Strengthening Russia’s Influence in International Affairs, Part I: The Quest for Great Power Status

Strengthening Russia’s Influence in International Affairs, Part I: The Quest for Great Power Status

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This essay will appear in two parts. In Part I, I examine Russia’s efforts to regain its influence in international affairs and pursue its quest for great power status. I will explore Russian relations with major power centers in the world—the United States, Europe, China—and with what has been traditionally referred to as the third world. In Part II, I will discuss Russia’s relations with its neighbors, focusing on countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact, including what was once Yugoslavia.

In the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the repercussions it has had on Russia’s position in the world, Russia’s leaders have been intensely focused on repairing the damage and regaining a position of influence in the world that it considers worthy of a great people and a great nation. Put simply, the Kremlin wants Russia once again to be viewed as a great power.

Russia’s Perception of Its Place in the World

In assessing Russian foreign policy, it is essential to understand the struggle over fundamental questions that have plagued Russian rulers, policymakers, and analysts for centuries: What is Russia’s place in the world? Is it part of the West? Or does it occupy a special place in the world that reflects its unique cultural, religious, and ideological heritage, and its geopolitical position straddling Europe and Asia? Should Russia strive to be a partner with its Western neighbors and follow Western approaches to the development of its society? Or should Russia seek its own path based largely on innate features of the Slavic heritage and the Russian historical tradition?

Until Peter the Great opened the “Window to the West” and attempted to modernize Russia by importing Western technology and know-how, Russia had remained largely apart from Western civilization, its innovations, and its development. Russia did not experience the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, or the Industrial Revolution. Even feudalism and accompanying serfdom, which played a major role in both Europe and Russia, had a different impact in Russia. In Russia, feudalism lasted much longer, took an alternative form, and had a more damaging impact on the advancement of Russian society.

Peter’s initiatives, which were continued by his successors, sought to import Western technology and know-how to modernize Russian society, promote economic development, and build up Russia’s armed forces. At the same time, Russia’s leaders were wary of importing Western ideas and ideologies that might threaten despotic rule and, consequently, took measures to restrict foreign influence.

For the most part, the “westernization” of imperial Russia remained limited to the nobility and the upper layers of the professional classes while the rest of Russian society remained mired in abject poverty and bound by the backwardness of traditional Russia.

Russia’s elite adopted much of the veneer of Europe. They became versed in European languages, literature, art, architecture, and dress. French became the dominant language among members of the upper class, many of whom had poor knowledge of their native language, Russian. The latter was viewed as the language of the peasants, while French was considered the language of the educated. Nothing illustrates this better than the opening dialogue at an evening soiree in Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel, War and Peace that was written entirely in French.

By the mid-18th century, the Russian upper classes considered themselves Europeans. In fact, within the ruling Romanov dynasty, many members of the royal family were foreigners. Catherine the Great was a low-level German princess; other spouses and rulers that followed were foreign-born or were direct descendants of foreign nobility. By the time of the last Russian Emperor, Nicholas II, who was of German and Danish descent and was a first cousin of Great Britain’s King George V and a second cousin of German Emperor Wilhelm II, the Russian royals had little real Russian blood coursing through their veins.

This great divide between the rulers and the ruled during Russia’s imperial era was a key factor in defining Russia’s identity and still plays a role in Russian domestic and foreign policy today. Vladislav Surkov, one of Vladimir Putin’s ideological advisors, has described Russia as having a “mixed breed” culture, one that contains elements of both the east and the west, like “someone born of a mixed marriage.” This has complicated the task of determining how best to pursue Russia’s foreign policy objectives and provide for the growth and security of the Russian state.

In the 19th century, the struggle to define Russia’s place in the world was waged through an intellectual and political debate in Russian literature and politics between the so-called Westernizers and the Slavophiles as they sought to promote their respective Weltanschauung and offer policy prescriptions to guide Russia’s domestic and foreign policy. Proponents of both ideologies agreed that Russia was unique and endowed with a special mission in the world. Where they differed was how best to manage Russia’s development to ensure it would rise to a preeminent place in the world.

The Westernizers believed Russia must learn and adopt from the West to modernize and prosper, and they supported importing Western technology and liberal ideas to modernize Russia’s government. At the same time, there was disagreement over the extent to which Western political thought and practice should be adopted by Russia. It was generally agreed that Russia should borrow as little as possible to maintain the essential nature of the Russian state.

The Slavophiles were more mystical in their approach and believed that Russia was superior to the West despite its economic and technological backwardness and that it had a special destiny and unique mission in the world. That mission was closely tied to the Orthodox Church and had both a spiritual and secular nature. For many, Russia was defined not so much by geography as by metaphysics. As one of the most famous Slavophiles of the 19th century, Fyodor Tyutchev, wrote in one of his poems: You cannot understand Russia just using the intellect / You cannot measure her using the common scale / She has a special kind of grace / You can only believe in her. In other words, you cannot know Russia by your mind; you can only feel Russia in your soul.

