The past few years have seen a remarkable recovery of Russia’s international influence and ambitions. Rejecting an implicit offer of partnership with the West, albeit with junior status for Moscow outside its Eurasian region, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin continues to pursue a separate agenda aimed at making Russia an important and independent pillar of the global order. Moscow may not yet aspire to become a global superpower and peer rival of the United States again, but its goals and some of its capabilities still exceed those of Britain, France, Germany, Japan and other typical regional powers. Not surprisingly, then, Russian policymakers consistently challenge efforts by others to relegate Moscow to secondary status in Europe and East Asia.
Nonetheless, a number of domestic and foreign factors will impact Russia’s strategic posture. At home, these include the evolution of the Russian political system, the vigor of the national economy, the strength of the country’s military and security services, and socio-economic and ethnic relations inside Russia. Major external variables that will shape Russia’s strategic trajectory include the strength and weaknesses of other countries and especially its neighbors, the health of the world economy, the attractiveness of Russia’s soft power, transnational challenges such as terrorism and drug trafficking, and how other countries respond to Russian policies.
Russia brings great strengths to the world arena. The country is vast; located in a pivotal position between Europe and Asia; and blessed with a large population, abundant natural resources, excellent scientists, dedicated and skilled diplomats, and an open attitude toward learning from other countries. Nonetheless, Russia relies excessively on natural resource exports, suffers severe demographic and ethnic challenges, has a brittle political system overly dependent on a single skilled leader and adheres to an ideology—Russian nationalism—that lacks global appeal.
Putin was fortunate in that he assumed power in 1999, at a time when the Russian economy was benefiting from rising world oil prices and a 1998 currency devaluation that made Russian exports more internationally competitive. He then introduced a few additional economic reforms, supported by a skillful financial team. But Russia’s economic revival has plateaued, at least for a while. Even before the Ukraine crisis, the Russian economy was struggling; it grew by only 1.3 percent in 2013. In the near term, the Russian economy will continue to experience the lingering hangover of the global recession, which has depressed the demand for Russia’s two main exports: energy and arms. Despite a projected international economic recovery, the World Bank forecasts that Russia may experience negative growth by the end of this year due to capital flight, Russia’s falling credit rating and Western economic sanctions. Whatever other advantages it brings Moscow, the continuing tensions and uncertainty regarding Russia and its neighbors discourage foreign investment as capital flees to safer havens.
Looking somewhat further out on the time horizon, Russia’s declining and aging population will impose additional strain on the Russian economy, which will have fewer workers relative to retirees and potentially lower per capita productivity rates. In addition, the number of conscripts and revenue available to the Ministry of Defense seems destined to fall. Russia’s population has been decreasing at a higher rate and for a longer time than has been the case in perhaps any other country in recent history. The fall in Russia’s population remains unprecedented among countries the World Bank defines as “upper middle income.” Since 1989, the population in the territory of the Russian Federation fell from 147 million to 143 million people. A massive influx of millions of ethnic Russians from neighboring countries during the 1990s helped cushion the population decline, but this inflow has been exhausted. Numerous studies project further population decreases, differing only in how rapidly and deeply they believe the numbers will fall.
Whatever population gains Russia acquires from annexing Ukrainian or other territory will be short-lived due to Russians’ decreased birth rates, despite a recent fertility uptick; short life spans due to alcoholism, disease and poor nutrition; high divorce and abortion rates along with more out-of-wedlock births; deteriorating public health services; and other demographic disasters. Russian leaders have strived to reverse these trends but have only partially succeeded in slowing down negative population growth rates. Anti-migrant sentiment has limited the number of foreign laborers, especially from Central Asia and China, who work for long periods in Russia, often illegally. This barrier has not prevented the share of Muslims in the population of the Russian Federation from rising; unlike their Russian compatriots, they have large families, low divorce rates and limited alcohol and drug use. From the perspective of Russian national security, this shifting population composition presents additional complications due to Russian Muslims’ lower education and income levels and potential alienation from the Russian state, which has shed communist atheism and made the Orthodox Church a political institution.
