Strategic Posture Review: Russia

Strategic Posture Review: Russia

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of Richard Weitz’s “Strategic Posture Review: Russia,” published in February 2009.

In light of the imminent return of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency, it is worth revisiting the mixed legacy of his previous eight years in that office and highlighting the significant changes in the regional and global environment that have impacted Russia’s foreign and defense policies in the four years since he left it. Upon assuming office on May 7, 2000, Putin began a major campaign to restore the authority of the Russian presidency, which had waned under the erratic leadership of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Putin slowly consolidated his power, relying heavily on his contacts within the former Soviet security forces, many of whom he appointed to the presidential administration as well as to the government bureaucracy and major state-controlled corporations. Under the pretext of fighting terrorism and crime, Putin curbed the power of regional authorities and concentrated political authority in Moscow, while rolling back some civil liberties and media freedoms despite the protests of human rights groups.

Russian voters generally approved of Putin’s program, and he easily won re-election in March 2004 with 71 percent of the vote. Another factor sustaining Putin’s popularity was the economic recovery Russia experienced during his presidency. Starting from the nadir of 1998, Russia’s economy grew by approximately 7 percent annually, in large part due to rising world oil prices. Putin did introduce some positive economic reforms, while exploiting Russia’s control over Eurasian energy flows to punish unfriendly foreign governments and discourage European criticism of Russian policies. The country’s growing prosperity allowed the state to expand its social programs as well as to stabilize military spending.

In his early years in power, Putin continued Yeltsin’s policy of seeking good relations with the West and China while launching his own initiative to restore Russian political primacy in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Putin demonstrated a pragmatic streak, accepting without much fuss the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the establishment of U.S. military bases in Central Asia, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Starting in 2006, however, differences over ballistic missile defense spilled over to disrupt U.S.-Russia bilateral relations in other areas. In 2007 and 2008, Putin adopted an increasingly critical, and sometimes belligerent, stance toward NATO countries and partners.

In 2008, many observers expected that Putin would arrange to circumvent the constitutional limit of two consecutive presidential terms. Instead, he designated Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime aide and adviser, as his successor. With the backing of Putin and his allies, and with the government restricting the activities of opposition candidates, Medvedev easily won the March 2008 presidential elections with more than 70 percent of the vote. After his election, Medvedev appointed Putin his prime minister, as he had pledged during the campaign.

Some Russian and Western analysts expected that Medvedev’s background in private business combined with his liberal reputation — he never joined the Communist Party or served in the KGB or military — would lead him to roll back some of Putin’s authoritarian measures in the kind of “thaw” that sometimes occurred after a change in Soviet leaders. Certain observers even thought that Putin chose Medvedev as his successor precisely in order to reduce tensions with the West and to take responsibility for moderating some of Putin’s earlier decisions. During his campaign and while in office, Medvedev has publicly called for greater freedoms, less corruption and greater respect for the rule of law. However, he has generally pursued policies that differ little from his predecessor.

The changes that have occurred in Russian politics have primarily been differences of style rather than substance. Observers have constantly speculated about the relationship and relative influence between the two men, with some analysts seeing Medvedev as trying to introduce genuine reforms but lacking the power to do so. He is surrounded by many officials and aides appointed by and presumably loyal to Putin. In addition, Medvedev lacks any formal role in the ruling United Russia Party, which Putin heads. Although opinion surveys show that Medvedev enjoys broad popular support, Putin, besides having even higher ratings, still enjoys the allegiance of the dominant political, business and security elite that wields real political power in contemporary Russia.

Under the Putin-Medvedev tandem, the prime minister and president have dominated decision-making. But Putin’s return to the presidency might bring greater order to the Russian interagency system by enshrining both formal and informal powers in the single personality of Putin, rather than dividing them between the presidency and the prime ministership.