Belief in Russia’s uniqueness can be traced back to the early years of Russian Orthodox Christianity and the conviction that after the center of Orthodoxy in Byzantium was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, Russia became its successor and was now the leader of the Orthodox world as the “Third Rome.” In later years, this central, messianic role of Russia was manifested in other forms centered on ethnic identity, such as the pan-Slavic kingdom, a 19th-century movement that sought to unite the Slavic-speaking world with a focus on the Slavs of the Balkans who were being liberated at that time from Ottoman rule. Displays of Slavic brotherhood and identity continue to exist today but in a less obvious form.

Slavophiles did not just believe in Russia’s superiority to the West; they generally viewed the West with suspicion and disdain. They believed that Russian values and morality were superior to those of the West and that Russia should not allow itself to be corrupted by the social, moral, religious, and political ethos of the West.

The conflicting views raised in this debate did not begin and end in the closing years of Imperial Russia; there were manifestations of it going back to the time of Peter the Great, and ideological differences have continued up to the present day. Both perspectives play a prominent role in guiding and directing contemporary Russian foreign policy. Sometimes the struggle plays out for all to see; at other times, it plays out behind the scenes until one side eventually emerges victorious, and then the next struggle begins. We can identify Boris Yeltsin and Dmitry Medvedev as more aligned with the views of Westernizers, and Vladimir Putin as pursuing policies more in common with the traditional Slavophiles. Although all three leaders have interacted closely with the West, there have been discernible differences in the extent to which they have sought to align Russia’s interests with those of Europe and the United States. All three leaders, however, share a deeply held belief in Russia’s special mission in the world. That belief has never faltered, and it instills pride in the Russian people and evokes resentment toward the West for failing to properly appreciate Russia’s uniqueness and its “rightful” role in the world.

In examining Russian foreign policy in both theory and practice, it is important to keep in mind these fundamentally different visions of Russia’s place in the world and how these views have been reflected in the policy arena.

What Does This Mean for Russia Today?

The 20th century—the century of the Soviet Union—was to a significant extent a battleground over the ideas and policies of the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.

Marxism was a Western philosophy that analyzed the ills and abuses of an industrializing Europe. Vladimir Lenin adopted this Western ideology for Russia, creating a new model that combined Western thought with the reality of traditional Russia. The result was a system of rule that proved to be a disaster for the Russian people. Although the Soviet system transformed a peasant society into an industrialized state that emerged in its closing decades as a military superpower, the price it paid in human lives was appalling. The Soviet Union was not able to overcome much of its traditional backwardness even as it struggled over more than 70 years to balance its need for technology and economic support from the West against autarchic policies that promoted the uniqueness and superiority of its system.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created challenges for the Kremlin. For the next decade, Russia struggled to redefine its identity and its relationship with the West. Under President Yeltsin, Russia sought to define, together with the West, new “rules of the game” that would determine how the two worlds would interact in the years and decades to come. Many of those close to Yeltsin hoped to build a new world of peace and cooperation with the West that would extend from Vancouver to Vladivostok. They sought a world in which Russia would cooperate with the West as an equal but would set its own policies and would have a voice in determining global policies and priorities. Unfortunately, neither Russia nor the West was able or willing to forge a new relationship. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, the bombing of Serbia, support for an independent Kosovo, regime change in Iraq and Libya, and other events convinced the Kremlin that the West was pursuing policies that pose a direct threat to Russia’s sovereignty. The West, for its part, tried to convince Russia that these events were not a threat to Russia. The West hoped that Russia would change and would follow the United States’ and NATO’s lead as a junior partner in the new post-Cold War era.

As a result, the 1990s turned out to be a decade of disappointment, disillusionment, and deceit. The West failed Russia, and Russia failed the West. Even Vladimir Putin, who is known for his anti-Western views, was initially favorably disposed to try once again to reset relations with the West. Those expectations were short-lived, however, and led Putin to abandon his outreach to the West and his attempt to establish a new path forward for Russia.

Leading Russian analysts offer varying opinions and insightful comments about Russia’s efforts to build a positive relationship with the West. Sergey Karaganov, who heads the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, writes: “Already at the start of the current millennium, we had almost completely exhausted all that we could and needed to take from Europe considering the general level of our development and the special features of our national character which is the striving to preserve independence and sovereignty.” Vladislav Surkov, an ideological advisor to President Putin, shares this view. He writes that Russia has abandoned its centuries-long hope of integrating with the West and is bracing for “100 years of geopolitical solitude.” This “solitude” does not mean complete isolation, but it does mean that Russia’s openness to the West will be limited in the future. Surkov attributed Russia’s historical interest in being part of the West to “excessive enthusiasm” by Russia’s elites, but that fervor, he argued, is now all but gone.

Others see the failure of Russia to establish closer ties to the West as inevitable given Russia’s great-power pride and its sense of a special mission. Some argue that it is time for Russia to reassess its great-power aspirations. They maintain that Russia will not be a “normal” country until it properly aligns its aspirations with reality. Still, others insist that Russia will never abandon its vision of itself as a great power and must strive to attain this status. They argue that Russia cannot survive other than as a great power. They see conflict with the West as inevitable because neither side is willing to compromise. Although many Russians view some elements of the West as a model to be emulated, they consider that the West remains a threat to Russia.