Despite sustained efforts at diversification, the Russian economy remains dominated by oil and gas production. Russia is the world’s second-largest producer of natural gas and third-largest producer of liquid fuels. Oil and gas revenues accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s federal budget revenues and more than 70 percent of its total exports in 2012, with crude petroleum, refined petroleum and petroleum gas serving as the country’s top exports. This dependence on oil and gas is risky as new and potentially cheaper energy providers emerge and the hydrocarbon market becomes more competitive. The development of east-west pipelines in recent years by Western and Chinese companies has allowed Caspian Basin region countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to break Russia’s energy transportation monopoly, depriving Russian energy giants of hefty markups as middlemen between foreign energy producers and Russia’s southern and European markets. Despite Putin’s commitment to oil and gas as the mainstay of Russia’s progress and a strategic factor of security, stability and economic growth, the country has seen four consecutive months of decreased oil output. The Russian energy sector also needs foreign capital and technology to develop new energy fields in the challenging geophysical regions of the Arctic and Siberia.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has been unable to stem population flight from the frigid Russian Far East, despite an effort to revive Soviet-era subsidies and population controls, and despite the new practice of holding big-ticket events, such as the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, in Vladivostok. This sustains a potential security vulnerability for Russia should North Korea ever implode, resulting in a refugee influx into Russia’s Far East, or should China ever seek to acquire the region, which until now has proved much less attractive to Chinese labor migrants than other regions, including central Russia. Despite its natural resources, eastern Russia desperately needs to attract more investment, from the rest of Russia or elsewhere, to generate greater employment opportunities. Eastern Russia’s disadvantages also weaken Russia’s efforts to strengthen its own economic links and presence in East Asia, where Russia remains insufficiently integrated into the robust regional economy.
Although many domestic stakeholders participate in the formulation of Russia’s foreign policies, Putin clearly dominates the government’s decision-making on all major international issues: Close aides and clans lobby to influence him but generally loyally execute his policies. Putin’s team has coerced the legislature into serving as a highly compliant body under the control of pro-Kremlin parties and has reined in the autonomy of Russia’s regions, media, corporations and other key political and economic actors. Pro-Kremlin political parties, receiving substantial Kremlin support, dominate the political landscape, while other political movements—nationalists, communists and liberals—have been marginalized. The government has skillfully created “loyalist” opposition parties and sponsored pro-government nongovernmental organizations to crowd out genuine political opposition and independent NGOs. The Kremlin uses the distribution of rents earned from energy sales and various administrative resources as patronage to purchase support among key elites while withholding those resources from opponents.
Nonetheless, Russia’s current political system has several short-term and long-term vulnerabilities. Restrictions on political expression deny the authorities a feedback mechanism for identifying and correcting flawed policies, raising the risk of political opposition being expressed in mass social protests and demands for a change of regime rather than only a change of its policies. The emphasis on presidential power in Russia’s “power vertical” system stifles personal initiative and institutional reform. Poor economic performance threatens the government’s ability to generate the benefits it depends on to pay for elite and popular support. Yet sustained economic growth can, over time, create a larger class of wealthy or middle-class individuals who can afford to make an “ideological investment” in democratization even if it means incurring some short-term economic costs by losing regime payments. With its opaque process of selecting political leaders, Russia has yet to develop an effective system of political succession. When Putin leaves the scene, the existing political system will lose its linchpin.
One of the benefits of Russia’s economic recovery since the late 1990s has been the Russian government’s ability to buy more advanced weapons systems and provide better support to the military. The Russian armed forces are engaged in a long-term effort to upgrade these systems to post-Soviet standards. The goal is to raise the share of “modern” equipment—never precisely defined—in the Russian armed forces to 70 percent by 2020. The government has repeatedly announced massive defense budget increases. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Russia’s defense spending rose 31 percent between 2008 and 2013, to $68.2 billion, placing it third after the United States and China. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) calculates that Russia spent a larger share of its GDP on defense last year than the United States, for the first time in a decade. Russia’s defense spending this year is projected to reach some 3.4 percent of national GDP, or more than one-fifth of government spending, with almost another fifth going to law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community and the other “power” ministries. The declared plan is to spend more than $700 billion over the next decade on the defense sector. By 2020, the Russian navy aims to acquire 10 additional nuclear submarines—with longer service lives and improved navigation, communications and other subsystems—while the Russian air force plans to acquire a fleet of stealth fighters as well as new long-range bomber and transport planes.