Energy Superpower

With 77.4 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and an astounding 44.8 trillion cubic meters of natural gas reserves — the largest such reserves worldwide and almost one-quarter of the global total — Russia is the most influential energy producer worldwide. Over the course of the past decade, Russia has steadily produced between 500 billion and 600 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, with production topping out at 601.7 billion in 2008 and amounting to 588.9 billion in 2010. All told, in 2010, Russian natural gas production accounted for close to one-fifth of the global total, all while maintaining a reserve-to-production ratio of 76, signifying the immense potential for growth in the Russian natural gas sector.

The expansion of the Russian energy sector has unsurprisingly translated into increased influence in global energy markets and political clout in its relations with the numerous states that remain more-or-less dependent on Russian energy. Furthermore, the centrality of energy production and energy revenue to the health of the Russian economy as a whole has also brought energy issues to the forefront of Russian domestic politics and foreign relations. The Kremlin considers energy security to be absolutely vital to its vision of Russia’s future and the wellbeing of the country as a whole. The Russian Energy Strategy, adopted in 2003, enshrined this philosophy, and in its efforts to ensure the success of the strategy, Moscow has demonstrated a willingness to employ aggressive policies, including using energy as political leverage in foreign relations; actively opposing competition in global energy markets and its domestic energy sector; and supporting its energy agenda through military force, as it did in its 2008 invasion of Georgia.

While Russian natural gas production has remained relatively stable over the course of the past decade, Russia has steadily enhanced and expanded its oil production over that same period. Since the year 2000, during which Russia produced slightly more than 6.5 million barrels of oil per day, making it the third-largest oil producer worldwide behind only Saudi Arabia and the United States, Russian oil production has seen a marked increase each and every year. In 2010, Russia produced 10.27 million barrels per day, making it the largest producer of oil globally for the second year running, after having surpassed Saudi Arabian production in 2009. As a result, Russia has cemented its position as the largest, most influential global energy producer of the early 21st century.

Nevertheless, Russia’s economic recovery during the past decade, which has provided the underlying basis for its diplomatic and military resurgence, has fragile foundations. The Russian economy suffers from serious problems, including underinvestment in critical infrastructures, deteriorating public education and health sectors, and pervasive corruption. Russia’s state capitalist model of development, in which the government either controls or owns outright the commanding heights of the national economy, including the country’s strategic energy and defense industries, risks discouraging foreign investors fearful of losing control to newly empowered Russian bureaucrats. Russia has made only modest progress in diversifying its economy away from its dependence on fossil fuel exports.

During Putin’s presidency, high prices for Russian oil and gas exports reduced an important incentive for political and economic reforms. Despite the recent uptick due to the chaos in the Arab world, the era of rising hydrocarbon prices may be ending. Competing alternative sources of gas are reducing Russia’s revenues from its natural gas exports, while Russian oil production is stagnating and requires foreign investment and technology to grow further . It remains to be seen whether the window of opportunity for reform measures has closed, and if not, whether Putin will have the political will to pursue them.

Defense Policy

Until a few years ago, the Russian military-industrial complex rarely produced any new sophisticated weapons systems. When it did, it would most often manufacture a few prototypes, with resource constraints preventing their mass production. Instead, Russian defense firms struggled to keep Soviet-era weapons platforms operational through upgrades of their computers or ordinance. However, modernizing old airplanes, tanks and missiles that were designed in the 1970s and 1980s proved more costly and ineffective than anticipated. To reduce costs, the bankrupt Russian government forced the Ministry of Defense (MOD) to live off the massive weapons inventories Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. As a result, many Soviet-era weapons designers and manufactures went bankrupt, while others gave up on the defense sector. Those that remained were able to survive only through aggressive foreign sales campaigns, including record sales to India and China.

