A resurgent Russia will not be a recycled Soviet Union, but rather a renewed Russia that is stronger, more assertive, and probably increasingly more undemocratic. Its human rights record will not be pleasant, and it will definitely not be a consistent or reliable partner of the West.
It has become commonplace to assert that Russia is finished as a major power. Such assertions are generally based on the combination of four factors: the break-up of the former Soviet empire; the collapse of the Russian economy in the 1990s; Russia’s demographic problems; and, above all, its loss of its military superpower status. Thus, for example, Eugene Rumer and Celeste Wallander argue that Russia is a power in decline, its military in disarray, its economy weak, and its society afflicted by a crisis of depopulation. Russia also continues to merit a place in the index of failed states in Foreign Policy magazine, where it lies in the “danger zone” because of demographic pressures, uneven economic development, factionalized elites and poor human rights.2 It is true that Russia has its share of troubles, but the country is not finished as a major power. On the contrary, it is making a comeback and will very likely continue to do so in the years ahead. The ingredients of Russia’s comeback consist of both the will and the way. As far as its will to be a great power once again, Russia’s leadership and elite class—arguably the broader population, too—devoutly wish for a return to great power status. Russian history is largely to credit for this will, and the particularities of that history also suggest that great power status is likely to be interpreted in Russia as largely military in nature. As to the way, four factors combine to give rise to the larger picture. First, the Russian economy has bounced back and, given the world’s likely increased demand for energy in the decades ahead, Russian fossil fuel assets are almost certainly going to rise sharply in value. Second, the Russian Federation is a large country with a highly educated citizenry. In an age where human capital is a far greater predictor of national vitality than raw population numbers, the quality of Russia’s people can and likely will outweigh any issues with quantity. Third, in military terms, Russia has the potential to surprise the world with technological breakthroughs. And fourth, perhaps less “material” but no less important a factor, Russia finds itself in a position to ally with a wider range of powers than any other major state. Power, of course, is relative, so the benefits of being able to integrate an intelligent diplomacy into a broader national policy should not be underestimated. Russia’s Will to Power Of all the burdens Russia has had to bear, the heaviest and most relentless has been the weight of its past. As is well known to all students of the subject, Russia’s vast geography left it open to waves of invasion, from the Mongols in the 12th century to the Nazis in the 20th. Russia’s perduring vulnerability—it has no obvious or clear-cut topographical borders save for the Arctic and Pacific Oceans—accounts for the deep-seated militarization of its society and its endless search for security through the creation of a land-based empire. Russia has no obvious or clear-cut cultural borders either. Russia is situated between Europe and Asia; yet it has never really been accepted as either fully European or fully Asian. In the 19th century, Russia’s Slavophiles saw their nation as a culture apart—a unique race with its own traditions. Russia’s uniqueness was epitomized for many by the Russian Orthodox Church, described as “the Third Rome”—suggestive of a global destiny. Russia’s sense of being distinctive, alone and spiritually elevated was reinforced by the fact that it did not experience the Renaissance, the Reformation or the Enlightenment as phenomena organic to Russian life. And of course, Russia came many decades late to the Industrial Revolution, which had the dual effect of enabling Russia to progress quickly once it started to industrialize and yet to retain a romanticized image of itself as having an idyllic attachment to the land and peasant culture.3 All of this helps to explain how the czars were able to rule as Oriental despots, and the Communists as dictators, for a practically unbroken period of more than 500 years. The Russians are used to (some argue that they prefer) strong leaders. And only through strong leaders have foreign ideas and ways ever been successfully introduced into Russia. Peter the Great sought to graft elements of European society, economy and culture onto 18th-century Russia. He believed firmly in the enlightened despotism practiced in Europe’s so-called Age of Reason. Lenin also introduced foreign ideas through the imposition of Marxist ideology. In the end, both failed to realize their visions, but they changed Russia in the process. So, too, Putin’s current experiment with market capitalism, combined with a democratic façade, seems destined for failure—though it is also changing Russia, at