How Does Russia See the World Today?

Russia and the West have fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy. Since the end of World War II, the United States and democratic Europe have pursued a liberal foreign policy that has championed the promotion of democratic institutions, individual liberty, human rights, liberal values, and economic liberalism. Russia has resisted this approach and has now openly rejected it, as Putin forcefully stated in his interview in the Financial Times on June 27, 2019. Instead, the Kremlin adheres to a “realist” approach that stresses the supremacy of the state over the individual, the pursuit of national interests, and the protection of sovereignty, which ensures the right of each regime to rule its territory without the fear of foreign interference. This is an extremely important point because it helps to explain Russia’s support for some of the most notorious authoritarian regimes in the world, such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. In the final analysis, Putin is most concerned about the threat of regime change that could overturn his rule in Russia. Failure to support sovereignty elsewhere, even of the most despotic regimes, could, by implication, weaken Putin and make him more vulnerable to a similar fate at home.

Russia and the West differ also in the conduct of foreign policy. The United States and its allies traditionally prefer to pursue small, modest steps to advance foreign policy objectives, particularly when dealing with adversaries and to use them as building blocks to increase trust that they hope will lead to broader understanding and agreement. Russia follows a very different approach. It prefers to begin by establishing broad principles and developing strategic direction at the highest level that will serve as guidance for lower-level officials to work out agreements. Thus, while the West favors a bottom-up approach, Russia is more comfortable with a top-down approach.

These noticeable differences in both foreign policy objectives and execution as well as stark differences in perceptions and understanding of the opposing side have compounded the difficulty in achieving an acceptable working relationship that is not excessively vulnerable to being derailed by domestic squabbles or isolated incidents. We have seen how the misunderstandings and misguided policies of the 1990s and early 2000s led to the collapse of well-intended but naive and misinterpreted efforts to put relations between the West and Russia on a more solid footing. We have now reached the point where both sides are locked into inflexible positions, and neither is willing to explore how the sides might defuse tensions and cooperate on issues of common concern without jeopardizing their national interests. The gulf between them appears at present to be unbreachable.

The Ukraine crisis of 2014 marked a turning point for Russia and for the more than 300 years of Russia’s efforts to establish a compatible relationship with the West. There were warning signs as early as 2007 when Putin delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference damning the West for all its affronts to Russia. Today, Putin appears to have changed course, seeking instead to build an alternative global civilization with Russia working in partnership with other non-Western powers (China, India, etc.).

Senior Russian policy officials have elaborated on the shift in Russia’s foreign policy approach. Speaking on April 12, 2019, at the annual meeting with students and professors at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the Western liberal model is being replaced by a new world order:

The Western liberal model of development, which particularly stipulates a partial loss of national sovereigntythat is what our Western colleagues aimed at when they invented what they call globalization—is losing its attractiveness and is no more viewed as a perfect model for all. Moreover, many people in the western countries themselves are skeptical about it.

Note Lavrov’s reference to the partial loss of sovereignty and its equivalence to globalization. The protection of sovereignty, as emphasized above, is a cardinal principle that Russian foreign policy has been defending since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Lavrov continued:

The US and its allies are trying to impose their approaches on others. They are guided by a clear desire to preserve their centuries-long dominance in global affairs, although from the economic and financial standpoints, the US—alone or with its allies—can no longer resolve all global economic and political issues. In order to preserve its dominance and indisputable authority, the West uses blackmail and pressure. They do not hesitate to blatantly interfere in the affairs of sovereign states.

Surkov supports this position. “When everyone was still in love with globalization and made noise about a flat world without borders,” Surkov argued, “Moscow pointedly reminded them that sovereignty and national interests are important.” To cap off this argument, Surkov concluded: “Nobody is happy with America, including the Americans themselves.”

Leading Russian analysts recognize that the power relationship between Russia and the West, and specifically the United States, is undergoing a gradual but inevitable tectonic shift. Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that “the quarter-century-long period of Pax Americana is coming to an end.” Igor Ivanov, President of the Russian International Affairs Council, maintains that: “The Yalta-based global political system has been all but destroyed in the two decades since the end of the Cold War. Yet nothing has been devised to replace it.” He acknowledges that, “The traditional centers of global politics are unable to play a leading role in establishing a new world order.” Ivanov sees the United States as “deeply politically polarized,” which prevents it from providing a “long-term, balanced, or consistent foreign policy…any time soon.” As for the European Union, it is “…struggling with a fundamental internal crisis of its own.” Only Russia and China, despite their historical differences and the fact that their “…current priorities are not entirely aligned,” Ivanov asserts, “…enjoy a substantial advantage over the other global centers of power.” It is to these two powers—the center of Eurasia—that Russian leaders and many pundits look to establish what Ivanov calls “global governance at a new level.”

What Is Russia’s Strategy toward the West?