The State Armament Program

During the past few years, especially after the unsatisfactory performance of the Russian armed forces in the August 2008 Georgia War, the Russian government has sought to reverse this situation by boosting defense spending. The MOD envisages spending roughly $650 billion during the 2011-2020 State Armament Program (SAP), which also includes an additional $100 billion for the other security services outside the MOD. In line with Medvedev’s goal of raising the share of modern weapons in the Russian military from an estimated 10 percent now to 30 percent by 2015 and 70-80 percent by 2020, approximately 80 percent of these MOD funds are to go to purchasing weapons, while 10 percent will support scientific research.

Some of the weapons that Russia plans to acquire during the new SAP could substantially boost Russia’s military capabilities. These include several French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ships for the navy as well as a dozen multi-purpose attack submarines of the Yasen, Lada and Kilo classes. The strategic forces will continue to replace retiring Soviet-era SS-18 and SS-19 heavy ICBMs with Russian-made single-warhead SS-27 (Topol-M) and multi-warhead RS-24 intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. The Defense Ministry would also like to research and develop a new MIRVed liquid-fuel ICBM several times larger than the Topol-M and its RS-24 variant. The warplanes the MOD is ordering include 26 new MiG-29KUB carrier-based fighters for the navy. The air force is supposed to receive dozens of modern fourth-generation Su-34 fighter bombers, Su-35BM air superiority fighters, Il-476 transport aircraft and the under-development fifth-generation T-50 stealth fighter, designed to counter the U.S. F-22 Raptor.

According to the Defense Ministry, the SAP will provide the army with additional Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missiles, next-generation multiple-launch rocket systems, self-propelled guns, BTR-82A armored personnel carriers, and anti-tank missile systems. In addition to upgraded S-300V4 air defense systems, the Russian army will also receive additional Buk-M2 medium-range and Pantsir-S1 short-range surface-to-air missiles. Furthermore, the program foresees deploying 10 batteries of advanced S-500 air-and-missile defense systems, which the Russian government is offering to deploy to cover its sector of any joint European theater missile defense architecture established in cooperation with NATO. The army is also supposed to obtain hundreds of Mi-26 Halo heavy transport helicopters, Mi-28 Night Hunter and Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters that will prove useful for operations in Chechnya and other counterinsurgency and counterterrorist operations.

But the headline figures are misleading in that most of the ships the Russian navy will acquire will consist of small surface combatants such as corvettes, frigates and auxiliary ships. In addition, few analysts expect the Russian air force to receive more than a dozen functional T-50 planes over the next decade. And the T-50’s engines, which are based on those used in the Su-35, will lack the low-visibility imprint required to make the plane genuinely stealthy until they are replaced by the more advanced engines still under development.

Moreover, the record of recent SAPs is not encouraging. They all envisaged providing the Russian armed forces with hundreds of new weapons, but their execution was undermined by insufficient financing, inefficient Russian defense manufacturers and pervasive corruption.

Russia’s Military-Industrial Base

Russian arms sellers have been breaking post-Soviet records in the past few years, and the Russian Federation regularly occupies second place in the global arms sales race, after the United States. Developing countries contracted to purchase $10.4 billion of Russian weapons in 2009, almost double the $5.4 billion Russia sold in 2008. Russia’s share of all world arms transfer agreements also grew from 11.1 percent in 2008 to 23.1 percent last year. Meanwhile, the value of all Russian arms deliveries in 2009 amounted to $3.5 billion, with Russia’s 20.6 percent share of all global arms deliveries placing it second after the United States for that year.

Yet, there are abundant signs of trouble ahead for Russia’s defense exports. The global financial crisis threatens to curtail future sales to foreign governments, while the declining value of Russia’s oil and gas exports, which provides much state revenue, has called into question the Russian government’s ability to sustain its own military procurement, modernization and reform plans.

Russian designers can still develop first-class weapons, but Russian defense companies, which have yet to recover from the Soviet military-industrial complex’s traumatic disintegration, remain unable to manufacture large numbers of the most advanced systems. As a result, the Russian government has made the unprecedented decision to buy expensive Western military equipment. The MOD has already contracted to purchase Mistral-class ships from France and intends to buy personal combat systems, also from France, as well as armored vehicles from Italy.

