Date of Award

Spring 2024

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science & Geography


Graduate Program in International Studies

Committee Director

Regina Karp

Committee Member

Austin Jersild

Committee Member

Sabine Hirschauer


On May 9, 2008, Russia’s Victory Day, four 14-wheeled MAZ-7917s drove through Red Square carrying Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles. This was the first time nuclear weapons had been paraded through Moscow since before the end of the Cold War. The previous August, Russia had resumed nuclear-capable bomber patrols, and in January, 2007, President Putin acknowledged Russia had begun to build new nuclear weapons. These remarkable events were met with little acknowledgement in the West, as if they were completely normal. Instead, they represented a major evolution in the bilateral relationship between the United States and Russia. Sixteen years of fitful bilateral cooperation was taking a turn, revealing an increasingly oppositional, strident, and assertive Russia. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, followed by its annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, its intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, its interference in the U.S. Presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, culminating in its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, represent increasingly risky efforts to confront, challenge, and provoke the United States. This dissertation seeks to explain Russian behavior as an effort to be validated in its sense of self as a great power, i.e., to seek ontological security, even at the expense of its physical security. To do so, it develops a multidisciplinary analytical lens that is used to evaluate Russia as an anthropomorphic state. It traces the development of a new Russian identity over three distinct periods: first, a period during which Russia strives to be an equal partner with the United States while seeking to become Western, democratic, and pursue integration with Europe; second, a period during which it seeks to gain U.S. attention by incorporating Cold War-era structures, including attempts to resurrect the salience of nuclear weapons; and finally, a third period in which a new, strident nationalism takes root. Coupling its nationalistic and oppositional ideology to its new nuclear weapons, Russia successfully gains the United States’ willing acknowledgement of its great power status. However, to maintain this attention, Russia becomes trapped in its identity, obliged to engage in continued threats to its physical security. This dissertation reveals the explanatory power of an ontological security analysis, suggesting significant promise for a research agenda that could provide greater understanding of contemporary questions, including the potential for nuclear arms control to managing China’s ambitions to rise without resort to war.


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