Russia’s order of battle is impressive. According to the IISS, the country’s military personnel include, on paper, 845,000 active-duty personnel and 2 million reservists who could be mobilized in a major war. In practice, however, the number of active-duty soldiers is probably only 750,000, while many reservists are unfit for service. In any case, the Ratnik, or “warrior,” program has upgraded the equipment carried by Russian ground soldiers to include modern helmets, flak jackets, thermal- and night-vision systems, and other gear as well as more-modern navigation and communications equipment, including NATO-style push-to-talk encrypted radios and Tigr-M and R-330Zh electronic warfare systems designed to jam GPS and other satellite links. The Russian air force now has approximately 1,400 combat-capable aircraft, including some newly acquired 4.5-generation fighters and strategic bombers. The Russian navy includes one dysfunctional aircraft carrier but also five cruisers, 18 destroyers, nine frigates and dozens of attack submarines and smaller coastal craft.
Eleven submarines carry nuclear-armed missiles, as do Russia’s strategic bombers, but Russia’s main nuclear arsenal consists of hundreds of large, land-based strategic missiles that carry multiple nuclear warheads, as well as several thousand nonstrategic, or tactical, nuclear weapons. Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces continue to develop and deploy new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), fixed-based and mobile launchers, newly designed warheads and other enhancements. Russia’s nuclear command also engages in major exercises designed to simulate massive strikes to overcome NATO missile defenses. In his recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Adm. Cecil Haney, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, said that Russia’s strategic nuclear modernization has made continuous progress over the past decade. The Russian navy has acquired both new boats and a new submarine-launched ICBM, the Bulava, which may finally have overcome its development problems. Haney singled out the new Yars-M mobile ICBM, which can carry 10 warheads up to 6,200 miles and has been especially designed to overcome U.S. missile defenses; it may be deployed by 2020.
The Russian government has also undertaken a long-term reform effort designed to move the new Russian military away from the structure and tactics of the Soviet armed forces. These reforms, begun under former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in cooperation with a group of military and civilian reformers, have most affected the ground forces, with a drive to decrease the reliance on conscripts and increase the number of soldiers serving under long-term contracts. To this end, military salaries have risen remarkably in recent years, and various quality-of-life programs have been introduced to improve soldiers’ housing, food and other benefits. Russian tactical drills have emphasized rapid movement and interservice coordination, especially between air and ground units.
Even before becoming highly visible during the Ukraine crisis, the Russian armed forces had become more active in recent years. Within Russia, the military has engaged in large-scale exercises, including some “snap” drills undertaken without advance warning to the troops or other countries. Although these drills have involved all of Russia’s regions, they have sometimes seemed timed for maximum strategic impact, occurring at times when Moscow wanted to exert influence in a particular region, such as the Russian Far East, the Arctic or Ukraine. The Russian armed forces have also engaged in many multilateral exercises, including with NATO, China and other military powers, along with extensive drills with Belarus, Kazakhstan and other privileged defense partners. The Russian navy and air force have resumed global patrols: The navy has re-established a semi-permanent presence in the Indian Ocean and eastern Mediterranean, while Russian long-range bombers now more regularly probe the airspace of Western countries, including the United States and Japan as well as Russia’s European neighbors.
The better equipment, additional training and military reforms likely explain the improved performance of the Russian military during the recent Ukraine crisis compared with earlier conflicts in Chechnya in the 1990s and Georgia in 2008. These earlier campaigns were plagued with problems in terms of decrepit equipment, poor morale, flawed tactics, inadequate intelligence and poor coordination among units even within the same service. In the Georgia War, forward air controllers embedded with ground units failed to prevent Russian soldiers from shooting down their own planes. Other challenges included a lack of modern night-vision and communications systems and inferior unmanned vehicle technology. These problems were partially concealed by the weaknesses of Russia’s opponents.
Despite the limited nature of Moscow’s intervention in Crimea, which relied primarily on local allies backed by Russian paramilitary forces or “shadow soldiers,” the Russian military buildup around Ukraine in late February and March was impressive. Satellite images showed sophisticated warplanes (Su-27/30 Flankers and Su-24 Fencers) and helicopters (Mil Mi-8 Hips and Mil Mi-24 Hinds), an airborne early warning aircraft and almost 40,000 ground troops in the vicinity. The elite troops involved in the operation were well-trained and well-equipped, exhibited a high state of readiness and were able to conduct effective joint warfare operations. Russia’s new regional command structure made it easier to coordinate and synchronize the planning, support, movement and tactical employment of units from different services. The new doctrinal emphasis on rapid movement combined with the increased use of cyberwarfare and special forces paid dividends.