Meanwhile, the MOD must itself compete with foreign customers for the warplanes, tanks and other sophisticated weapons that Russian defense firms produce. India and China are now in a position to demand that Russia allow them to purchase their best weapons systems — precisely those sought by Russia’s own armed forces. For example, the Russian air force would like to acquire the MiG-35 fighter, which is being developed primarily for export to India. However, any cutback in foreign orders could deprive Russia’s defense industries of the revenue they need to modernize their production to manufacture the most advanced weapons systems.

Russia’s military-industrial complex has yet to recover from the collapse of the Soviet command economy, whose planners gave the defense sector priority in its allocations. Estimates are that perhaps one-third of Russia’s defense companies are bankrupt, while another third desperately need an infusion of financial and human capital to modernize their aging production lines and work force. Meanwhile, according to some observers, corruption absorbs as much as half of all Russian defense procurement spending due to the irresistible opportunities for graft offered by the veil of military secrecy. In fact, one reason the government has sought to purchase Western defense products is to use the threat of foreign competition to induce Russia’s military industrial complex to modernize its means of production. Unfortunately, some bad practices have become so ingrained in Russia’s defense sector that they could take more than a decade to extirpate.

Military Reforms and Force Structure

No matter how good the new weapons, they still require a reformed Russian officer class and other military professionals to wield them effectively. And the fate of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov’s controversial reforms, designed to transform a military created to fight another global war with the West into a force optimized to win local conflicts and counterinsurgencies, remains in doubt.

In particular, the reforms seek to reduce the large size of the senior officer corps, which is supposed to fall from 350,000 to 150,000. Overall, the government aims to reduce the number of aggregate military personnel from 1.2 million to about 1 million, moving from a “mass mobilization” model to a more usable brigade-based structure. Serdyukov is also attempting to increase the proportion of volunteers in the force, though even after the implementation of his military reforms, three-fourths of military personnel would remain conscripts. It also remains uncertain whether such long-term transformation plans will survive the current economic crisis or the protests of disgruntled officers who fear being discharged without adequate compensation or post-service assistance in retraining and finding new employment.

The reforms have so far succeeded in destroying the Russian army’s old force structure, which looked like a smaller version of the Soviet armed forces, but it is unclear whether they have created a more effective structure in its place. Claims that almost all the remaining ground forces units are high-readiness brigades capable of deploying in a few hours are hard to believe. Plans to shorten conscription tours and increase the use of contract soldiers have yet to be realized. Nevertheless, less-comprehensive measures have proven insufficient to overcome recruitment and retention problems, so demographic, financial and other incentives for further military reform will likely persist.

Strategic Priorities

Although Putin and Medvedev have re-established Russia’s presence throughout much of the world, Russia’s clear strategic priorities lie in Europe, Asia and the Eurasian region in between. Russia has made much progress in recent years in reducing tensions with NATO, maintaining good relations with China and strengthening its influence in the former Soviet republics. Nonetheless, while the 2008 Georgia War ended prospects for further NATO expansion in the former Soviet republics for the near future, the reset with Washington and the revised U.S.-NATO missile defense plans have yet to result in an enduring solution to Russia’s two main priorities in Europe: re-establishing Russia’s leading role in European security issues and constraining the growth of U.S. missile defenses.

When they look southward, Russian policymakers see a cantankerous Iranian regime and political chaos in the Middle East that threatens to spill over into Central Asia. Russia’s strategic priority of integrating deeper into the prosperous East Asia region is stymied by the failure to reach a natural gas agreement with China, the tensions with Japan over their disputed island territories, and the stubborn refusal of North Korea to renounce its nuclear weapons. Putin has proposed a new Eurasian Union that would help re-establish Moscow’s dominance in the former Soviet territories, but this project faces many obstacles to its realization.


