Strategic Posture Review: Russia

Russia has experienced a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Despite its strategic resurgence, however, the country’s new status rests on shaky foundations that will limit Moscow’s capacity, and perhaps ambitions, to become a peer competitor of the United States. Richard Weitz examines the country’s recent history, foreign and military policy, and national strategy in the first WPR Strategic Posture Review.

The Russian Federation has experienced a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Following a decade spent managing the collapse of the Soviet Union while watching its global influence decline, Russia has once again become a world power. With the use of its energy and arms trade, Russian leaders have advanced strategic partnerships in Asia, Europe, and most recently South America, thereby increasing Moscow’s ability to challenge and at times frustrate U.S. strategic interests. Despite Russia’s strategic resurgence, the country’s new status rests on shaky foundations that will limit Moscow’s capacity, and perhaps ambitions, to become a peer competitor of the United States. Even within Eurasia, Russian policymakers watch warily as NATO expands along Russia’s borders and China achieves growing influence in resource-rich Central Asia.

The Immediate Post-Soviet Period

During the 1990s, Russia underwent several traumatic transformations. The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 ruptured the integrated Soviet political, economic, and military structures that had sustained Moscow’s status as the capital of a global superpower. Russian leaders had to simultaneously manage the transition from single-party rule to a multiparty state, the conversion of a command economy to one based largely on market principles, the loss of an empire, and the withdrawal of the Russian military to the territory of the Russian Federation (and certain former Soviet republics). The U.S.S.R. suffered population, territorial, and economic losses greater than what Pentagon planners had judged as “unacceptable” when determining the assured damage they had to inflict on the Soviet Union in order to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent.

Russia’s first President, Boris Yeltsin, groped with this situation as best he could, leaving behind an uneven legacy. His imperfect solutions to Russia’s unprecedented challenges led to domestic chaos and international decline. These results go a long way towards explaining the priorities of the Putin era.

Domestically, Yeltsin’s main task was dismantling the legacies of Soviet communism, which meant breaking the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power and the KGB’s monopoly on internal security functions; eliminating the gross inefficiencies and distortions of the Soviet command economy, especially its prioritization of military spending; and decentralizing power from Moscow to Russia’s newly semi-autonomous regions.

In the economic realm, Yeltsin’s comprehensive free market reforms included privatization of state assets and social services, the elimination of price controls and subsidies, and other means of “shock therapy.” The measures led to the emergence of Russia’s notorious “oligarchs,” who acquired control of the country’s newly privatized state corporations, often at very low prices, in return for funding the government’s immediate operating expenses. Policy was often determined by a coterie of close political advisers working in the presidential administration, with limited input by the legislature.

On the international plane, Yeltsin’s natural instincts drove him to align Russia with the United States and the other Western democracies. He went even further than former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in negotiating drastic reductions in Russian and American nuclear forces. Although Yeltsin backed away from proposals to join NATO, he did not break relations with the alliance even after it enlarged its membership to include former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, and after NATO began to engage in the first military operations in its history in the former Yugoslavia. For his support, Yeltsin received considerable face-time with Western leaders and Russia was granted membership in the exclusive group of industrial states (converting the G-7 to the G-8).

Unfortunately, Yeltsin suffered a series of devastating domestic and foreign setbacks. His struggles with opponents in the Russian parliament were epitomized by the spectacle of tanks shelling his rivals’ headquarters in the Russian White House in October 1993. Despite enhanced presidential powers granted by a new constitution in December 1993, Yeltsin was forced to curtail his economic reforms as well as to rein in his pro-Western instincts by fierce parliamentary resistance.

Yeltsin’s strong support of regional autonomy, which helped him gain allies in his struggle for power, ultimately led to a decline of Moscow’s influence in its former territories. His initial attempt to restore federal authority—the Russian invasion of Chechnya in December 1994—was met by stubborn Chechen resistance that, in combination with an ineffective—though brutal—Russian counterinsurgency campaign, ultimately led to a humiliating Russian withdrawal in 1996. The devastated province subsequently fell under the control of radical factions seeking to export Islamist principles to neighboring Russian republics, setting the stage for the Second Chechen War.