In a major war with Ukraine, the Russian armed forces would expect to achieve rapid victories based on these quantitative and qualitative advantages. Any intervention in eastern Ukraine would benefit from the Russian military’s extensive logistical support in the area, which includes large stocks of food, ammunition, transportation and communications infrastructure and other support. Yet Russia’s ability to undertake a protracted war is less certain given its reliance on short-term conscripts, as well as possible Western countermeasures.
Although new Russian weapons systems have been visible in the Ukraine crisis, the 70 percent target for “modern” military equipment remains ambitious given Russia’s economic challenges, high levels of corruption in the defense industry and past experience, when annually declared massive rearmament programs were at best partially executed. Military personnel challenges include the short 12-month conscription period—inadequate to train conscripts in the most modern technologies and requiring constant churning of soldiers—a paucity of well-trained noncommissioned officers, limited use of potential female soldiers and officers and high dropout rates for the contract soldiers. The decision to raise Russian military spending well above 3 percent of national GDP breaks an informal maximum limit that Russian officials had previously established to avoid following the Soviet path to national bankruptcy.
Since becoming Russia’s leader in the late 1990s, Putin’s highest strategic priority has been to re-establish Moscow’s influence within the former Soviet Union. In public, Putin argues that all former Soviet countries share a similar history, deep economic ties and many common goals. Putin may also expect that he can augment Russia’s power resources by adding those of the former Soviet republics. In this regard, Moscow has a range of tools that it can employ, including energy assets, economic inducements and sanctions (for instance, permitting or curtailing remittances from migrants), cyber and intelligence assets, sympathetic compatriots and local ethnic allies, leverage from having the ability to freeze or unfreeze conflicts, soft power due to the persistent influence of the Russian media and, if necessary, military muscle that includes major bases in Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.
During the past decade, Putin has launched diverse projects the general result of which has been narrower but deeper integration among the most pro-Moscow former Soviet republics. For example, in May 2002, Russia joined with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to establish the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) based on mutual security guarantees. The CSTO is consciously designed to imitate NATO’s multinational military structure. The Collective Rapid Deployment Force, its most capable formation, consists of high-readiness elite forces, primarily from Russia and Kazakhstan, capable of quickly intervening in a crisis. The Russian government provides its CSTO allies with subsidized education and training opportunities at Russian military institutions and allows them to buy Russian weapons at a discount. Although increasingly impressive on paper, the CSTO has yet to engage in an actual military or even peacekeeping operation, declining to suppress either the 2010 Kyrgyz riots or the recent border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or to join the multilateral coalition fighting the Afghan Taliban.
Meanwhile, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan established a Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) in October 2000. The EEC seeks to align members’ economic and trade policies while reducing customs tariffs, taxes, duties and other barriers to their mutual economic exchanges. At the October 2007 session of the EEC Intergovernmental Council, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia agreed to establish a trilateral Customs Union (CU) that would coordinate their economic, currency and migration rules on the basis of World Trade Organization principles. The members have since abolished many trade tariffs and customs controls among them while establishing some common tariffs against imports from nonmember countries. In November 2011, the three CU governments signed an agreement to integrate their economies into a Common Economic Space, which came into force on Jan. 1, 2012.
More recently, Putin has been pushing for a new Eurasian Union that builds on the CU. There remains much uncertainty surrounding the union, even as its members finalize the treaty that will launch the project next year. For example, the degree of functional integration and its geographical extent remain under development. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia still differ on how much noneconomic integration they want to see, while the Eurasian Union’s future membership remains an open question. Armenia and the Kyrgyz republics seem likely to join the CU and then the Eurasian Union, but for either to accede to the latter would require overcoming domestic opposition and making major economic changes. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Ukraine will probably remain aloof but fear incurring Putin’s wrath by openly resisting the project.
Protecting Russian ethnic minorities was a priority for the Russian government in the 1990s, when Moscow sought to defend their rights in the Baltic states and other former Soviet republics against efforts by their titular nationalities to advance their own interests. Many ethnic Russians fled to the new Russian Federation, while those left behind often suffered a diminution in their status as their governments sought to de-Russify the national economy and public institutions including their governments and militaries. But this issue was not a visible priority under Putin until recently, when defending ethnic Russians became the justification for annexing Crimea and interfering in eastern Ukraine. This pretext offers Moscow an excuse to intervene in many neighboring countries, which all have some ethnic Russians, but risks disadvantaging the Russians if the local governments and populations perceive their Russian co-nationals as a potential fifth column loyal to an external power.