Although NATO-Russian cooperation regarding Afghanistan has advanced substantially in recent years, underlying tensions exist. The fundamental problem is that, while Russian leaders want to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, they oppose NATO’s establishing an enduring military presence in Central Asia. In addition, Russian officials consider the most immediate problem regarding Afghanistan to be the flow of Afghan narcotics into Central Asia and Russia. But NATO troops have limited their counternarcotics operations to avoid further increasing popular support for the Taliban insurgents. The Russian government has also sought to promote a greater role for the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an alliance of the most pro-Moscow bloc of former Soviet republics, by inducing NATO to address Afghan security issues directly with the CSTO, rather than by dealing bilaterally with individual Central Asian countries. However, with the U.S. and coalition withdrawal on the horizon, Afghanistan remains a major source of uncertainty and potential instability for Moscow.

Central Asia

Putin and Medvedev have made restoring Moscow’s influence in Central Asia a strategic priority. Russian businesses have sought to secure a durable presence in the Central Asian energy market by negotiating preferential long-term sales agreements for Russian energy companies. Thanks to the legacy of the integrated Soviet economy, Central Asia’s landlocked states continue to rely heavily on transportation, communications, supply chains and other networks that either transit Russia or fall under Russian control. Russian officials have also waged a low-key but effective campaign to limit American, Chinese and other foreign economic competition in Central Asian countries, although China in particular has made major inroads in the energy sector.

Russia has agreed to allow NATO countries to transit supplies through Russian territory en route to Central Asia and Afghanistan, by rail and, more recently, through its airspace. Yet, there is an admixture of conflict in the NATO-Russian interaction on this issue. Moscow gains considerable leverage in its relations with Washington due to U.S. dependence on using Russian territory to bring supplies into Central Asia and Afghanistan. In addition, since Russia considers Central Asia a zone of special interest, it wants to ensure that it exerts some influence over foreign military activities in the region.


For most of its post-1991 history, Ukraine has pursued a policy of maintaining tight ties with Russia while at the same time pursuing closer relations with the West, particularly the European Union. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s brief foray into trying to move Ukraine considerably closer to the West while antagonizing Moscow proved a failure that is unlikely to be soon repeated in Kyiv. Current President Viktor Yanukovych has reverted to past posture and sought to deepen ties with the West without taking measures that could alarm Russia, such as seeking near-term membership in NATO. He has also textended Russia’s lease of a naval base for the Black Sea Fleet on the Crimean Peninsula for an additional 25 years after the current lease expires in 2017. In return, Ukraine will receive a 30 percent discount on natural gas over the next decade, an example of Moscow’s skillful use of energy politics to advance its strategic interests.


Georgia is the country most likely to suffer from Putin’s return, as Putin and Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili loathe one another. Even if Saakashvili is replaced as Georgia’s dominant political leader, Putin is unlikely to reverse Moscow’s de facto annexation of the Georgian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow has formally recognized both as independent states, and the Russian military is building large long-term bases in both regions. The best that a post-Saakashvili Georgia might hope for is that Russia might allow more visa-free travel between the separatist regions and the rest of Georgia and relax its economic blockade of Georgia. The recent agreement clearing the way for Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization could set a precedent for the two sides to establish workarounds to keep tensions from blocking other multilateral agendas, in the OSCE, for instance.


Russia and China have achieved a benign geopolitical equilibrium since the USSR’s demise. Whereas in the past, one country tended to have clear power superiority over the other, now a multilevel balance has arisen. China’s superior economic performance has allowed it to catch up with Russia’s previous lead. Meanwhile, though Russia still has more advanced military weapons, China is located at a distance from the core of Russian military power, which remains in Europe. Both governments have also been careful to avoid taking provocative actions against the other. Overall, the regular assertions of Russian and Chinese leaders that bilateral relations are the best they have ever been ring true.