least at the margins. What has not changed is the role of the military in Russia’s self-image as a world power. The creation of the greatest land-based empire the world has seen demanded military strength, as did the style of autocracy and the demands of dictatorship. Russia is not used to having a weak military or weak leaders. Russian leaders have traditionally sought security by acquiring territorial depth. The Soviet leadership’s conquest of Eastern Europe was entirely consistent with the czarist tradition. Today, Russia has contracted to its smallest territorial extent since before the reign of Catherine the Great. It has lost Ukraine, the original 9th-century heartland of early Russian culture, as well as Belarus and Moldova. It has lost the Baltics, too, and the Caucasus lands of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. And it has lost the vast reaches of Central Asia. Moreover, Russians suspect that the process of separation may not be finished. There is the Chechen War and the uncertainties of Dagestan and Tatarstan. What Russians grew used to as great territorial buffers have now been lost and thrown into their faces as putative staging grounds for Russia’s competitors. Russia feels threatened from what it still calls, in imperial fashion, “the near abroad”, and this feeling, in all fairness, is more than mere paranoia. Russia now shares common borders with several NATO countries. If Ukraine becomes a NATO member, the distance from its northern border to Moscow will be only 425 kilometers—about the same distance as New York is from Washington, DC. While propinquity weighs as a problem for Russia, so does distance. Siberia, a huge, resource-rich and sparsely-populated province, is exceedingly far from European Russia—Vladivostok is more than 9,000 kilometers from Moscow, about the same distance as it is from Sydney. Russia shares a 4,300 kilometer common border with an increasingly powerful and affluent China, which one day may lay claim to the territories south of the Amur River that Russia annexed between 1858 and 1860—territories equal in size to Germany and France combined. Here in short is the historical and psychological context for Russia’s contemporary will to re-establish and reassert great power status. It would be a grave mistake to underrate the influence of that context. As George Kennan observed in his famous “X” essay, “Nations, like individuals, are largely the product of their environment.” It would be one thing if Russia today were experiencing hopeful and happy times in the wake of the Soviet collapse. It would be easier for Russians to transcend historical circumstances and adopt new metaphors to take them to the future. Alas, this is not the case, which explains why Vladimir Putin is able to say that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century and have most Russians nod solemnly and wistfully in agreement. Practically overnight, the Soviet Union lost its world power status and, fragmented as Russian society was, plunged into a nightmare of a collapsing economy, rampant inflation and the disappearance of savings, jobs and pensions. Above all, the Russian people lost their dignity amid the wildest excesses of capitalism imaginable. Little wonder, then, that some of the Communist Party old guard (and more worrying still, some of the younger generation) are sentimental about the passing of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into Trotsky’s dustbin of history. The depth of the turmoil that Russians have experienced since the end of the USSR is unimaginable to us in the West. There is an acute loss of face due to Russia’s greatly reduced importance in world affairs, and there is palpable anger about the way in which the West (America in particular) refused to countenance a Marshall Plan to save the Russian economy. Worse, paranoia is growing about how the United States and NATO are ganging up against Russia and plotting its further disintegration. Such fears appeal to a deeply embedded bias—one going back far beyond the Soviet era—that the West is permanently hostile to Russia. Many Russians are entirely sure that American leaders want never again to see Russia emerge as a great power, and are prepared to go to great lengths to prevent it. These obsessions are mistaken, to be sure. But they are fueled by certain undeniable realities. NATO military aircraft are present in eastern Europe. There have been, and remain, U.S. military bases in Central Asia and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Until quite recently, U.S. strategic nuclear forces still had Russia as their primary target, and few Russians entertain illusions that Russia still retains effective strategic parity with the United States. If Ukraine eventually joins NATO and Russia continues to be refused membership, Russian fears will increase exponentially. And we are not talking about the fears only of the average Ivan Ivanovich.4 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn only recently declared that NATO “is methodically developing