes, under the Soviet Union the notion of the Soviet ‘protector’ was commonly identified as a role conception (Engström 2014: 357). This ‘[co]compatriot protector’ role conception went hand in hand with Bolshevik and Marxist political ideology toward the emancipation and protection of the working class. Through a notion of the global proletariat, the Soviet ‘[co]compatriot defender’ was used to frame the Second World War with the Soviet Union protecting the world from Nazism (Engström 2014: 366, Dimbleby 2022).

Yet this [co]compatriot defender role is not confined to these timeframes. Indeed, Grossman identified the ‘[co]compatriot protector’ role conception in post-Soviet Russian foreign policy, in which Russians are conceptualised as in need of protection (Grossman 2005: 343). The fall of the Soviet Union created a new socialising space for Russian role prescriptions, similar to the period of transition between Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. Russians had previously travelled throughout the Soviet Union. Following its breakup, large numbers of Russians were left in emerging post-Soviet states. The ‘[co]compatriot defender’ role meant elevating the Russian diaspora and putting focus on populations within post-Soviet republics (Chafetz 1996: 684; Strycharz 2020; Strycharz 2022; Souleimanov, Abrahamyan & Aliyev 2017, Engström 2014, Breuning & Pechenina 2019, Grossman 2005). As Engström notes, Putin reinterpreted Katechonic messianism protecting Russian people – including those beyond the borders of Russia – from outside threats within complimentary anti-hegemonic roles (Engström 2014: 373). One behaviour not associated with this role was invasion or armed intervention. Whilst similar in scope the [co]compatriot defender NRC often explains why Russia engaged in certain behaviours but not how Russia attempted to get away with its invasions, requiring further analysis.

The post-Cold War Russian construction of the ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC was therefore filtered through both Russian perceptions and Alter expectations. This socialises a set of acceptable behaviours when Russia uses its ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC. These behavioural sets included domestically defining ‘Russian’ populations in need of protection (Grossman 2005: 343; Strycharz 2020, 2022). Behaviours that express self-determination of peoples as ‘Russian’ define these Russian populations. This includes Russian citizenship, referenda and armed defence in concert with these actions. Russian citizenship can likewise be achieved conventionally through naturalisation or through passportisation; the mass conferral of citizenship through the distribution of passports (Artman 2013; Nagashima 2017). This provides the reference point for populations in need to be defended.

The ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC does not exist in a vacuum. The Russian ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC comes with a series of specific socialised expectations from other states. The post-Cold War international environment socialised many new roles including other humanitarian ‘protector’ roles (Grossman 2005; Harnisch 2001; Engström 2014). These expectations often came from the US with its hegemonic position giving it significant influence socialising role expectations (Maull 2011). Previous Cold War [co]compatriot defender role expectations were disrupted by emerging US prescriptions toward ‘universalist’ principles based on liberal values and norms (Choi 2013: 124; Holsti 1970; Hoffmann, Johansen & Sterba 1997; Talbott 2007). Russian prescriptions moved to reflect this socialising process through the promotion of ‘universalist’ human rights through the [co]compatriot defender NRC As Grossman notes, Russian role conceptions are ‘expressed in statements that refer to Russian obligations to protect human rights and to Russia’s acceptance that the protection of individual rights is a basic component of Russian foreign policy’ (Grossman 2005: 345). This defines the expectations and the preconditions for engaging in the ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC.

The US used a similar humanitarian NRC to validate its interventions during the 1990s and 2000s further socialising expected behaviour (Choi 2013). Responsibility to protect in Somalia, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia East Timor, Iraq and Rwanda provided a framework for the expected behaviour of a state defining itself as a ‘protector’ (Lischer 2006; Pickering & Kisangani 2009; Choi 2013). As Choi notes, the protection of civilians was an expected behaviour (Choi 2013). Moreover, the precondition of an existential threat would frame the necessity of using such an NRC (MacWhinney 2002; Choi 2013). Interventions would often come hand in hand with political self-determination for the affected populations (MacWhinney 2002). These behaviours marked the socialised expectations of [co]compatriot defender role conceptions in the international system (Choi 2013: 134).