During the first few years after the Soviet dissolution, Russia’s GDP fell by approximately one-half and the annual inflation rate regularly exceeded triple digits, wiping out personal cash savings and encouraging protracted delays on payment of debts. After several years of seeming progress, the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis precipitated a worldwide crisis that eventually forced the Russian government into bankruptcy. Although low world energy prices contributed to the debacle, most Russians still blame naive liberal reformers, rapacious oligarchs, and foreign enemies for the fiasco.

Russia’s inability to assert itself in international affairs was characterized by NATO’s enlargement into Eastern Europe, the alliance’s unilateral use of force in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the former Soviet republics’ drift away from Moscow’s orbit. Meanwhile, the Russian military’s inability to regain control of Chechnya or undertake essential modernization led some observers to fear that the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration would soon be followed by that of the Russian Federation itself.

Western governments refused to provide Russia with the next-generation Marshall Plan advocated by some. Instead, less generous support was forthcoming that focused on a few key areas, such as funding projects to eliminate or secure the weapons of mass destruction that Russia had inherited from the Soviet Union and that foreign governments genuinely worried might be sold to foreign governments or terrorists by impoverished Russian scientists or technicians.

The Putin Era

Since Yeltsin’s resignation at the end of 1999, the Russian Federation has experienced a remarkable geopolitical resurgence. Under Yeltsin’s anointed successor, Vladmir Putin, the previously chaotic politics of the Yeltsin years have been replaced by a perhaps excessively well-regulated political process. Yeltsin’s rule was marked by protracted struggles among the factions within his presidential administration, between the president and a parliament filled with many influential opposition legislatures, and between the central federal government in Moscow and many semi-autonomous regional entities that at times appeared out of Moscow’s control.

Under Putin, the president and his closest allies have dominated decision making, coerced the legislature into serving as a highly compliant body under the overwhelming control of pro-Kremlin parties, and reined in the autonomy of Russia’s regions, media, corporations, and other key political and economic actors. Pro-Putin political parties, receiving substantial Kremlin support, now dominate the political landscape, while other political movements—nationalists, communists, and liberals—have been marginalized. Early last year, Putin successfully managed the immediate succession issue by making one of his closest aides, Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president while retaining seemingly dominant influence as Russia’s Prime Minister.

Russian foreign policy has also rebounded during the past decade. The September 2001 terrorist attacks gave Putin a golden opportunity to re-characterize Russia’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya as a contribution to the global war against Islamist terrorism. Despite unease within the Russian bureaucracy, Putin accepted the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and the establishment of new American military bases in Central Asia. The Russian President also developed a good working relationship with U.S. President George W. Bush, who appreciated Putin’s low-key opposition—in contrast to the more outspoken resistance he encountered in France and Germany—to the subsequent American decision to invade Iraq. In turn, the American government agreed to negotiate a new strategic arms control treaty with Russia (despite the Bush administration’s general aversion to arms control measures that constrain U.S. strategic flexibility) and worked to upgrade Russian ties with NATO, the G-8, and the World Trade Organization.

Russia’s Reemergence as U.S. Geopolitical Rival

During the last few years, Moscow has reemerged as Washington’s main geopolitical rival, exerting its influence throughout much of the world in ways often unwelcome by U.S. policymakers. In Latin America and the Middle East, Russian diplomats are defending regimes—notably Venezuela, Syria, and Iran—that have clashed frequently with the Bush administration. In East and Central Asia, China and India have again become key strategic partners of Moscow. In Europe, Russian leaders are continuing to press the United States and its allies to abandon plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic or offer Ukraine or Georgia a membership action plan for NATO. Medvedev is also lobbying for a new European Security Treaty that could weaken NATO while allowing Russia to retain military forces in several conflict regions. At present, both NATO and the EU have seemingly accepted Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia as a fait accompli despite earlier avowals not to proceed with “business as usual” with Moscow.

The precise reasons for Moscow’s newly confrontational policies remain unclear. The decisions to enlarge NATO further, recognize Kosovo’s independence, and deploy missile defenses in regions many in Moscow consider as laying within their sphere of influence has led many Russians genuinely to believe that the West routinely fails to take into account Russia’s legitimate security interests on major policy issues. In addition, the astonishing resurrection of the Russian economy over the past decade has reduced Russia’s dependence on foreign economic assistance, allowing Russian leaders to more vigorously resist Western policies they might earlier have accepted. In the decade since the 1998 financial collapse, Russia’s GDP has increased from less than $200 billion in 1999 to more than $1.3 trillion in 2007. Yet, suspicions linger that Putin also adopted a more nationalist posture in order to enhance his authority at home by exploiting Russian patriotism to rally support behind his quasi-authoritarian domestic policies.