its military deployment in Eastern Europe and on Russia’s southern flank.”5 Indeed, Russia’s intellectual and political elite tends to be even more worried about Western aims—and also more anti-American—than average Russians. The very rapid loss of such immense power, with little in the way of any compensatory gains, cannot help but set the stage for revisionist longings in a country with Russia’s history. And it will not do for Westerners to insist that Russia give up its impossible dreams and face reality. Russians know their historical reality far better than we do. They know that Russia has experienced dramatic reductions in its fortunes in the past and emerged stronger for them in the end. The Mongol occupation lasted for 250 years, longer than America has been an independent nation. The Time of Troubles, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Civil War, and then the devastating “Great Patriotic War” with Nazi Germany are all catastrophes that dwarf anything Americans have ever experienced; Russia recovered from them all. Sometimes it took centuries, but sometimes not. By 1945 the USSR had lost 27 million war dead and its GDP had declined by 40 percent; just thirty years later, the Soviet Union was acknowledged as the equal of America as a military superpower. We are now at an imaginable half-way point from a comparable historical event: It is just 15 years since the collapse of the USSR. Russia’s Way to Power So much for Russia’s will to power: It is there, deeply etched into the hearts and souls of the Russian people, great and small. But what of the way? What signs are there of a turnaround in its attributes of national power? First, there have been several years of strong economic growth: Real GDP grew by 6 percent in 2005, 7.1 percent in 2004 and 7.3 percent in 2003. Government revenues remain buoyant on the back of high market prices for Russia’s main export commodities, particularly energy. As a result, the 2005 federal budget surplus was expected to reach 7 percent of GDP, against the original target of just 1.5 percent. In August 2006 Russia paid off early all its Soviet-era debts to Western countries, worth $22 billion. The Kremlin asserted that this “would strengthen Russia’s international authority.” The medium-term outlook remains positive, assuming that energy commodity prices remain at their current record levels—a trend that looks very likely. Russia is one of the largest resource-rich countries in the world: It is the world’s biggest natural gas producer and ranks in the top three or four in terms of oil deposits. Given the tight world outlook for energy, this suggests that Russia’s economic power will only increase. In 2006, government revenue is expected to increase 150 percent and government expenditure by 40 percent over the previous year.6 Russia’s economic prospects bear clear implications for its military ambitions. The fact that national defense spending has doubled in nominal terms (28 percent in real terms) since 2003 underscores the priority that the Putin Administration has attached to rebuilding Russia’s armed forces. Defense expenditure for 2006 is expected to have increased by about 20 percent, and high natural gas and oil revenues should mean that this rate of increase is sustainable in future years. Increased funding is evident across all sectors of the defense budget, with rising pay and allowances for soldiers matched by increased spending on procurement and research and development. General Alexander Burutin, the presidential defense adviser, has revealed that the main beneficiary of increased funds in 2006 will be the air force, which in recent years has been a lower priority than the navy and space and strategic forces. But the navy is hardly being slighted. Speaking in February at the keel-laying ceremony for the first in a new class of up to twenty frigates, Admiral Vladimir Masorin outlined naval procurement plans for the medium-term, including the procurement of one or two next-generation aircraft carriers and an unspecified number of 5,000-ton destroyers.7 Russia is now officially spending more than 4 percent of GDP on defense. If expenditures on paramilitary forces, pensions and other items that are clearly defense-related but are funded from outside the national defense budget are included, however, the best estimate in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) of Russia’s total 2004 military-related expenditure, including revenue from arms exports, comes to about $61.5 billion.8 So, whatever else accompanies him into the ether of mortality, Vladimir Putin will probably go down in history as the leader under whose regime Russia reversed its post-Soviet military decline. The decade-long downsizing of Russia’s armed forces has now come to a halt and is set to turn around. Arms procurement is still small but rapidly increasing, the number and complexity of military exercises are significantly increasing, and there is growing potential for Russian military technological improvements—if not unpredictable