This paper uses the methodological approaches of Holsti’s foundational work and role theory works that have studied the [co]compatriot defender role (Holsti 1970; Souleimanov, Abrahamyan & Aliyev 2017; Strycharz 2020, 2022). Speech acts in the UN Security Council (UNSC) will be used to show how foreign policy elites engaged in this role. The UNSC remains a key forum for international interaction and provides the space for Russia to use its [co]compatriot defender NRC. Moreover, behavioural framing associated with the [co]compatriot defender NRC occurs within a relatively short timeframe, primarily during crises. Such crises provide the moment in which role conflict is most apparent and therefore behaviours associated with this conflict, such as escalation, de-escalation and/or role ambiguity, become clearest. Based on these considerations, the first month after the intervention in Georgia, Crimea and the ‘special military operation’ in 2022 will be assessed in this paper.

The most common way most role theorists determine NRCs is by analysing speeches made by ‘foreign policy elites’ (Holsti 1970; Walker 1983; Harnisch 2001; Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011; Bruening 2017). Taking Harnisch’s definition, ‘foreign policy elites’ refer to foreign ministers as well as heads of state (Harnisch, Frank & Maull 2011). Holsti expands this definition to include ambassadors (Holsti 1970). Foreign policy behaviour can be discursively acted through speeches made by foreign policy elites such as ambassadors, heads of state and foreign ministers. These speech acts represent vocal guides toward role behaviour (Holsti 1970; Bruening 2017). This notes particular terminology associated with the role and creating a lingua franca for the behaviour associated with a role. As Bruening suggests, this methodological approach can be useful in determining NRCs (Bruening 2017; Harnisch 2001). The interaction of these NRCs in turn provide an explanation for foreign policy behaviour (Bruening 2017). Therefore I will be looking for vocal guides that reflect the behavioural prescriptions and expectations of the [co]compatriot defender NRC.

In analysing the Security Council meetings, particular focus will be turned to the Russian Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin, Vasily Nebenzya and Nebenzya’s deputy Gennady Kuzmin. These speeches will be used to determine the vocal guides of role behaviour. The term ‘[co]compatriot defender’, ‘protector’, ‘protecting’ and ‘protected’ will be searched for directly. Furthermore, references to key expectations and prescriptions of the [co]compatriot defender role NRC such as humanitarian intervention, responsibility to protect and right to self-determination will be used to locate vocal guides (Strycharz 2020, 2022; Souleimanov, Abrahamyan & Aliyev 2017). The instances in which these key features are referenced will be highlighted as it shows direct use of the behaviours associated with this role.

This paper will also qualitatively assess the framing of the significant and generalised ‘others’. This will focus on the way the ‘other’ is being defined; whether they are being referenced as a generalised or significant other. This will focus on the juxtaposition between a referential historical alter and contemporary significant other. This will note how role ambiguity is engaged to provide justification for the expansion of behaviours not associated with the [co]compatriot defender role. This paper focuses inherently on the Russian perspective. This focuses on how Russia attempted to get away with its behaviour; however, it does not ignore the fact that it takes two actors – an Ego and an Alter – to engage in any potential role conflict.


Georgia 2008

The Russian intervention in Georgia in August 2008 marked the low point of relations between the two states. South Ossetia and Abkhazia remained semi-independent oblasts within Georgia following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Separatists in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia fought Georgian state forces to a standstill, gaining recognition by Russia. This was maintained by a Russian peacekeeping force, creating de facto independence. Internally, South Ossetia attempted to define their own independence by issuing Ossetian passports (Artman 2013; Georgia Civil 2006). The legitimacy of these were denied by the international community as South Ossetia remained an internationally recognised part of Georgia.

Similarly in Abkhazia, Georgian status of the population was mired in controversy. This meant the adoption of a Georgian passport was unlikely, with many instead continuing to use soviet passports or switching to Russian citizenship (Artman 2013; Nagashima 2017). For international travel individuals often took Russian passports creating a secondary form of citizenship (Littlefield 2009: 1462). Passportisation therefore defined South Ossetians and Abkhazians as Russian citizens, creating the space in which Russia could engage its [co]compatriot defender role.

Passportisation allowed Russia to engage with the notion of self-determination. The right to self-determination is enshrined in the United Nations charter marking a foundational principle of international law. It also marks one of the key behavioural expectations of engaging the ‘[co]compatriot defender’ NRC. Russia had already begun to move regular troops into South Ossetia to bolster their peacekeeping forces when, on 8 August in the Security Council, this role was engaged (IIFFMCG Vol III p.342-343). Ambassador Churkin referenced Russian President Medvedev’s speech, noting the citizenship of Ossetians and Abkhazians as a choice to self-determine as such:


Russia will not allow the deaths of our compatriots[1] to go unpunished, and that the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they are, will be protected, in accordance with the Constitution of Russia and in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation and international law (UNSC 5952: 5).