Structural Weaknesses

Despite Russia’s recent achievements, the extent and duration of the Russian revival also remain uncertain. The country’s economic recovery during the last decade, which has provided the underlying basis for Russia’s 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. The recent collapse in world oil prices underscores the vulnerability of the Russian economy—which, unlike during Soviet times, has become tightly integrated into global economic processes—to commodity speculators. European, American and Central Asian political and business leaders continue to consider plans to build pipelines that would allow Caspian energy producers to ship oil and gas to European consumers through routes that would bypass Russian territory, threatening Russia’s dominant position in Eurasian energy markets.

The Russian political system also remains underdeveloped. The country’s political parties have become ideologically neutered bodies in which personality clashes rather than policy issues dominate the discussion. One-party states under the control of a single dominant individual are prone to serious secessionist crises. Russian political energies are even now preoccupied with the question of when Putin will return as president and under what conditions. Should the Russian economy continue to thrive despite its problems, the rising middle class could demand more political rights and opportunities, but the country’s short-term, personality driven political system seems ill-suited for taking their views, or those of other potentially alienated actors, into account.

Defense Policy

Despite the recent emphasis on how Russian oil and gas have replaced the Army and Navy as Russia’s two most influential strategic tools, the most important fact about Russia is that it commands the world’s second most powerful nuclear arsenal. Russia currently possesses 667 strategic delivery platforms capable of carrying approximately 3,000 nuclear warheads. Most of these are land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under the command of the Strategic Missile Forces (SMF). The Russian Navy also has long-range ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads based on its 14 strategic missile submarines, while the Russian Air Force has 79 strategic bombers armed with as many as 884 long-range cruise missiles as well as gravity bombs.

Since August 2008, when the Russian armed forces overwhelmed Georgia’s Western-trained army and seized control of the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia’s military has conducted an unprecedented range of operations, from massive live-fire exercises at home to naval and air deployments throughout much of the globe. The month-long “Stability 2008” exercise, which began on Sept. 21, was based on the scenario of a local conflict (e.g., over Georgia) that escalates into a world war between Russia and its ally, Belarus, against the West, with both sides employing land, air, maritime, and eventually nuclear forces. All three components of Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent (bombers, submarines, and land forces) participated in the maneuvers, which were the largest conducted on Russian territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But Russia’s military activities had increased well before this summer’s Georgia War. For several years, Russia has conducted an expanded series of test missile launches, both to confirm the reliability of existing missiles and to develop new missile and warhead technologies. Since last year, Russian strategic bombers have resumed global patrols, simulating nuclear attacks against the United States and its allies. In recent months, the Russian Navy has also begun returning to maritime regions unvisited by Russian sailors since Soviet times.


Since early 2007, Russia has been revising its military doctrine to reflect international security developments during the past few years. The Russian Security Council, which supervises the process, explained that, “Drastic changes have occurred in the geopolitical and military situation in the world and in the nature of threats against national security, which makes it necessary to revise the specific tasks facing the Russian Armed Forces and related security agencies.”

To help realize these revised military objectives, in 2007 the Russian government approved a $240 billion re-armament program that will run through 2015. In February 2008, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it would further increase the military budget by about 20 percent, allocating approximately one trillion rubles (about $40 billion) to military spending in 2008. Following the August 2008 war in Georgia, the Russian government announced it would increase the defense budget yet again, in order to replace the warplanes and other equipment lost in the conflict as well as to accelerate the acquisition of new weapons designed since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. This year, the Russian military will spend over $40 billion. The figure for 2009 should exceed $50 billion.

The plan follows steady increases in the Russian defense budget since 2000, with military expenditures growing 22 percent from 2004 to 2005, and another 27 percent in 2006 (to almost 3 percent of the national budget). The spending increase reflects both the importance Putin’s team placed on having an effective military and Russia’s economic revival, which has generated the resources needed to boost defense spending.