breakthroughs. Russia and the International Order What will Russia do with its wealth and military power? A good bet is that it will combine them with a savvy appreciation of its geopolitical environment—as it virtually always has for the past several centuries. Putin has focused on making Russia strong, independent and united—not on building democracy. This emphasis on strength and unity is clearly reflected in Russia’s foreign policy, which has become more self-assured. Its status as a great power (velikaya derzhava) is stressed in all its international dealings, especially with regard to small neighbors. If, as appears likely, a further slide toward authoritarianism and Kremlin central control is more in prospect than democracy, then assertive tendencies in Russian foreign policy will grow stronger. An increasingly undemocratic domestic policy not only makes integration of Russia into the world economy more difficult, it also results in increasing Russian ambivalence in its relations with the West and a tendency to view international relations as a zero-sum game. Given the deep-seated geopolitical thrust in Russian thinking, which reflects the permanent consciousness of Russia’s strategic location, the realms in which Russian-Western partnership is possible can only narrow. Russia’s foreign policy priorities are not difficult to discern. The first will be to continue giving precedence to what Putin calls “the strengthening of the state represented by all its institutions and at all levels.” We are therefore likely to see increasing Russian suspicion about what Sergei Ivanov, defense minister and deputy prime minister, calls “interference in Russia’s internal affairs by foreign states.” Russia will assert what it calls its “sovereign democracy.” The second priority is reasserting Russia’s natural sphere of influence in the “near abroad” (blizhnoe zarubezhe’e), where some 25 million ethnic Russians live—focusing on the former republics of the USSR, of which Ukraine is by far the most important. Russia views U.S.-backed “color” revolutions in former Soviet states such as Ukraine not as spreading democracy, but as coups designed to advance Western influence in Moscow’s backyard. The third priority is to strengthen Russia’s tactical relationships with countries such as China, which share Moscow’s concern about the dominance of American power. The Russian leadership is highly uncomfortable with U.S. hegemony and deeply distrusts the Bush Administration’s policy of spreading democracy as a global panacea. And here we come to Russia’s remarkable potential for diplomatic pairing and flexibility. Russia sees the foundation of its future status in the international community as becoming an energy superpower, and this will be the foundation of its national revival. Gas and oil exports will provide the funds to redevelop its decaying infrastructure and generate new technologies, including military ones. Growing Russian strength is likely to revive prickly relations with the West: Russians are fed up with being treated as the loser of the Cold War. “We don’t believe we were defeated in the Cold War. We believe we defeated our own totalitarian system”, said the Kremlin deputy chief of staff and in-house ideologist Vladislav Surkov in July, expressing an increasingly common view. It follows that Russia feels it owes nothing to the United States—rather the opposite—and is free to associate with any nation or group of nations that serves its interests. As Coral Bell points out, Russia has the widest diplomatic options of any other world power: If it were to conclude a strategic partnership with China, that would “more or less restore a bipolar balance of power overnight.”9 She also points out that if Russia were to make an alliance with the EU, this would transform Europe’s strategic standing vis-à-vis the United States. The latter seems unlikely, but the former may be occurring already to some degree. Russia’s new status may generate a kind of diplomatic bidding war for its friendship. In Europe, Germany and France will be seen as natural partners. In Asia, Russia can offer China, India and Japan what the United States cannot: oil and gas. In my view, Russia is seeking to establish a new pan-Asian bloc through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The group now has China, Russia and most of the Central Asian states as members and may well include Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan in future. Now that would not be a pleasant prospect for the United States. The Will, the Way and the West If one adds together Russia’s historical experience, its resources, its military potential and its diplomatic options, it becomes clear that it would be a serious mistake to think that Russia has been demoted for all time to the level of a second- or third-rate power. Beyond 2010 the West will probably face a much stronger Russia—including militarily. Indeed, Russia’s status as an energy superpower will enable it to project its influence internationally in a way that the USSR never