Although Russian arms sales to China have declined, Russian and Chinese military officers now meet regularly at multiple levels. In addition, the two armed forces engage in many small and several large joint exercises, sometimes along with their Central Asian partners. Even more frequently, the two governments coordinate their foreign policies in the United Nations — where they regularly block Western-backed efforts to impose sanctions on anti-Western regimes — and in East Asian hot spots, as, for example, in their independent territorial disputes with Japan.

Russia and China share interests in maintaining stability along their lengthy border and in the volatile region of Central Asia, where energy supplies are vital for both countries’ economic development — China consumes them directly, whereas Russian companies earn valuable revenue by reselling them to third-party markets, especially in Europe. Adverse regional events such as further political revolutions or civil wars could adversely affect core Chinese and Russian security interests. Nonetheless, the two countries have managed to transform Central Asia from what could have been a potential source of rivalry into a region of joint management, often within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which they co-lead.

More generally, there are a few potential developments that could worsen the relationship. Russian resentment could build as China continues to ascend to superpower status, and a major Chinese military buildup could also alarm Russian policymakers. Alternately, Russian plans to create a European Union-like arrangement among the former Soviet republics could provoke Beijing’s resistance, since such a development could impede China’s economic access to Central Asia. But these and other potential divisive developments are unlikely to occur soon if Chinese and Russian diplomats continue to manage the bilateral relationship with skill.


The impact of Putin’s return on Russia’s relations with Japan is uncertain. During the years Putin was president, the Japanese found him a very tough negotiator on the four disputed islands the Russians call the Southern Kuriles and the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories. As a result, Japanese officials decided to bide their time on the issue until Putin retired in 2008. But Medvedev has pursued an even harder line and even became the first Russian president to physically visit the islands in November 2010, provoking a mini-crisis with Tokyo. Putin is probably inclined to continue the hard line, but he also has the security bona fides to pursue the “Nixon to China” option of negotiating a compromise solution and then forcing Russians, who polls show are averse to any more territorial concessions, to accept it. Putin’s incentive to seek such a deal would be to secure Japanese capital and technical assistance in order to modernize the Russian economy, a goal he has espoused in his inaugural campaign speech.

The confrontation underscores the anomaly of the persistent tension between the two countries. Excluding their territorial dispute, Russia and Japan share several overlapping geopolitical and economic interests that should make them natural partners, if not allies. In East Asia, they confront overlapping challenges in the form of China’s growing economic and military power as well as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. They also both seek to cultivate strategic and economic ties with the ASEAN states. In the economic realm, the Japanese would like to expand their access to Russia’s natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, while the Russians would like to secure more Japanese investment to modernize their industries and to develop the Russian Far East. This region’s lagging development and alienation from Moscow represents a long-term security challenge in the face of China’s rising strength. In practice, though, the Russian-Japan territorial dispute has made it difficult for them to pursue these shared interests.

An enduring territorial settlement between Russia and Japan would require either a Russian government willing to make territorial concessions to resolve a source of tension with a neighbor, or a strong Japanese government that would be willing and able to push through the kind of compromise settlement that Russians now demand: accepting the return of at most two of the four contested islands in exchange for a peace treaty and substantial Japanese investment and other economic contributions to Russia’s socioeconomic development. For now, both scenarios seem unlikely.

The Korean Peninsula

Russia-South Korean economic relations have improved considerably since the end of the Cold War. Bilateral trade amounted to $9.3 billion in 2006, up from $2.8 billion in 2001, and reached $18.4 billion in 2008 before declining because of the global financial crisis. Economic ties would further surge if the two countries realized their ambitious plans for massive transportation and energy projects, including a trans-peninsular gas pipeline and railway that could include China. Implementing these projects awaits a resolution of the Korean nuclear dispute. Both Moscow and Seoul seek the same immediate outcome in the Six-Party Talks of constraining North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, though they tend to cooperate more directly with other parties, with Seoul trying to keep its policies in harmony mostly with Washington.