In his annual press conference in December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the United States’ global influence had come to an end. He rebuked the United States for having a “sense of impunity,” stating, “This is the result of the monopoly of a unipolar world.” “Luckily this monopoly is disappearing,” he added. “It is almost done.” This provides the opportunity, he added, for Russia to fill the void left by the United States and again become a great power with a decisive voice in the international community. This “declaration of victory,” however, does not mean Russia can ignore the West in its quest to build a new world order centered on Eurasia. On the contrary, even if the Russian President’s optimistic assessment is to be believed, the task of managing major challenges posed by a declining power center and world order will remain a high priority for Moscow. How, then, is the Kremlin approaching its relations with the West?

Resistance to the U.S.-led liberal world order and restoration of Russia’s position as a great power has been the Kremlin’s dominant foreign policy and national security objective since Russia overcame the initial shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union. These have been daunting tasks, given that Russia today is a shadow of the power and influence of the former Soviet Union. Its economic and political clout is significantly diminished, but it has been able to retain and grow its military might to a level where Russia is once again a formidable force in the world with military power and force projection capabilities that ensure Russia’s interests cannot be ignored. In other areas, such as financial and economic influence and its role as a model for less developed countries, Russia lags behind the West. Although Putin has been adept at playing a weak hand against the West, he recognizes that unlike the Soviet Union that strove to “catch up and overtake the West,” Russia today lacks the means to achieve that goal. Instead, it is focusing on fending off potential aggression from the West while building an alternative world order.

The latest Russian National Security Strategy, which was issued in December 2015, identified the United States and its NATO allies as Russia’s main threat. It repeated the frequent accusation that the West is seeking to dominate the international order and deprive Russia of its rightful place in the international arena. This document stresses the importance of building up Russia’s military might to deter Western malevolent intentions toward Russia.

The sharp deterioration of relations between Russia and the West became undeniable following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin has been pursuing a more aggressive military posture and has been publicly touting the latest achievements (real or projected) of its weapons development program. Pavel Felgenhauer, a prominent military analyst, describes Putin’s approach to dealing with the increasingly bitter confrontation with the West as: “…based on a kind of internal logic: scare everyone with an array of fancy nuclear superweapons, and the West will yield or at least some key countries may waiver under duress. This strategy is not that different from what North Korea has been doing for some time.” Indeed, some of the public statements Putin and his defense minister have made about Russia’s latest technological developments in “super weapons,” including a graphic image of missiles attacking Florida that has been widely broadcast on Russia’s most popular television talk shows, have reinforced the message to both domestic and international audiences that Russia is standing up to the West and will no longer compromise its national interests and its influence in the world.

There is no reason to believe that the Kremlin’s message or its confrontation with the West will change any time soon, and there will be no return to the relationship between Russia and the West that existed in the early years of post-Soviet Russia. How the relationship will evolve in the future is unclear, but the two sides must maintain military-to-military communications and high-level dialogue to avoid an accident or miscalculation that could have unintended, catastrophic consequences.

Such risks are magnified by a new and dangerous element that has been introduced into the growing confrontation between Russia and the West in recent years: cyber warfare. Russia’s attack on the American democratic system through its interference in the 2016 elections as well as similar attacks in numerous European countries serve as the most vivid example, but Russia’s offensive actions go way beyond election interference. They go to the broader strategic competition between Russia and the West and reflect Russia’s efforts to sow discord and confusion and weaken democracy in Western societies. Surkov, writing in early 2019 in the popular Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, was very blunt about Russia’s use of the cyber tool: “Foreign politicians accuse Russia of interfering in elections and referenda throughout the planet. But in reality, the situation is even more serious. Russia interferes with their brains, and they don’t know what to do with their own transformed consciousness.”

Although the use of cyber warfare is a new weapon in the rivalry between Russia and the West, there are similarities with the old Soviet practice of “active measures.” A U.S. Government Interagency Intelligence Study published in 1982 entitled, Soviet Active Measures, stated that

the Soviets had multiple goals in conducting active measures, such as undermining support in the United States and overseas for policies viewed as threatening to Moscow, discrediting U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, weakening U.S. alliances and U.S. relations with partners, and increasing Soviet power and influence across the globe.

Among the efforts the Soviets undertook was to disrupt elections in Western countries. This sounds very similar to what Russia is doing today.

Russia’s aggression in the cyber domain, as well as its increasingly brazen espionage activities, are consistent with Russian behavior described by George Kennan, the prominent American diplomat who advocated for the policy of containment of the Soviet Union. In his famous “long telegram” of 1946, Kennan warned that Russia operates on two planes—an official plane and a “subterranean plane of actions undertaken by agencies…for which [the government] does not admit responsibility.” Russia’s poisoning of Sergei Skripal, its cyberattacks on the 2016 U.S. elections and other western elections, and its disinformation campaigns around the world are all examples of Russia’s behavior on this subterranean plane that Kennan presciently described more than 70 years ago.