could. Russia’s growing natural gas and oil exports will give it vast geopolitical power in Europe and Asia. And this Russia will not bear a universalist ideology that strikes fear in the hearts of decent people everywhere: It will be just another big tough boy on the international block. How will we know if this is happening? What critical indicators should we look for? This is not a difficult question to answer; there are ten such indicators: continuing strong economic growth, which in turn is reflected in strong increases in defense spending; an increasingly assertive and nationalist foreign policy at odds with that of the Western countries; a persistence of authoritarian habits at home and the assertion of great power status abroad; the fielding of new generations of strategic nuclear weapons (such as the Topol-M, SS-27 ICBM and Bulava, SS-N-30 SLBM), including capabilities specifically designed to penetrate U.S. missile defenses; the widespread introduction of innovative fifth-generation advanced conventional weapons systems, including missiles, high-speed torpedoes and precision-guided munitions that could challenge U.S. superiority; a markedly increased capability for power projection on contiguous parts of the Eurasian landmass, and the capability to perform single, limited preventive or pre-emptive operations in more remote parts of the world; the retention of full-spectrum R&D capabilities that result in military technology breakthroughs; the build-up of excess production capacity by defense industries for long-range or short-range mobilization purposes; an increase in the range of complex military exercises, indicating a wider range of potential military opponents at the local, regional and global level, and the simulated use of nuclear strikes; the deployment of large formations equipped with modern generations of weapons and technology, along with retention of the full range of industrial capabilities for equipping high-technology armed forces. It follows from the very possibility of Russia’s return to great power status, as Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, argues, that the West needs now to take Russia for what it is: a major outside player that is neither an eternal foe nor an automatic friend.10 Russian leaders do not care about acceptance by the West, he claims. Even the Soviet Union’s leadership was more worried about its image than Vladimir Putin and his entourage. That may be a slight exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that the Kremlin is at its most confident state since 1991. It now feels it has a choice between accepting subservience and reasserting its status as a great power, and it has clearly and decisively chosen the latter course. This direction almost surely promises greater tension—perhaps serious tension—between Russia and the West.11 Ukraine is as likely a setting as any for the eruption of such tension, and that is because, as noted, Russia will pursue a foreign policy that re-establishes, as a first priority, Russian dominance in its neighborhood, especially in Ukraine, the Baltics and eastern Europe. If this means clashing with NATO, it will be prepared to threaten the use of force and re-establish old understandings about spheres of influence in Europe. Should the Russian army occupy a chunk of Estonia, for example, only 77 miles from St. Petersburg, on the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians there, what would—what could—NATO do about it? Russia will not tolerate separatism in the Caucasus or allow the Central Asian “stans” to fall under U.S. or Chinese hegemony. Indeed, the new Russia’s relations with China will change also. Russia’s current tactical alignment with China will inevitably be recalibrated as China’s power grows and Russia becomes increasingly concerned about the security of its distant Siberian provinces. Russia’s collision with China over who will predominate in Northeast Asia may come to serve parallel U.S. interests in checking undue Chinese influence. Russia will be suspicious of Japan’s rising military power as well. Russia will not want either a strong China or a strong Japan on its relatively weak eastern flank. On the global stage, the re-establishment of full-spectrum military R&D capabilities and arms exports may well undermine international arms control and proliferation regimes. Indeed, Russia may turn out to be less cooperative than the old USSR in this regard. In many ways, the post-World War II Soviet Union was a status quo power. A resurgent Russia may be more willing to contemplate disruption in order to create strategic space, figuratively or literally, to re-establish itself.A resurgent Russia will not be a recycled Soviet Union, either in terms of messianic ideology or territorial conquests. The Cold War as such will not return. But make no mistake: This renewed Russia will be strong, assertive and probably increasingly undemocratic. Its human rights record will not be pleasant, and it will definitely not be a consistent or reliable partner of the West.