Written by Nicholas Ingersoll, Graduate Student, Department of History
On November 11, 2020, Dr. Stanislav Budnitsky, a postdoctoral fellow at the IU Russian Studies Workshop, gave a presentation on “Russia’s Great Power Identity and Internet Diplomacy” and its implications for Russia’s approach to internet governance and diplomacy.
Dr. Budnitsky’s work investigates how the national identity constructions of states inform their internet agendas and by extension the global politics of the internet. In particular, Budnitsky is interested in exploring the role of cultural factors that explain enduring continuities of post-Soviet Russia’s global communication diplomacy against the backdrop of changing ideologies. Traditionally a subject of research in law, political science, and science and technology studies, internet governance is investigated here through the integration of new methodological approaches from cultural, nationalism, postcolonial and social constructionist studies. These new methodologies have revealed the importance of considering how countries and national elites perceive themselves as well as how national identity constructions shape countries’ understanding of the world and how they build their policies.
Budnitsky’s methodology is grounded in his background in communications studies. He formulates his project as a comparative case study of Russia and Estonia, aiming to better understand intersecting dynamics of cultural, political, and technological developments that have emerged more broadly across post-socialist Eastern Europe over the past thirty years. In this project, Budnitsky addresses trends of alarmism over internet- or techno-nationalism by detailing increasing trends and continuities of engagement by national governments in internet policymaking and digital infrastructure development. Around the world, state interest in internet governance —that is, interest in the design and administration of the internet’s underlying technologies, according to Budnitsky—has grown as key national interests such as trade, access to emerging technologies, security, development, and the environment have become so closely tied with the technological architecture and conventions of the internet.
Budnitsky explains how countries have become increasingly interested in this field because the architecture and conventions of the internet as they were originally developed were created under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and later under the communities of engineers that worked under those agencies. As a result, the administrative structure of the internet is still structured around American NGOs and considered by many states to be unanswerable to national governments outside of the United States.
According to Budnitsky, the intersection of a lack of sovereignty over an increasingly key determinant of national interests has raised an important question in the field of internet governance, namely, “who gets to govern the internet?” Should it be a free architecture under the direction of non-sovereign NGOs, or a multi-polar structure that answers to the concerns of national governments whose interests rely increasingly on the internet? Dr. Budnitsky shows how this debate has reached the highest echelons of global politics with powers like the U.S. offering the status quo vision for internet freedom under NGOs and other voices, such as Russia and China, offering statist visions.
Budnitsky’s primary case is Russia, whose position he analyzes through its identity narrative of Russia as a great power and through the ensuing role that it envisions for itself in the world. (He noted that in his research, but not in this talk, that he explores at greater length the comparison of Russia’s example with that of Estonia’s positioning as a defender of the non-statist status quo.) Such an interpretation is in contrast to the traditional framework for understanding Russia’s desires for the global internet, namely that of authoritarianism.
Budnitsky, however, attempts to step outside of this framework, integrating a cultural perspective to account for continuities that have existed in Russia, and arguing that Russia’s current approach to the internet does not differ fundamentally from the approach it took to communications governance under the liberal post-Soviet administrations of the 1990s, when Russia advanced similar normative claims and policies in regards to governance of global telecommunications. Budnitsky argues that looking at the discourses on Russia’s national identity construction—and specifically at its identity as a great power—helps account for this continuity within the state’s current approach to the global internet and its agenda toward global internet governance, and helps explain continuities in Russia’s telecommunications diplomacy over the past thirty years.
Budnitsky’s analysis relies on interpretive qualitative methods including textual analysis, media and internet expert interviews, and participatory observations of events that cover cyber security, foreign policy, and internet governance. In particular, he focuses on two types of discourse expressed by authorized representatives of the state. One pertains to Russia’s ideas about its national identity, its history, and its place in the world and the global system, while the other pertains specifically to Russia’s approach to the global internet, how it should be governed and by whom it should be governed. Through this approach, Budnitsky illustrates how discourses about Russia as a great power with a stake in global governance permeate the logic and language of Russia’s approach to the global internet. For Budnitsky, the intertextuality of this multi-polar language is visible across actors of the ideological spectrum and even as far back as the fall of 1992 in the shaping of policy of the newly independent Russian state.
Budnitsky’s historical discursive analysis allows him to illustrate this continuity across time and political regimes that differed in ideology and practice, from liberal idealism to authoritarianism. By characterizing these discourses of Russia as a great power emanating from Russian elites as an empty signifier, Budnitsky is able to demonstrate the malleability of these discourses and their bipartisan employment by Russian elites throughout the political spectrum, leading to a dominant discursive framework that for Russian elites grants Russia a natural and inherent place at the table of global governance. The implications of these discourses are manifested in Russia’s approach to the perceived uni-polarity of the current status quo of global internet governance, which, as in other spheres, has led Russia to contest domains of global governance in which it has no influence or real say in the decision-making processes. As a result, while Russia continues to recognize and welcome the technological contributions of NGOs and tech companies, the perception by Russia’s leadership of its role as a great power informs a multi-polar approach that ultimately reserves sovereignty over processes of internet governance to the nation.
Budnitsky makes a convincing case that while policies and rhetoric of the Russian government have changed, as have the cultural entropements of their delivery, these policies and rhetoric reflect cultural continuities in Russia’s perception of itself as a great power. This perception of Russia’s role, in turn, informs the extension of a vision of a multi-polar world that it has attempted to advance in many spheres since 1992. In particular, Budnitsky’s emphasis on the insight to be gained analytically from incorporating greater consideration of Russia’s national identity construction appears promising for widening our understanding of Russia’s positions on myriad issues of global governance in which Russia is currently considered to play an obstructionist or spoiler role under dominant analytical paradigms.