Vladimir Putin and his supporters are not the only ones who have a pessimistic view of the future of Russia’s relationship with the West. Many prominent Russian analysts and observers share this negative assessment. Felgenhauer argues that

Russia will do its best to humiliate the United States and undermine the latter country’s credibility to further strain Western alliances and isolate the U.S. as much as possible. In the future, as Putin has indicated, the time may come for substantive negotiations, when the U.S. is already significantly weakened and after Russia has increased its military power by deploying new superweapons.

Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, states that the United States is “…widely portrayed [in Russia] as a country governed by a ‘deep state,’ and an entrenched elite guided by profound antipathy toward Russia and intent on marginalizing Russia on the world stage, destabilizing its domestic politics, and undermining its economy.” Trenin believes that the current state of confrontation will probably continue for years. He warns against steps, including attempts to influence U.S. domestic affairs, that could further exacerbate tensions and urges both sides to focus on maintaining high-level communications between military and security personnel. He sees little value in trying to work directly with President Trump and does not believe that reviving U.S.-Russia arms control talks would help. Trenin argues that the U.S. and Russia “will have to wait at least five to six years, and possibly more”—that is until both Trump and Putin have left the scene—before they can begin a comprehensive dialogue.

At the end of 2018, Putin held his annual press conference during which he summarized Russia’s foreign policy and Russia’s relations with the United States. Prominent Russian analyst Tatyana Stanovaya highlighted Putin’s remarks. It “was clear,” she wrote,

that if Russia wants to remain sovereign and self-sufficient, it’s destined to live with sanctions. This belief reflects a certain degree of resignation and the conviction that it’s pointless to seek an understanding with the West. Further, Putin is preparing for the inevitable deterioration of the balance of nuclear forces and the growing risk of a nuclear war. Putin made it clear that Russia is not ruling out worst-case scenarios and warned that the threshold for a nuclear strike has been lowered (he blames the United States for this, but under Putin’s logic, Russia needs to respond). The main takeaway from Putin’s press conference is that he has less and less room to maneuver on foreign policy.

Trenin has also expressed his deep concern about the state of the U.S.-Russia nuclear relationship. Trenin wrote that in

…the 21st century, nuclear deterrence—with all its contradictions—continues to be the primary stabilizing factor in relations between the nuclear powers. However, the global strategic environment has become much more complex than it was during the Cold War. The accelerated development of technology, the substantial decrease of psychological barriers, and doctrinal changes have effectively lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons.

He notes the arms control system that was established between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s has all but broken down and argues that “arms control mechanisms will need to give way to conflict prevention mechanisms, confidence-building measures, transparency, consultations, and dialogue” to properly manage the strategic nuclear relationship. He is particularly concerned about the threat cyber weapons pose and stresses the importance of protecting “…nuclear arsenals and their associated control, communications, and intelligence systems from the effects of cyber weapons as a crucial condition for stability in the 21st century.” Unfortunately, neither side appears ready to address these existential threats in a meaningful way.

What Is Russia’s Worldwide Strategy?

Given that Russia’s relations with the West have deteriorated to the point that the best each side can do is avoid direct military confrontation, how does Moscow pursue its foreign policy objectives of maintaining its sovereignty and promoting the development of a new, multipolar world order that is not centered on the traditional liberal views and policies of the West? Trenin tells us that, ideally,

the overarching goal of Moscow’s foreign policy for the foreseeable future should be turning Russia into a modern, developed country while avoiding excessive dependence on leading players in Greater Eurasia, such as China, the European Union, and the United States. Russia must act abroad pragmatically, primarily to promote or protect its interests. It should not impose its values on others or engage in nation-building abroad, and it must respect others’ established values and customs and tolerate all religions. Finally, it should renounce any claim to domination, be it of individual states or regions or the world as a whole.

Considering the historical record of Russia’s conduct on the world stage and its declaratory policy as enunciated by Putin, Lavrov, and other senior Russian officials, it is doubtful that Russia will soon be able or even willing to pursue the broad goals proposed by Trenin.

Russia is treading a very thin line between seeking to disrupt and destroy the existing world order, to create new alliances, and to fill voids left by the West to build a new world order that is more responsive to Russia’s interests and influence. Russian foreign policy expert Alexander Lukin explains that “the course to transform Russia into an independent Eurasian center of power and world influence has today become the official policy of the Kremlin and the main direction of thought of the majority of Russian experts on foreign policy strategy.” The Kremlin recognizes that Russia is proceeding from a relatively weak and vulnerable state and therefore is buffering its position by projecting an image of strength at home and flexing its muscles around the world.

Moscow tends to view the world as a zero-sum game and seeks out weaknesses to exploit among its adversaries. In recent years, Russia has increased its efforts to widen cracks in the Euro-Atlantic alliance, disrupt the process of European integration, fuel ethnic tensions in the Balkans, and prevent closer relations between that region and the European Union and NATO. Neither Russia nor the West appears ready to accept any form of compromise to improve relations. The West believes that over time economic sanctions and growing social and political discontent within Russia will drive the Kremlin to seek accommodation with the West. Moscow believes that divisions within the European Union and among NATO partners will continue to grow and further weaken Western solidarity and resolve, thereby strengthening Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West. Russia must be careful about how far it allows its alienation from the West, and especially from Europe, to progress. Russia needs to preserve its strong trade links with the European Union and maintain its political and economic ties with Europe to serve, at a minimum, as leverage against an increasingly powerful China that will exploit Russia’s weaknesses to its economic and strategic advantage.