The re-armament program is an attempt to modernize conventional forces that, on paper, already look enormous: some 20,000 main battle tanks; 15,000 armored infantry fighting vehicles; 10,000 armored personnel carriers; 30,000 artillery pieces; 2,000 modern warplanes; 1,500 combat helicopters; 60 nuclear submarines; 1 aircraft carrier; and 6 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 19 frigates, 26 corvettes, 41 mine warfare vessels, 22 major amphibious vessels and 72 patrol and coastal combat vessels.

These developments naturally raise the issue of whether Russia has again become a military superpower, prepared to compete with the United States and its allies for global influence. Although Russia’s strategic trajectory is currently ascending, an objective assessment still suggests that Russia is and will remain for the next few decades a regional military power, able to exert predominance in Eurasia’s core, but not a peer strategic competitor with the United States.

In fact, the surge in Russian defense spending, while superficially impressive, obscures several important issues. Much of the growth merely compensates for the exceptionally high inflationary pressures that continue to plague the Russian defense sector. Russia’s share of the global GDP only amounts to between 2-3 percent, hardly sufficient for waging a renewed global rivalry with the United States. In addition, it will take years for the recent budget increases to result in the fielding of new equipment. Although Russian designers can still develop first-class weapons, Russian defense industries, which have yet to recover from the traumatic disintegration of the Soviet military-industrial complex, remain unable to manufacture large numbers of the most advanced systems. The Russian military also must compete with foreign customers for those few warplanes, tanks, and other sophisticated weapons that are produced.

After the Georgia War, Medvedev warned Russian military commanders that they had to improve readiness and training, adopt more effective command structures, and raise soldiers’ living standards. Although generally successful, the Georgia campaign exposed continued problems in Russian military equipment and tactics, especially in integrating air-and-ground operations and in employing the most advanced information and reconnaissance technologies. Col. Gen. Vladimir Popovkin, the deputy defense minister for armaments, subsequently cautioned that the Russian military had “completely exhausted the Soviet arsenals of weaponry and military equipment.”

The long-term sustainability of Russia’s military revival also remains unclear. The Russian government remains highly dependent on oil and gas exports for revenue, leaving the country vulnerable to price falls and resource exhaustion. Russia’s continuing demographic problems will make it difficult for the armed forces to transition to a fully professional military footing that does not depend on poorly motivated conscripts. Although Medvedev and Putin have apparently adopted an effective power-sharing arrangement, Russia’s undeveloped political institutions have lacked the capacity to root out corruption and other inefficiencies. Even in the high-priority defense sector, analysts estimate that a third of Russian military spending is wasted or stolen—an enormous restraint on realizing Russian military ambitions.

Strategic Priorities

In addition to ensuring the defense of Russia’s territorial integrity and internal security, the country’s most important sphere of strategic concern has been developments in the former Soviet republics. Under Yeltsin, Russian influence in many of these countries severely atrophied. The Baltic republics quickly left Moscow’s orbit altogether to join Euro-Atlantic institutions such as the European Union and subsequently NATO. Russia was able to retain some strategic influence by deploying “peacekeeping troops” to help dampen local ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet republics of Moldova and Georgia. The Russian government has also negotiated bilateral agreements to maintain the use of various former Soviet military facilities in neighboring countries, including Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. Perhaps Russia’s most important source of influence in many of these newly independent states has been their continued dependence on Russian-controlled energy supplies or pipelines.

Central Asia

Putin made restoring Moscow’s influence in Central Asia a priority. In his April 2005 state-of-the-nation address, he described the collapse of the U.S.S.R. as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Under Putin, Russian officials strove to ensure that Russian firms participate in developing the region’s energy resources and that Central Asian oil and gas exporters continue to use Russian pipelines. With Russian government assistance, state-controlled companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rosneft, and Unified Energy System of Russia have substantially expanded their presence in the region’s energy sector. Russian negotiators have sought to secure a durable presence in the Central Asian energy market by securing preferential long-term sale 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 traverse Russia or fall under Moscow’s control. Russian officials have also waged a low-keyed but effective campaign to limit American, Chinese, and other foreign economic competition in Central Asian countries.