As it has in Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow manipulates separatist movements in the post-Soviet space to influence other countries’ policies. For example, Russia has skillfully played the conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh to influence both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has a substantial military base in Armenia and extensive trade with that country. Russia and Azerbaijan also have good economic ties, including substantial Russian purchases of Azerbaijani gas. But rather than use these assets to try to solve the long-standing conflict, Russia helps sustain it by selling weapons to both sides but implying that it might intervene militarily against Azerbaijan should Baku, which has been building a large army, ever seek to seize the territories occupied by Armenia by force. In the past year, Moscow has succeeded in inducing Armenia to discard years of negotiations with the European Union on an enhanced partnership agreement and instead commit to join the Moscow-led Customs Union. Expectations in Baku are high that Moscow will soon pressure Azerbaijan to limit its cooperation with NATO and the EU, permit greater Russian control of Azerbaijan’s energy sector and deepen ties with the Russia-dominated regional organizations.
The end of NATO’s major combat role in Afghanistan will remove one of the few areas of close Russian-Western security cooperation. The alliance may end its practice of buying Russian weapons for the Afghan government and is already decreasing its use of Russian transportation routes as it supplies NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Ukraine crisis has returned relations between Russia and the West to the 2008 Georgia War nadir they reached before the advent of the Northern Distribution Network traversing Russia and Central Asia. NATO has suspended all joint military activities with Russia, including a possible joint maritime mission to support Syria’s chemical weapons elimination program. The current stalemate between Moscow and the alliance follows years of deadlocked negotiations over missile defense, NATO membership enlargement, conventional arms control in Europe and other issues. Fundamentally, Russia complains about the West’s lack of respect for Russian interests and concerns, inadequate consultations over NATO policies and general Western distrust of Moscow. Russian diplomats see NATO’s primacy as negating the core principle of indivisible and equal security for all European countries.
Meanwhile, Russia and the United States no longer even make a pretense of describing their relationship as a partnership. The Russia-U.S. “reset” made progress in calming the escalating rhetoric between Moscow and Washington over missile defense and in renewing some arms control and other ties. The two countries cooperated more regarding Iran and managed to contain their differences over Syria. But Moscow and Washington never settled other disputes such as what their next arms control agreements should cover or Russian and U.S. policies in the post-Soviet states. Enduring and comprehensive cooperation will require more influential Russian and U.S. stakeholders that strive for good relations despite differences on various other issues. The two countries’ bilateral trade is minimal, while U.S. investment in Russia remains modest due to concerns about Russia’s legal system and weak intellectual property protection. The 21 working groups meeting under the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission made progress on some issues, including some public health projects and the adoption of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, but these never realized major gains. Instead, the bilateral relationship was dominated by mutual criticism and at best marginal and transactional cooperation that, instead of enjoying the compartmentalization seen in the China-U.S. relationship, among others, often became hostage to disagreements on other issues.
Meanwhile, Russia’s presence in South America remains disruptive but modest. In addition to sustaining ties with Cuba, Russia has been developing relations with Nicaragua, helping to arm its military and bolster its security forces. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently said that Russia would seek regular access to military facilities in Nicaragua and Cuba. But Russia lacks the economic wherewithal to displace either the United States or China as the dominant external players in South America. For example, grandiose plans for a Russian-Venezuelan energy partnership, which would encompass nuclear power, have become dormant.
In the Middle East, Russia has tried to take advantage of the dramatic shifts in the regional landscape over the past few years to reinsert itself as a player. Moscow’s persistent support to Syria’s embattled dictatorship may pay dividends if Bashar Assad’s forces continue to gain the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. In particular, the Russian navy might receive expanded basing opportunities on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In addition to copious arms deliveries and other direct support, Russian diplomacy skillfully helped avert possible U.S. military intervention in Syria by working out a deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal by other means. Russia is also exploiting differences between the Obama administration and the new Egyptian government over human rights and democracy issues—not a visible concern of Russian diplomacy—to secure a potential multibillion-dollar arms deal with Egypt. Russia has negotiated a similar large arms sale with Iraq; Iran could soon resume large arms purchases from Russia, provided international sanctions relief continues. Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons but has no objections to Iran’s conventional arms buildup, even while Russia tries to woo Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf states. The Russian nuclear industry is likewise eager to construct major power plants in these states.