Like South Korea, Russia favors a “soft landing” for the North Korean regime — a gradual mellowing of its domestic and foreign policies, including the renunciation of nuclear weapons. Such a benign outcome would avoid the feared consequences of precipitous regime change, including humanitarian emergencies, economic reconstruction, arms races and military conflicts. Yet, it is unclear whether Russian policymakers would really like to see Korean unification, which could result in the substantial South Korean investment currently flowing into Russia being redirected toward North Korea’s rehabilitation. If reunification were ever to occur, a potential source of conflict could be the deployment of U.S. military forces in the newly unified Korean state. Many Koreans would want U.S. forces to remain to balance the country’s militarily more powerful neighbors — namely, China, Japan and Russia. Though a continued American presence would discourage the government of a unified Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons, Russian policymakers might object to having U.S. forces deployed in a country with which Russia shares a border.


The end of the Cold War simultaneously created both an environment favorable for improved Russian-Western relations and conditions that made conflict likely. On the one hand, the July 1991 dissolution of the integrated Warsaw Pact removed the threat that for decades had generated distrust and hostility toward Russia in NATO countries. The end of Soviet communism also eliminated the sources of the ideological conflict between the Russian government and Western democracies. Americans and Europeans saw a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform a former adversary into a stable, liberal democracy that would help maintain international security and stability in alignment with NATO countries.

On the other hand, Russia has always appeared too unstable, too big and too different from the existing alliance members to warrant NATO membership on its own. Russia’s lack of influence on alliance decision-making and the resulting imbalance of power in the West’s favor was bound to unnerve Russian leaders, especially as the alliance took advantage of its political and military pre-eminence in central Europe to incorporate new members and employ military force to address perceived threats to European stability, such as Russia’s Serb nationalist allies in the former Yugoslavia. Russians still perceive the 1990s as an era when the West took advantage of Russia’s weakness to create a NATO-dominated European security architecture that constrains Russia’s geopolitical influence.

Russian policymakers continue to see their country as an important European power that should have a say in all major European security questions. For geopolitical, historical, and — in the case of the Russian minorities in the Baltic republics — ethnic reasons, Russian policymakers tend to consider the former Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe as falling under Moscow’s special sphere of influence, if not control. Perhaps for this reason, Russian leaders have reacted extremely negatively to NATO efforts to incorporate these countries into the alliance or to deploy NATO military assets there.

In December 2007, Russia “suspended” its participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, a complex instrument adopted at the end of the Cold War that established equal ceilings of major conventional weapons for both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. An adapted agreement was subsequently signed in November 1999 to take into account the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution and NATO’s ensuing expansion, replacing the obsolete bloc ceilings and zones with a system of national limits for each treaty party. Most NATO members refuse to ratify the updated CFE treaty, however, until Russia completely removes its troops, military equipment and ammunition stockpiles from the territory of Moldova and Georgia.

At the November 2010 NATO-Russia Council Summit in Lisbon, NATO and Russia agreed to expand their cooperation on tactical missile defense and work to overcome their differences on territorial ballistic missile defense (BMD), which had been a major source of tension in both NATO-Russia and U.S.-Russia relations. For example, they have agreed to resume joint theater missile defense exercises, which had been suspended since the 2008 Georgia War, and discuss how they could potentially cooperate on territorial BMD in the future. NATO and Russian experts are now addressing such questions as well as issues that would improve cooperation in other fields, although the obstacles to an agreement remain substantial.


Russian officials have had to balance a complex set of objectives in their relations with Tehran. They desire Iranian help in curbing international terrorism, especially in the former Soviet republics neighboring Russia, and in limiting American influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. Russian nuclear and defense firms also profit from Iran’s dependence on Russian-made nuclear technology and weapons.