At the same time, Russia continues to seek zones of “privileged interests” in parts of Europe and Asia. Elsewhere in the world, Moscow tries to increase its influence in countries that have poor relations with the West and in regional conflicts, not necessarily as a serious problem-solver but to have a voice in any possible future settlement. Moscow’s efforts to inject itself into the intractable effort to find a peaceful solution to the war in Afghanistan is a case in point.

In recent years, Russia has emerged as an influential power in the Middle East. Its close ties with Syria and Iran have provided Moscow with leverage in the region that it has not had since the Soviet days. But unlike its Soviet predecessors, the Putin Administration is not tied to an ideological agenda. Russian foreign policy is quite flexible and pragmatic. Moscow has established good working relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—countries that the Soviet Union viewed with wariness and mistrust. Moscow seeks leverage and influence not only to serve as a counterweight to the United States and Europe but also to be in a better position to contain the danger of radical Islamic terrorism. The Kremlin is particularly concerned about the spread of radical Islam to the North Caucasus and other Muslim areas in central Russia, and its backing of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is in keeping with its belief in the strong role of the state, national sovereignty, and the need to keep the contagion of radical Islam from spreading beyond the region.

Russia’s presence in Africa has expanded significantly under the current Putin Administration. Unlike China, which is investing in infrastructure projects across the continent, Russia is increasing its influence in less expensive ways by establishing relationships with the political and military elites, providing arms, and signing deals on military cooperation. Most recently, Russia has increased in involvement in the civil war in Libya, which has raised particular concerns in NATO.

Russia is actively training local security forces in various African countries, often using so-called “private military contractors” such as the Wagner Group, which is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to President Putin. This is the same Prigozhin who set up the St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was responsible for much of the Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 elections.

The Wagner Group has established a presence in at least 20 African countries, but little is known about the activities of these Russian “contractors.” Three Russian journalists who went to the Central Africa Republic in 2018 to investigate what the Wagner Group was doing there were killed in an ambush by unknown assailants.

In addition to providing military training to various forces, including allegedly to some rebel groups, the Wagner Group is providing direct support to some of the worst dictators in Africa, including making direct financial payments and serving as unofficial advisors to governments. According to reports from the BBC, Russian “technical specialists,” allegedly funded by Prigozhin, “bribed several leading candidates in the 2018 presidential elections in Madagascar in an effort to influence the outcome.” Similar allegations of election interference have been made against Russian operatives in other African countries and the Seychelles.

For several years the Wagner Group considered Sudan to be its most important power center and “home base.” With the overthrow of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, the Wagner Group suffered a major loss. Commenting on this, Sergei Kostelyanets, the head of the Center for Sociological and Political Science Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Khartoum is Moscow’s foothold in Africa. “It is important not only in itself. It is a springboard for further penetration into Africa.” The Wagner Group’ however, proved to be powerless in countering the coup, which undoubtedly sent a message to other Africa leaders who may question how helpful these Russian “private contractors” might be to them at a critical juncture.

Russia will likely continue to expand its influence throughout Africa to enhance its image as a great power, but its degree of success will depend in large part on the resources it is willing to commit to the region. Unless it increases its current level of commitment, it will probably remain noticeably less effective than China, which is significantly outpacing Russia for influence in the continent.

Russia’s renewed interest and involvement in Latin America has raised alarm bells in Washington. In addition to its increasing support for Cuba and Nicaragua—traditional client states of the Soviet Union—Moscow has ramped up its involvement in Venezuela and has positioned itself as a bulwark for the Maduro regime.

For years Russia has been an important investor in Venezuela’s oil sector and has acquired a major share of the state-run oil company, PDVSA. Since 2010, it is reported that Russia has invested about $9 billion in PDVSA and Venezuelan oil projects. Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company controlled by Putin’s close associate Igor Sechin, and the Russian government have also provided more than $17 billion in loans to Venezuela since 2006. Therefore, any effort to topple Maduro would be viewed by Moscow as jeopardizing billions of dollars in investments.

The same concern applies to the extensive sale of Russian military equipment to Venezuela. According to the Russian press, Caracas purchased about $11 billion in armaments between 2005 and 2013. This includes SU-30 fighter jets, T-72 tanks, S-300 air defense systems, and smaller weaponry, for which the Maduro regime has not yet fully paid. Moscow would certainly want to avoid the loss of this valuable strategic client.