Despite its lagging economic power, Russia has the potential to become a more important player in East Asia. The new Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is eager to improve ties with Moscow rather than engage in simultaneous territorial feuds with Russia, China and South Korea. Russian and Japanese diplomats are still struggling to resolve their dispute over what the Russians call the Kurile Islands—Japan’s Northern Territories—but Moscow has remained publicly neutral regarding Japan’s more active island dispute with China. Russia also provides weapons to and has cultivated economic ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, India and other Asian countries not favorably disposed to China’s rising power.
Nevertheless, Russian policymakers will strive to maintain good relations with Beijing. Although in no way a genuine military alliance, the growing economic and security ties between Russia and China are a most favorable development for Moscow’s geopolitical position. The end of their Cold War rivalry allowed Russia to sell excess Soviet-era arms to the Chinese military at a time when the Russian defense industry desperately needed capital for renewal. Although Moscow is uneasy about becoming a raw-materials appendage of China and has pressed the Chinese, without much success, to invest more in the Russian Far East, Russia should become an even more important energy supplier to China in coming years.
Within the framework of their common leadership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Moscow and Beijing are seeking to maintain stability in Central Asia. While seeking to limit Western presence, Russia has been open to China’s growing economic influence in Central Asia while Beijing has been careful not to contest Moscow’s security primacy in the region. In the Korean Peninsula, Moscow has generally followed Beijing’s lead in developing good economic ties with South Korea while encouraging restraint between North Korea and its Western adversaries. Russia and China often cooperate in the U.N. Security Council, where they have cast several double vetoes against Western-proposed sanctions on Syria and other states. Most recently, although not endorsing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, China has opposed Western sanctions and other countermeasures against Russia. If sustained, these sanctions will likely further strengthen Sino-Russian economic ties and bolster Beijing’s influence in Moscow.
Despite their growing ties, the depth and durability of the Russia-China alignment remains suspect. Although China has now become Russia’s main trading partner, their two-way commerce amounted to under $100 billion in 2013, which is considerably less than than trade between China and its major Western partners. In the U.N. and elsewhere, their diplomats more readily agree on what Western proposals they oppose than on a more proactive positive agenda. Although publicly professing unconcern about China’s growing military power, Russia’s national security community insists that China join any future strategic arms control agreement and has hinted that the reason Russia needs to keep its thousands of tactical nuclear weapons and possibly exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the United States, which Washington claims Moscow has recently violated, is to deal with eastern contingencies. Sino-Russian differences may deepen in coming years should Russia’s relations with the West ever recover.
Unfortunately, whatever his skills as a national leader and politician, Vladimir Putin has ruined Russia’s relations with the West. As long as he remains in power, an enduring Russia-West partnership is impossible. Putin is a pragmatic leader who can avoid conflict as easily as he can exploit weakness, and he enjoys considerable respect in China and some former Soviet republics. He has, however, become a liability for Russia’s diplomacy among the world’s democracies. Becoming more dependent on sustaining Beijing’s goodwill is just one of the many costs of Putin’s confrontational geopolitical posture toward the West. Although the stance has done wonders for reviving Putin’s popularity following his cynically manipulative re-election deal to swap jobs in 2012 with then-Russian President Medvedev, his confrontations come at the cost of risking Russia’s long-term economic and security interests.
As they did following the Georgia War, Russian diplomats are likely to cite the Ukraine crisis as underscoring the imperative of revitalizing pan-European security institutions in which Russia enjoys major rather than marginal status. But as after that conflict, the immediate effect of intervening in Ukraine is likely to be Moscow’s further isolation and alienation from NATO and its EU partners, as well as Japan, which has had to join its allies and impose sanctions on Moscow. The Ukraine adventure has deprived Russia of the Western investment it needs to overcome its most glaring domestic weaknesses and vulnerabilities. As a result, rather than become a genuinely helpful global player, Moscow’s role will remain, for the foreseeable future, primarily that of a regional hegemon with the ability to disrupt some initiatives elsewhere.
Author’s note: The author would like to thank Alex Bezahler, William Lamping, Daria Mattis, Brad McAuliffe, Atish Mittal, Karl Starns and Adam Yefet for their research or editorial assistance with this article.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.