Russia has always been a power influencing equilibrium, hence, world order or disorder; but the level of its impact has varied from time to time. Russia, as the great power, historically experienced rise to and fall from the apogee of its power several times. The Empire of Ivan the Terrible that ended up in the Vague time, which lasted 15 years; was followed by the rise of the House of Romanov, which for more than three hundred years had had a finger in the European pie. The fate of the Empire fell into the grip of The February Revolution that consequently degenerated into the Red October – the rise of the revolutionary Soviet Union and the Belovezhskaya Pushcha Pact Russian Federation that replaced the USSR. No one power of AD could have recovered after the fall: the Spanish, Ottoman, Austrian, French and British Empires, – all substantially marginalized, and do not play the influencing role in the world scene as Russia still does.
This paper examines contemporary Russia, which is, as its predecessors, invincible in terms of withstanding outer threats; along with this, however, we will disclose how and why it is weak and unstable internally. In addition, unattractiveness of Russia as a contributing factor to its weakness will be of focus of the essay.
Resistant Russia To External Threats
Russia is unconquerable and resistible to outside threats. As written by the historian of Russia, Philip Longworth, “the intense cold seems to have developed in the Russians a capacity for suffering, a certain communalism, even a willingness to sacrifice the individual for the common good”. Indeed, except Mongolian subjugation of Kiev Rus, Russian obstinacy to protect and confront outer threats has not subdued yet. Take Napoleonic expansion onto Russian flatland, reaching even Moscow, when Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov picked everyone up, and resolutely expelled the French army from the Russian territories. In more recent examples of the two World Wars, Russia once again became a force in dictating-the-international-agenda power.
It is now topical to assert how Putin`s Russia is wisely making up for its lost prestige in the world arena. Putin’s Munich speech in 2007 has become precursor to the current “large-toothed” Russia, which has vigorously aspired to revise the world order. Speculating on national interest`s dilemma, I wrote in my article “Far Greater Game in Syria: wide range of actors and perennial clash of interests” that “when Putin is put to a choice between either economic or strategic interest, He prefers prioritizing the strategic one. Syria is the only state in the Middle East where Russia has a military footprint. Retreating from this strategic position could signal stepping back in favor of the West and losing the status of superpower once and for all”. So, Russia is recapturing its share in the Middle East: the Kremlin maintained Assad in power; closely cooperates with Turkey – NATO`s pathway to the Middle East, – undermining cohesion within the Organization and limits the involvement of the latter in the region; builds a tactical Russia-Iran-Turkey axis, and pushes the US and its allies back from the Syrian issue. Moreover, Russia’s state visit of the King Salman of Saudi Arabia was another manifestation of rising role of Russia in the region.
The Ukrainian crisis disclosed that one should not underestimate Russia and that no one nation, even a superpower like the USA, can stop it when its vital interests are under the threat. The rise of Petro Poroshenko, supported by the US and EU, became a signal for Moscow that the West crossed the red line. Protecting its vital interests, Russia annexed Crimea and fueled secession movements in Donetsk and Luhansk, thus putting the fate of Ukraine in limbo. The international community could do nothing, but condemn Russia`s aggressive actions. No matter how far NATO is predisposed to expand and entangle Russia, – whether it is surrounding in according with Spykman`s Rinland or Mackinder`s Heartland, – the latter will always vigorously try not to cede ground to the West and others, and its hardened “muscles” will protect from outer threats.
Internally weak Russia
While being resistant against outside threats, Russia is weak internally – systemic problems may bring Russia to the very edge of abyss. Additionally, Russia’s assertiveness buries its attractiveness. See, the fall of Russian Empires in various periods that were not the result of outside interference, as the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the American handiwork or the outcome of American containment policy, as many think; but inner societal and economic shortages. “The Soviet Union eventually imploded and fragmented, falling victim not so much to a direct military defeat but disintegration accelerated by economic and social strains”, put into place by Zbigniew Brzezinski in his Grand Chessboard. And Russia has not drawn wisdom from those lessons of the Soviet past.
Systemic problems that can bring Russia to her knees include: absence of uniting ideology, high military expenditures with far-reaching repercussions, unattractive behavior, and an overdependent economy on mineral resources.
“Putin and Medvedev have had no uplifting ideas to offer, no ideology of any kind. In fact: what they do have in their favor is geography. And that is not enough”, said Robert Kaplan. Notwithstanding, we can agree with the idea of “communalism of the Russians” promoted by Longworth, but it emerges in case of outer pressures; for instance, in wartimes. In the peacetime, however, the ideology Kremlin aspired to instill into the Russians plays against Russia itself, as it does not lead to well-being.
There is a trend of praising Stalin in Russian society, promoted by the Kremlin, to demonstrate greatness of the Russian past and to escape the responsibility before population. The demonstration of how Russia was great, raising the figure of Stalin, reflects the lurch of Russia to earn legitimacy for its odious actions, say, in Ukraine or abroad at large. And, according to Lev Gudkov, who conducts the Levada Center’s Stalin polls: “by raising the figure of Stalin, the Putin regime is trying to raise the idea that collective interests are more important than individual lives, and that means the regime has less responsibility to society”.