With Russian citizens defined, Churkin engaged with the expectations of significant others, specifically the United States, European actors and separately Georgia. Firstly, to the expectations of the United States and European actors and secondly to Georgia, Churkin stated:


We hope that our European colleagues and our American colleagues, who in recent weeks have been in active contact with us and who apparently were taking some steps to prevent this situation shifting to a hot phase, will start to understand what is going on: we hope that they will draw the right conclusions from this . . .

We recently heard the Georgian Government Minister, Mr. Yakobashvili, say that Russia should intervene as a real peacekeeper. Well, that is precisely what we are doing now (UNSC 5952: 5).


Churkin directly references the role conflict between Russian behaviour and Georgian, US and European expectations. In response Churkin is directly speaking to the expectations of the [co]compatriot defender role, highlighting their fulfilment. Passportisation was actively used by Ambassador Churkin to define a ‘Russian’ population allowing the rhetoric of self-determination and [co]compatriotism to be engaged in.

With this Russian population materially and discursively constructed, Russia defined a threat to this population. Without a threat there is nothing to protect against, negating the need to defend [co]compatriots. At a UNSC special meeting on 10 August, Churkin referenced fighting between Georgian forces and South Ossetians as genocide (UNSC 5953: 8). Again, Churkin referenced the citizenship of South Ossetians referring to them as ‘Russian Citizens’ (UNSC 5953: 8). Churkin defined this threat to Russian citizens in existential terms to add to the necessity of further intervention. Churkin explained Russian behaviour as expanding Russia’s existing commitments in line with its [co]compatriot defender role:


We could not leave the civilian population in South Ossetia in dire straits or leave our peacekeepers without protection.[2] So, additional troops were sent to Georgia, and they are still engaged in the task of removing Georgia from South Ossetia (UNSC 5953: 8).


By defining the threat as existential and the population under threat as Russian citizens, Russia was able to use its [co]compatriot defender NRC. Therefore, in line with its prescriptions of the [co]compatriot defender role Russia moved to defend its citizens. This behaviour came in the form of an invasion. This behaviour, outside the standard repertoire of the [co]compatriot defender role, was justified in line with previous behaviours socialised within the role. This role ambiguity was directly referenced on 19 August to describe its actions (UNSC 5961: 11). In engaging in this role Churkin further referenced both previous US and NATO actions through a generalised other.    


The statement made by Ambassador Khalilzad (United States Permanent representative) with regard to terror against the civilian population is absolutely unacceptable, particularly from the lips of the Permanent Representative of a country whose actions we are aware of, including with regard to civilian populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia (UNSC 5961: 11).


This marks a direct use of role ambiguity. The role conflict between the expectations of the United States (significant other) and Russia (Ego) are being directly referenced through the use of a generalised other (historic US behaviour). This is done to justify the behaviour being taken by Russia outside the existing repertoire of behaviour associated with the [co]compatriot defender role. This marks an attempt by Russia to infer validity because if the previous action of Alter was valid then the action being taken by Ego is likewise valid even if the behaviour is different. This made possible the introduction of role ambiguity making it uncertain whether the expectations of the [co]compatriot defender role are being met by new behaviour.


Ukraine: February and March 2014

A similar pattern occurred in 2014 in Ukraine. Following the Maidan protests and the flight of President Yanukovych from Kiev, Russia began expressing concern in the UN (UNSC 7117: 21). The process was more disjointed but it still followed the previous process. Again, it began by defining a Russian [co]compatriot. The first act of this process occurred on 24 February with Churkin using ‘Russian language’ to define a [co]compatriot in Crimea (UNSC 7117: 21). This included internationalising calls from deputies in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine (Donetsk and Luhansk). This was further augmented by defining an emerging though still nascent threat to the ‘Humanitarian rights of Russians[3] and other national minorities in Ukraine’ (UNSC 7117: 21).

Once Russian forces began to directly intervene in Crimea this process became much more evident. This included framing actions in Crimea as popular self-determination and vice versa Ukrainian reactions as an existential threat (UNSC 7124: 4). In constructing a Russian [co]compatriot Russian language was used to define Russian citizens and Russian minorities (UNSC 7124: 4). Minority calls for Crimean reunification with Russia further framed actions of Russian compatriots as popular self-determination (UNSC 7124: 4-5).