Most concerning for the United States and Venezuela’s neighbors was the deployment of a small contingent of approximately 100 Russian military personnel headed by Deputy Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-General Vasily Tonkishkurov. According to Russian security analyst Felgenhauer, this limited deployment of Russian troops was sent to Venezuela to serve as a deterrent against the U.S. and to mobilize and prepare the Venezuelan armed forces “…to inflict heavy casualties and repel the Americans.” In addition to sending regular armed forces, Russia has reportedly also sent private Russian military contractors from the Wagner Group to Venezuela. According to some press reports, they are serving as an elite guard force for Maduro and his inner circle.

The Kremlin has pushed back against strong U.S. complaints about its increased military presence in Venezuela and its support for Maduro. On March 25, 2019, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Moscow, “Russia has the right to be where it is and what it does [in Venezuela]. The US deploys where it wishes in the world and no one tells them where to be and where not to be.”

Moscow is taking a risk in projecting power in the United States’s backyard, but it apparently believes the risk is worth taking, given what Felgenhauer describes as a “…politically dysfunctional and split United States.” If it can avoid a direct confrontation with the United States and strengthen its foothold in the region, Moscow would enhance its status as a great power, reinforce its reputation of support for “legitimate” political regimes, and “pay back” the United States for its involvement in Russia’s backyard in Ukraine and Georgia.

But this is a risk that could fail. Recent warnings from Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov, who told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the “continuation of [U.S.] aggressive actions [directed toward Venezuela] may result in the gravest consequences” might be just bluster, but his comments could be a sign of a more aggressive Russian posture.

Russia may be wagering that its assertive stance against the United States will work similarly to its offensive military operations in Syria. If this is the case, Moscow could be in for a surprise. The two situations are not analogous. The United States has the upper hand regarding Venezuela in terms of national interests, geographic proximity, logistical advantages, and military superiority. If Moscow retreats and its client Maduro falls, its losses would be tolerable. In addition to the loss in investment, the principal blow would be to its reputation. It would not, however, significantly alter the Kremlin’s long-term strategy; it would just require tactical adjustments.

In mid-2019, reports circulated that Russia was withdrawing a significant number of defense advisors from Venezuela and that it had telegraphed this information to President Trump. The Kremlin denied this report. The initial reports indicated that the personnel drawdown was being made by Rostec, the Russian state defense contractor that trains Venezuelan troops to use Russian weapons. Allegedly this was being done because the Maduro government did not have the funds to pay Rostec for its services. Rostec told the media that there was a frequent rotation of personnel in and out of the country and some personnel had returned to Russia upon completion of their mission, but the reductions reported in the press (up to 1,000 workers), was a gross exaggeration. The Russian Foreign Ministry affirmed this point and asserted that Russia would consider sending more troops if needed. At the same time, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Latin America Department, Alexander Shchetinin, emphasized, according to a TASS report, that any additional personnel sent to Venezuela would be related to contract requirements and the normal rotation of specialists.

Indeed, Maduro’s inability to pay for Russian military equipment and training could become a factor in Russia’s calculus regarding its commitment to Venezuela. Any major decision by Moscow to maintain and perhaps enhance its position as a prop for this important ally in Latin America would likely be a political decision that would be based on Russia’s long-term strategy and its ability to manipulate the more powerful United States.

The Russia-China relationship is fundamental to Russia’s foreign policy strategy of creating a new world order that no longer depends upon the U.S.-led liberal world order and places Russia and China at its center. Moscow presents this burgeoning relationship in very favorable terms, and, indeed, there is much that Russia and China share in common. They both favor a multipolar world and oppose the primacy of the United States in world affairs. More often than not, they support each other in votes in the United Nations and other international bodies. Yet, there remain clear differences and areas of rival interests in various parts of the world. Central Asia, for example, is becoming a region of increasing competition as China expands its economic and political investments into this important part of the former Soviet Union. China also fails to support Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its efforts to dominate its neighbors. Instead, China remains neutral politically, at best, but at the same time is increasing its economic involvement in countries that have been within Russia’s sphere of influence. China is willing to cooperate with Russia in the international arena when it is in its national interest, but China will not blindly support Moscow in its anti-Western pursuits if such pursuits do not fit with China’s foreign policy strategy.

It is in the economic realm that differences between Russia and China are most apparent. Although that relationship is rapidly expanding, it is doing so in an asymmetrical way. Russia mainly supplies China with natural resources and military equipment, while China sells finished products, including consumer goods, machinery, and electronics to Russia. Russian expert Leon Aron explains the relationship in the following manner: “The nature of this exchange corresponds quite closely to Karl Marx’s and Vladimir Lenin’s description of colonial trade, in which one country becomes a raw material appendage of another. It is rare for metropolises to ally themselves with their colonies.”

Previous essays in this series have explored some of the traditional pitfalls and weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of the Russia-China relationship. Perhaps the strongest element in that relationship is the close personal ties between President Putin and President Xi Jinping. Those ties are very important to the two countries, especially as they map out their positions in a new world order. But many other factors—historic, geographic, economic, and political—are impediments to a true and equal alliance. For the foreseeable future, it appears Russia and China will continue to work together in areas of common interests, but China will remain wary of being dragged into issues that do not relate to its national strategy. For Russia, the main concern will be avoiding the appearance, and certainly the fact, of being the junior partner in the relationship. This may be unavoidable, however, because China is on the rise politically and economically, and Russia is in decline. It is only Russia’s superior military might that serves as a counterweight to China’s strength in other areas. Russian scholar Alexander Lukin reminds us that “Russia’s military might is fully in keeping with its Eurasian ambitions, but its economic development still noticeably falls short.” How long Russia will be able to use this advantage effectively to maintain balance in its relationship with China is a challenge that will be a high priority for the Kremlin over the coming years.