Andrei Kolesnikov, Chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said: “the way Putin manipulates history divides the Russians, but not unites. Moreover, President Vladimir Putin has introduced the idea of what he terms a “thousand-year history” that Russians must take pride in, a history that incorporates many victorious pages from the country’s past, including Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014. This glorious history is offered to its citizens in exchange for their political loyalty. It is presented as being more important than economic progress.” “If the historical hero of majority of the Russians is Stalin”, says Kolesnikov, “then this majority will support any type of authoritarian model of government. Such perception will hinder the development, since the Soviet past will be the desired future for the majority”.
Such an authoritarian ideology is underpinned by how Russia rattles its military saber. The focal idea that lies under Paul Kennedy`s book “Rise and Fall of Great Powers” is that “… wealth is usually needed to underpin military power, and military power is usually needed to acquire and protect wealth. If, however, too large a proportion of the state`s resources is diverted from wealth creation and allocated instead to military purposes, then that is likely to lead to a weakening of national power over the longer term. In the same way, if a state extends its strategically – by, say, the conquest of extensive territories or waging costly wars – it runs the risk that potential benefits from external expansion may be outweighed by the great expenses of it all”. Today, Russia demonstrates itself as a military (and less attractive) power, spending around 80 billion USD annually.
Not only does Putin`s policy directed at recovering prestige of Russia through costly wars and military expenditures cripple the economy – especially during the period of harsh economic sanctions, – it also buries the attractiveness of Russia in the eyes of relatively weaker partners and, hence, its legitimacy. The armed-to-the-teeth Russia that annexed Crimea undoubtedly constitutes a threat to the adjacent countries and partners at large, making them cooperate more with China, in spite of Beijing`s Neo-Imperialistic ambitions – but the ambitions are surreptitious, concealed under “win-win policy” – poses no lesser threat than that of Russia`s. It is hard not to perceive Russia as an imperialist state, especially for the post-Soviet countries, when Russia launches missiles at terroristic groups in Syria from Caspian Sea; when Eurasian Economic Union more resembles “Eurasian Political Union” with the sheer preponderance of Russia; when Mr. Putin unequivocally professes that Russia’s border doesn’t end anywhere. “Putin always admired the imperial achievements of Peter the Great, who defeated the Swedish Empire and redefined Russia as a new global power in the early 18th century. Putin also admired Catherine the Great, who defeated the Ottomans and was the first Russian leader to annex most of the Crimean peninsula in 1783”, says Michael Bohm.
Not only longing for its imperialist past buries attractiveness of Russia, but, concurrently, razes its legitimacy to the ground. While the odious US intervention in Iraq under the pretext of so-called WMD – notwithstanding the small piece that Colin Powel held in his hand could not be feasible evidence at all – was supported by quite many countries, almost no one nation has recognized Russian annexation of Crimea, even the members of Russia-dominated CSTO. The rationale behind that is attractiveness. Yes, the US is as armed to the teeth, as Russia is but unlike Moscow, Washington keeps a balance between hard and soft power. On top of this, America advances its interests under the pretext of “pure” democracy while Russia pursues Eurasianism through sabre rattling, not-any-more-attractive and hard-to-believe “clownery” of mass media propaganda and threatening with oil and gas cuts.
Russia`s economy, as well as it’s ideology, does not manifest development, since it is succumbed to Dutch disease and war industry. Russia is very rich in mineral resources, especially in gas and oil. The very existence of these resources along with bringing hard currency to the economy of Russia holds up the development of other sectors. Furthermore, even Russia is rich in the oil and gas sector, without Western drilling technologies they cannot extract these resources out of deep wells. This is why main economic sanctions laid on Russia touched this very sector. Armaments industry gets stout, keeping in step with the time and threats, but the notion “military industry revives economy”, as turned out, does not work with Russia.
Russia is demonstrating its military might in areas such as the Syrian crisis and its assertiveness in Ukrainian deadlock. The status quo Russia may, and is the only country that can, challenge the US militarily but cannot be an architect of the new world order that is to be established in near future. It is unlikely that Russia will be as a threat as the US National Security Strategy would marginalize it to the second pillar, while China would play first fiddle. And this would be a contributing factor of Russian fall, no matter how much Putin or his successors will demand the world recognition of Russia as a great power. However, Russia cannot be fought; if one tries it would anyway doomed to failure. Even with grave internal malaises, Russia would always strive to have military show-offs so as to gain recognition from the international community, thus influencing a balance of power and world order or disorder. Keeping pace only with up-to-date military demands, Russia is far from catching up with “Big Boys playing”, since it is outmoded to have only nuclear warheads and other armaments under the pillow: the great power reality demands economic and smart powers. Without the toolbox, including uplifting ideology, diversified economy and attractiveness, Russia could marginalize in world politics and sphere of influence of it would spread solely to adjacent countries, even unless Moscow withstands Chinese expansion.
Otabek Akromov is currently a senior student at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, majoring in International Relations. He is a research assistant in Center for Advanced International Studies. His research interests lie in the area of security, religion, anthropology and ideology. Otabek is also a close observer of new trends and developments in Middle East and Central Asia.