Again, in line with the process that occurred in Georgia, the threat was escalated. Churkin rhetorically pushed ‘threats against the lives of Russian citizens, our compatriots’, from ‘a number of political groups whose membership includes radical extremists working in the field of Ukrainian security’ (UNSC 7124: 4). Again, on 3 March Churkin repeated:


The issue is one of defending our citizens and compatriots,[4] as well as the most import human right — the right to life (UNSC 7125: 3) . . . assistance is entirely legitimate under Russian law, given . . . the threat posed to Russian citizens, our compatriots (UNSC 7125: 5).


Churkin referenced Alter expectations of Russia’s foreign policy noting its position was in accordance with ‘humanitarian law, in defence of human rights and the rights of national minorities’ (UNSC 7125: 5). By using the Russian language as a determining factor Churkin included both Russian citizens and ‘Russian’ minorities to discursively create a Russian population. This population was then in need of protection due to the threat of Ukrainian security forces. [Co]compatriots and threat defined, the enaction of role ambiguity to justify an invasion became based upon the protection of compatriots through humanitarian intervention.

As March continued, this process began to augment with further efforts to frame self-determination. This included the threat becoming more existential.


It is clear that the achievement of the right to self-determination[5] in the form of separation from an existing state is an extraordinary measure. However, in the case of Crimea, it obviously arose as a result of the legal vacuum created by the violent coup against the legitimate Government carried out by nationalist radicals in Kyiv, as well as by their direct threats to impose their order throughout the territory of Ukraine (UNSC 7134: 12).


The description of the action being undertaken as an ‘extraordinary measure’ is indicative of it existing outside the realms of socialised behaviour and therefore Alter expectations. According to Russia the existential threat justified the need for invasion and annexation under the guise of a compatriot protecting humanitarian intervention. This framed the expanding behavioural repertoire of a [co]compatriot defender NRC as already socialised, and therefore expected, legitimate behaviour.

However, this behaviour came under increased scrutiny with the potential for role conflict. The US representative frequently criticised the Russian representative for failing to follow international law (UNSC 7138: 2; 7234: 6; 7239: 14). More time was therefore dedicated towards mitigating this role conflict. This was done primarily through role ambiguity. Practically, this was achieved by referencing the new behaviour, annexation and invasion, as consistent with the expectations of the significant other, referencing previous behaviour through a generalised other. Again, this was an attempt to shield Russian foreign policy from role conflict by referencing conflictual states’ previous foreign policy.


It is well known that the concept of a referendum is not new. Referendums have been or will be held in Puerto Rico, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, Catalonia and Scotland . . . the inhabitants of those territories were or will be given the opportunity to express their free will. Why should the people of Crimea be an exception? (UNSC 7134: 16)


As referenda became a further means for framing compatriot self-determination it again was deployed through role ambiguity. In response to numerous criticisms surrounding the referenda in Crimea and claims of self-determination, Churkin stated:


The Permanent Representative of the United States blamed Russia for illegally pursuing its ambitions. That does not apply to us . . . why has she negated the right of the people of Crimea to express their will tomorrow during the referendum? (UNSC 7138: 12)  


On 15 March Churkin referenced the island of Mayotte and a French independence referenda that separated it from Comoros. France used its veto to deny the Comorian position of integrity between Comoros and Mayotte (UNSC 7144: 16). These cases highlight Russian attempts to frame new behaviour as consistent with already socialised behaviour. This is done by engaging in role ambiguity highlighting the new behaviour being enacted as consistent with the expectations of a significant other based on its previous behaviour. The direct interaction with previous significant others (United States and French) foreign policy throughout March was used to construct validity in the engagement of the [co]compatriot defender role. This was commonly in reference to the expectations of Russia that would reflect previous significant other foreign policy (UNSC 7144: 18).


Ukraine 2022

In late February 2022 Putin announced Russia’s ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine (al Jazeera 2022a). It marked yet another phase of the ongoing conflict begun in 2014. The [co]compatriot defender role that was previously engaged was used; however, it ran into some serious inconsistencies when implemented. The compatriot defender role conception was consistently implemented when justifying engagement in the Donbas region of Ukraine. This follows from its use in 2014 during the August invasion (UNSC 7234, 7244, 7253; Pakhomenko, Tryma & Francis 2018). This was combined with references to referenda that fit the pattern of similar behaviour already described. When justifying the invasion in 2022 to the UNSC, Nebenzya highlighted the threat to compatriots through the ‘restriction’ of language rights, the actions of Ukrainian forces and the ongoing passportisation in the region.