In assessing Russian foreign policy challenges, one is confronted with the critical question: Will Russia succeed in treading the thin line between trying to destroy one world order and building another in which it plays a dominant role? There are many powerful forces—both internal and external—working against the Kremlin’s efforts. Russia’s internal weaknesses, which have repeatedly proved to be its Achilles’ heel, may again be a significant barrier to the successful implementation of the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals. In this regard, one is reminded of the famous aphorism of Viktor Chernomyrdin, a prime minister under President Yeltsin, who said: “We wanted the best, but it turned out as it always does.”

Is Russia a Great Power Today?

Russia’s leaders have come a long way in rebuilding the country and reasserting the country’s role and authority in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the chaotic years of the 1990s. Russia has not, however, nor will it likely ever, achieve the status of the USSR. Although it retains much of the Soviet military arsenal, it has lost a large part of the territory of the former Soviet Union and is significantly weaker economically. Nevertheless, its achievements in regaining strength and influence are impressive.

President Obama once referred to Russia as a regional power. This statement infuriated the Kremlin because it contradicted Russia’s image of itself and mocked Russia in front of the rest of the world. If the purpose of Obama’s statement was to diminish Russia’s role in international affairs, it had the opposite effect, and it was not borne out by reality. Russia at that time was on the pathway to pursuing a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy in numerous parts of the world that extended far beyond Russia’s “region.”

Systemically, there are factors that retard, and perhaps may even prevent, Russia from reaching the stature in the world where it can be called a great power. Definitions differ as to what is a great power, but most political scientists agree that to be a great power a country must have sufficient military, political, economic, scientific-technical, ideological, and cultural power that has worldwide influence. Russia meets many of these criteria, but with varying degrees of success. Certainly, its military might, manifested most prominently by its powerful nuclear arsenal, is a major factor in elevating Russia’s stature in the world. In other categories, its influence is less successful. The fact that Russia is not a country with which much of the world strives to be allied, other than certain neighbors out of geopolitical necessity or authoritarian regimes that are generally reviled, is a testament to the limits of Russia’s “great power” status.

Russia’s greatest weakness is the lack of a dynamic economy. For Russia to compete for influence on the world stage and restore its historical power and dynamism, it must undergo major reform and modernization of its economy and political system. There have been numerous efforts to do so, but they have been half-hearted at best. Those reform efforts have been dragged down and defeated by powerful internal forces that refuse to release their tight grip on the reins of power. Russia cannot have it both ways: It cannot modernize its economy and society without changing its political dynamic. It cannot retain a corrupt authoritarian political structure and expect to be economically and politically competitive in the world. To prosper, Russia cannot be known just for producing oil and gas and stacking dolls; it must diversify its economy, create a more conducive environment for investment, and most importantly, encourage and reward, rather than stifle, initiative among its very talented and educated population. Russia must cease being a country known for its brain drain, and become instead a country that attracts the best and the brightest minds.

Russia has always had great potential, but it has largely been its own worst enemy in trying to reach that potential. Russian society, along with the power elite, wants Russia to be a great power. A recent Lavada Center poll revealed that 88 percent of the population seeks this goal. But to do so Russia will need to take critically important steps that it has been unwilling or unable to take in the past.

Great power status also is a matter of perception. Although a country’s strength and influence in the world can be judged against a certain set of criteria, acknowledgment of a country as a great power depends to a large extent on consensus and circumstances. As for Russia’s status, the conclusion one comes to in countries like Tajikistan or Belarus may be very different in Chile or Benin. In the final analysis, great power status is subjective until it becomes objective. By this, I mean that when it is overwhelmingly clear that a country meets all the criteria specified above and is recognized as doing so worldwide, and not just regionally or only in limited parts of the world, then there is little doubt a country has attained great power status.

The United States has enjoyed this status since the second half of the 20th century. So did the Soviet Union. As for post-Soviet Russia, the jury is still out. Russia under Vladimir Putin has satisfied many but not all of the criteria, and its influence is significant but not all-encompassing. Is Russia an ascending power or a declining power? Will its increasingly close relations with China work to solidify and strengthen its position in the world, or will it weaken Russia and relegate it to being China’s junior partner with limited room to rise to the position in the world that the Kremlin seeks to attain? Perhaps President Obama was prescient when he called Russia just a “regional power.” Or perhaps he failed to fully grasp the changes taking place in the worldwide “correlation of forces,” to use a Soviet term, and underestimated Russia’s forward trajectory. The next decade may provide answers to these critical questions.

Washington, DC
July 2019

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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


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