The Myth of Russia’s Resurgence

Reports of Russia’s resurgence are greatly exaggerated.

Whenever Moscow asserts itself forcefully these days, Cold War paradigms and old stereotypes are usually quickly resurrected to interpret Russian behavior even if, in today’s multipolar environment, its motives are probably no different from other great powers. No matter Western fears of a “resurgent” Russia seeking to project power abroad, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country has pursued a fairly rational foreign policy that is grounded in self preservation.

NATO’s expansion into Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War continues to shape Moscow’s strategic thinking today. While Russia was attempting recover from its unexpected retrogression, it believed that the West had pledged not to take advantage of its weakness and annex its European buffer zone. When the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined the Atlantic alliance just before the turn of the century nevertheless, it naturally compelled the Kremlin to look after its interests more carefully.

If it was ever under the impression that the end of the Cold War had ushered in a new era of honest and peaceful cooperation among civilized nations, by the beginning of the 2000s, Moscow realized perfectly well that in the West, it continued to be regarded as a potential adversary. That thinking necessitated a preemptive containment strategy that robbed Russia of its ability to seriously menace Western Europe with the inclusion of former Soviet satellite states in NATO and the EU.

Twice during the twentieth century had Russia been invaded from the west. Stalin’s sovietization of Eastern Europe after World War II was largely a defensive policy that enabled him to rebuild Russia while anticipating renewed German aggression. (West Germany’s NATO membership was similarly aimed at preventing the nation from resurging as a continental power.) Surrounded by allies and puppet regimes, Russia was arguably safe until nuclear weapons upset the familiar balance of power.

Whereas a limited use of nuclear weapons was seriously considered during the early days of the Cold War, nowadays, they are deemed a last resort at best. The specter of atomic war has almost disappeared so the need for traditional strategic depth is back.

Wikistrat‘s Thomas Barnett reminds readers of Russian fears of encirclement in his latest World Politics Review column. After shrugging off its empire in 1991, Russia was denied a “sense of belonging,” Barnett notes, when Europe and the United States refused to consider Russia’s entry to NATO. Instead, America moved in militarily from the south as part of its global War on Terror while China progressively encroached, in an economic sense, on Russia’s “near abroad” in Central Asia and the Far East.

Russia has been remarkably reluctant to counter these infringements. Although nearly all former Warsaw Pact members belong to the European Union now, it has made only halfhearted attempts to regain a semblance of hegemony on its western border. Old Eastern Bloc nations may still worry about Russian antagonism, especially if Germany, which is so dependent on Russian gas imports, won’t truly protect them in the EU (which is why they expect security from the United States in NATO) — the likelihood of Moscow deploying force against Poland, Lithuania or even the Ukraine is close to zero.

In other parts of its former empire, too, Russia is far from belligerent. Although vying for influence there with nearby great powers, Russia has refrained from policing Central Asia in Soviet-style despite the alluring natural resources that the region possesses. When Kyrgyzstan asked for a Russian troop presence last year to quell political unrest, the Kremlin balked at the request. It had no desire to become entangled in the internal power struggles of its former client state.

Russian cultural and political influence pervades especially in the northernmost of former socialist republics in Central Asia but Chinese, Iranian and Turkish attempts at fostering stable relations in the area could set the stage for a great power confrontation, one from which Moscow stands nothing to gain.

Russian governors in the Far East occasionally raise the specter of the “yellow menace” and talk of the danger posed to their underpopulated provinces by unregulated Chinese labor migrants but as Dmitri Gorenburg pointed out here last year, “this kind of talk rarely emanates from Moscow and certainly does not affect troop positioning.”

Indeed, “it is stunning how little trouble Moscow has fomented” since the demise of the Soviet Union, writes Barnett, “all while engineering arguably the greatest military demobilization in human history, going from more than two hundred army divisions to less than one hundred brigades.”

Russia plans no wars with either Europe or “rising” China [and] welcomes the rising influence of Turkey and India to its south. Yes, Russia is effectively shut out of Europe for the first time in three centuries but it seeks no territorial conquest, only soft domination of the sort America pursues throughout much of the planet. All that, with the only cost being the admittedly bloody dissolution of the Balkans and some nasty guerrilla warfare in the Caucasus.

Russia will seek to defend what it perceives to be its interests, in the Arctic for instance, which holds the promise of attaining access to vast untapped hydrocarbon resources which its economy so relies upon. And it will do so with regular salvos of nationalist bombast that the Russian electorate is susceptible to. Russian bomber planes and submarines will occasionally penetrate European airspace and harass their allied counterparts but militarily, the “petro dinosaur” is largely irrelevant except for its nuclear weapons arsenal — which it has been willing to reduce in negotiations with the Americans.

It would seem that reports of Russia’s resurgence have been greatly exaggerated.