The purpose of the special operation is to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years (UNSC 8974: 12).

[F]or eight years the Council turned a blind eye to crimes perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists in Donbas. Today once again, no mention was made of the suffering of the people of Donbas (UNSC 8980: 7).

Everyone is well aware that, starting in 2014, Russia and Russia alone has provided assistance to the civilian population of Donbas, who were faced with constant shelling by the Ukrainian army and the blockade imposed by Kyiv. . . . An important support measure for the people of Donbas was the 2019 decree by the President of Russia, Mr. Putin, entitled ‘On defining for humanitarian purposes categories of persons entitled to apply for citizenship of the Russian Federation via a simplified procedure’ (UNSC 8983: 14).  


This shows that the [co]compatriot defender role conception was being used in behaviour related to Donbas. That this justification was being used by Putin in the initial speech beginning the ‘special military operation’, then repeated consistently by both Nebenzya and Kuzmin, shows this strategy was employed by the Russian government as a whole (Bloomberg 2022). When geographically isolated to the Donbas region, this behaviour was justified using a similar strategy to that in 2014 and 2008. However, the ‘special military operation’ included the entirety of Ukraine. The response of the Ukrainian government and populous is clear, rejecting the Russian intervention (Moscow Times 2022). This denied the rhetorical space for Russia to create a self-determining Russian [co]compatriot populous to defend. This in turn made the role conflict between its existing role behaviour and the new behaviour more obvious to the international community.

However, that there were so few cases of the [co]compatriot defender being vocally engaged and that they became confined to one specific region shows the inability to coherently deploy relevant justifications. The new behaviour enacted in the ‘special military operation’ was justified through demilitarisation and denazification. This was in part used by Russia to justify its wider actions in Ukraine outside the Donbas (UNSC 8979). In doing so it attempted to add these behaviours towards its repertoire. However, it made no attempt to engage in role ambiguity when enacting these new behaviours. Instead, most speeches made in the UN in the period just after the ‘special military operation’ began with an extensive list of grievances (UNSC 8979; UNSC 8983; UNSC 8988; UNSC 8989).

This fits the behaviour associated with the anti-hegemonic role described by Engström and Grossman suggesting the potential for a change in role priority (Grossman 2005; Engström 2014). The accusations of biological weapons cooperation between Ukraine and the United States is a case in point with Russia directly challenging the United States role as hegemon (UNSC 8991).


According to the project documents, the United States has actively funded biological projects in Ukraine. Experiments were conducted to study the transmission of dangerous diseases by ectoparasites, such as lice and fleas (UNSC 8991: 5).


Direct challenges to US hegemony have become a regular feature of statements by Nebenzya at the UN (UNSC 8979; 8983; 8988; 8989; 8991; 8999).


For almost 20 years, the United States has blocked efforts of that kind, while refusing to provide such information. . . . The other issues I again mentioned on 11 March (UNSC 8991) are just the tip of the iceberg. . . . We will continue to keep the international community informed about the unlawful activity carried out by the Pentagon on Ukrainian territory (UNSC 8999: 6).


It marks a change toward more direct confrontation with the United States, something noted by Köstem (Köstem 2018). This change in turn led to a more direct inter-state role conflict between US hegemonic role conceptions and Russian anti-hegemonic role conceptions (Maull 2011; Engström 2014).

Thirdly, the grievances, used to justify the inclusion of new behaviour, remain unconnected to the behaviour of significant others. This includes accusations of US and Ukrainian biological weapons production presented by Russia to the UNSC (UNSC 8991). Use of biological weapons for instance remains unconnected to the defence of compatriots role. Instead it is presented as a direct confrontation to the role taken by the United States (Maull 2011). Therefore, it exists simply to confront the United states within the anti-hegemonic role conception. This highlights two emerging phenomena. Firstly it indicates the potential for role change within foreign policy justifications directed by Russia towards the international community. This change came in the form of a priority shift from the [co]compatriot defender role conception towards the anti-hegemonic role conception. This led to more direct inter-state role conflict between the hegemonic role conception or the US and the anti-hegemonic role conception of Russia in 2022. Secondly, it indicates that the role ambiguity previously used to justify invasions in 2008 and 2014 was largely discarded. This is shown through less reference between current Russian behaviour and previous foreign policy by the likes of the United States and other Western states. Both these changes disrupt the justifications Russia puts forward highlighting the clear conflict between Russian actions and expectations.  