Nevertheless, Russian leaders oppose Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Their opposition appears due less to a concern about a near-term Iranian attack against Russia and more to a worry about how Israel, the United States and European governments might respond to an Iranian atomic bomb program. A major conflict in the Persian Gulf could lead to a further spike in world prices for Russian oil and gas, generating windfall profits for Moscow, but Russian territory lies uncomfortably close to the site of any military operation. Another war could also encourage Islamist extremism or lead to unpredictable regime change in Iran. Russian officials have therefore always ruled out employing military force against Iran to disrupt its nuclear program. They have regularly argued that threats and pressure only reinforce Iranian leaders’ determination to acquire nuclear weapons to bolster their security.

Unlike many Western governments, which would like to see regime change in Tehran, Russian leaders want changes in Iranian policies but not a change in the regime itself. In fact, Russia benefits from Iran’s alienation from the West, since it maintains Russia’s privileged place in Iranian political and economic circles.


The Russian government appears to see the Arctic as a necessary part of Russia’s future security in the realms of energy and geopolitics writ large. Geography alone dictates that Moscow will have a major role in Arctic decision-making. Russian policymakers estimate that about one-fifth of their country’s GDP already derives from the Arctic region. For example, Russia has begun exploiting the resources of the Barents Sea, while the government aims to develop the energy deposits in both the Barents and the Kara Seas. It is widely anticipated that future offshore oil, gas and other resources will be discovered and developed as regional warming further reduces Arctic ice cover. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that hundreds of billions of barrels of oil may be in Russian-claimed territory. In recent years, the Russian government has set forth ambitious territorial claims in the Arctic, which have been reinforced by scientific research expeditions and military measures.

The development of Arctic hydrocarbons is fraught with a number of large obstacles, however, not least of which are the region’s severe conditions. The Arctic environment necessitates the construction of expensive, custom equipment capable of withstanding the frigid temperatures. Additionally, hydrocarbon extraction in such conditions requires the constant supervision of variable soil conditions and the icepack to avoid damage to the facilities. Despite the Arctic’s prominence in Russian strategic calculations, the region’s energy infrastructure remains largely undeveloped. Pipelines have yet to connect many of the Arctic oil and gas fields to domestic or international energy markets, necessitating expensive overland or overseas transportation, in addition to enormous initial development costs and the high cost of labor. As such, the development of the Russian Arctic will likely cost at a minimum hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of the next decade, potentially requiring the participation of foreign partners.

Whither the U.S.-Russia Reset?

Even if Putin tries to maintain the U.S.-Russia reset, there is no certainty that the United States will go along. The problem is unlikely to be the Obama administration, which has already expressed a willingness to work with whomever is elected president, but with the U.S. Congress, which, though not anti-Russian, generally hates Putin. As a result, the Obama administration will likely find it a bit harder to secure congressional approval of future U.S.-Russia treaties. For example, despite its modest nature, New START secured much less Senate support than previous strategic arms control treaties. Had Putin been president last year, the required two-thirds Senate majority might not have been achieved.

Neither Moscow nor Washington looks set to negotiate a new arms control treaty soon, but both governments are eager to expand their economic relationship, which remains a weak prop for their bilateral ties. At present, both governments are cooperating to secure Russia’s entry into the WTO, on which Congress does not have a vote. But Congress can vote on the outdated but still embarrassing Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which serves as a yearly vehicle for congressional hearings used to denounce the Russian government’s human rights record and other policies.

Perhaps the most important variable affecting U.S.-Russian relations in coming years will be who will be the U.S. president after January 2013.

Russia’s strategic environment has changed dramatically since when Putin left the presidency in 2008. Although tensions persist over European missile defense, relations with Washington and NATO have improved considerably. At the same time, the Russian economy has weakened to the extent that many experts believe that, without fundamental reforms, Russia will no longer be able to generate sufficient resources to remain a major global military power. Even greater challenges may be the rising power of China on Russia’s eastern doorstep and the anticipated decline in the human resources available to the Russian military. Combined with the fragile economic foundations of Russia’s resurgence, these factors will likely compel a scaling back in Russia’s strategic ambitions in coming decades.

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.

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