Russian invasions in 2008 and 2014 have followed a common approach. This begins with the discursive creation of a Russian [co]compatriot population. This is done through the ‘independent’ expression of a right to self-determination by the [co]compatriot population. This is expressed in the form of referenda, passport ownership or militias. In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia the issuance of passports expressed their independence as Russian [co]compatriots. In Crimea, ‘referenda’ calling for Russian reunification expressed their [co]compatriot status. In Donbass, calls for Russian sponsored independence codified in ‘referenda’ defended through the calling of militias expressed their [co]compatriot status. This discursively created a Russian population. This was followed by the inference of an existential threat. In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia it was Saakashvili’s Georgian government. In the case of Crimea and Donbass, the post Yanukovych government. This threat then prompts engagement of Russia’s [co]compatriot defender NRC. This frames the invasion as a humanitarian intervention.

These invasions then require justification to significant others within the international community. As new behaviour this invasion is presented as within the expected repertoire of the [co]compatriot defender role. This is catered toward the expected behaviour of the [co]compatriot defender role, framing new behaviour in terms of humanitarian intervention, international law and the right to self-determination. This frames Russian foreign policy in reference to historical action taken by the conflictual Alter, as a generalised other. With invasions presented as humanitarian interventions, in the case of the US, previous interventions justify the inclusion of this behaviour. This is designed to validate Ego’s new behaviour by reference to Alter’s previous behaviour. This process, role ambiguity, attempts to shield the behaviour from role conflict inferring a lack of clarity as to whether Alter’s behavioural expectations are met by this new behaviour.

In the most recent escalation of conflict Russia failed or decided not to engage in role ambiguity. There is an inability to define a compatriot population in threat outside of the Donbas region. Russian attempts to define an existential threat through ‘neo-fascists’ in the Ukrainian government was equally rejected. The ‘special military operation’ therefore remained unrelated to any historical action taken by other members of the international community. Fundamentally, this drew a clearer distinction between Russia’s behaviour and the expectations of its [co]compatriot defender role. Furthermore, when related to its anti-hegemonic role it highlighted clear inter-state role conflict between itself and the US. This lack of role ambiguity denied Russia the space to engage adequately in its [co]compatriot defender NRC whilst exacerbating role conflict between other roles. This gave the political space for western governments to engage in unprecedented responses, including increased military spending (Pancevski 2022), military aid investments (al Jazeera 2022b) and new alliances (NATO 2022). This marks a dramatic increase in inter-state role conflict. By failing to properly use its [co]compatriot defender role and being unable to engage in role ambiguity, Russia now faces significant role conflict. This change in priority and inability to engage previous mechanism for international justification leaves Russia isolated and unable to get away with yet another invasion in Europe.




Alexander Bendix is a PhD candidate and Alice Brown fellow at the University of Edinburgh. His research focus is role theory, Scottish external affairs, and Scotland’s post-Brexit role. He previously worked on Middle East, Caucuses and Central Asian security studies at the University of St Andrews.



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Security Council Meetings

Security Council, Sixty-third year: 5952nd meeting: Friday, 8 August 2008, 4.20 p.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-third year: 5953rd meeting: Sunday, 10 August 2008, 11.35 a.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-third year: 5961st meeting: Tuesday, 19 August 2008, 4.15 p.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7117th meeting: Monday, 24 February 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7124th meeting: Saturday, 1 March 2014, 4.15 p.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7125th meeting: Monday, 3 March 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7134th meeting: Thursday, 13 March 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7138th meeting: Saturday, 15 March 2014, 11 a.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7144th meeting: Wednesday, 19 March 2014, 3 p.m. New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7234th meeting: Tuesday, 5 August 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7239th meeting: Friday, 8 August 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7244th meeting: Tuesday, 19 August 2014, New York.

Security Council, Sixty-ninth year: 7253rd meeting: Thursday, 28 August 2014, 2 p.m. New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8974th meeting: Wednesday, 23 February 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8979th meeting: Friday, 25 February 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8980th meeting: Sunday, 27 February 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8983rd meeting: Monday, 28 February 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8986th meeting: Friday, 4 March 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8988th meeting: Monday, 7 March 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8989th meeting: Tuesday, 8 March 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8991st meeting: Friday, 11 March 2022, New York.

Security Council, Seventy Seventh year: 8999th meeting: Friday, 18 March 2022, New York.


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