Russia has reinforced its bilateral influence with many of these countries by promoting various forms of multilateral cooperation through regional organizations in which Moscow enjoys considerable influence. Although the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has proven a weak means of integrating the former Soviet space, more recent institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have become more effective vehicles for enhancing regional integration among a more limited body of Moscow-leaning former Soviet republics. Medvedev appears as interested as his predecessor in maintaining Russian influence in Central Asia, making energy-rich Kazakhstan the first foreign capital he visited after becoming Russia’s president.


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, Moscow policymakers tend to consider the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe as falling under a special sphere of influence (though not control) of Russia. Perhaps for this reason, Russian leaders have reacted extremely negatively to NATO’s decision to offer many of these countries alliance membership and the American decision to deploy ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Also for this reason, the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states have been the most vocal in expressing concern about Russian foreign and defense polices.

Russia’s relations with Ukraine have also experienced strains in part due to Ukrainian perceptions that Russian government representatives have been meddling in their affairs. The Orange Revolution of 2004 is often cited as the prime example of Russia’s overbearing efforts to exert political influence over the former Soviet republic. The subsequent efforts of the Orange bloc to join NATO and the EU, correctly seen as an attempt to escape Russian influence, has aroused Moscow’s ire and sharpened tensions over the Russian naval presence at Sevastopol. The Ukrainian government insists it will not renew the lease, which runs through May 2017. Various Russian leaders have suggested that if Ukraine actually joins NATO or attempts to expel the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol, then Russia might annex the Crimea.

The Ukrainian government openly sided with Georgia in its war with Moscow and tried to limit Russian use of the Black Sea Fleet to support Russian military operations there. Russian admirals ignored Ukrainian objections and Russian politicians denounced Ukrainian officials for supporting a rogue regime in Tbilisi. After the war, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, who as the last Soviet foreign minister helped dismantle the Soviet Union, warned that Ukraine “most likely'” would be the next country to experience increased Russian military pressure to abandon foreign and defense policies opposed by Moscow.

Russia has taken other steps to shore up its conventional military power in Europe. 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 (tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters) 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 refused to ratify the updated CFE treaty, however, until Russia completely removed its troops, military equipment, and ammunition stockpiles from the territory of Moldova and Georgia.

In justifying its suspension decision, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs blamed NATO countries for refusing to ratify the Adapted CFE Treaty until Moscow fulfilled “farfetched requirements having nothing to do with the CFE Treaty.” The Ministry insisted that Moscow intended the moratorium to restore rather than kill the treaty. The declaration noted that by “suspending” Russia’s participation in the treaty rather than formally withdrawing altogether, the Russian president could quickly resume implementing its provisions, providing that NATO governments ratified and complied with the Amended Treaty and took other measures to meet Russian security concerns.

European-Based Missile Defense

For reasons that remain unclear, for the past two years Russian leaders have become fixated on the American effort to deploy ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Poland and the Czech Republic to supplement the two operational U.S. missile defense sites in California and Alaska. These facilities would include an advanced battle management radar in the Czech Republic, along with 10 hit-to-kill interceptor missiles equipped with non-explosive warheads in a silo in Poland.

Russian representatives claim that the stated U.S. justification for the BMD deployments—that the systems are needed to defend the United States and European countries against an emerging Iranian missile threat—lacks credibility. They argue that Iran and other states of proliferation concern have yet to develop long-range missiles or the nuclear warheads that would make them especially threatening. Instead, Russian leaders insist that the true object of these deployments along Russia’s periphery is to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—if not in their present small numbers, then after Washington manages to induce other NATO governments (including Ukraine and Georgia) to host additional BMD systems.

Moscow initially responded by denouncing the U.S. BMD deployment plans and by making vague threats of retaliation. After Russian threats failed to induce either Washington or its sometimes unenthusiastic NATO allies to cancel the BMD programs, Russian representatives pursued several diplomatic initiatives to avert the deployments. At various times, these included providing the United States with unprecedented access to data on Iranian missile developments from the Russian-leased Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan; use of a nearly-constructed BMD radar in southern Russia, located in Krasnodar Territory about 700 km northwest of Iran; constructing an ambitious pan-European BMD architecture that would integrate NATO and Russian defenses against common missile threats; and establishing a joint early warning data center in Moscow and Brussels to involve other NATO governments more fully in the management of the proposed pan-European BMD architecture.

The Bush administration, while expressing general interest in expanding BMD cooperation with Moscow, has refused to accept Putin’s specific offers because they would require abandoning the missile defenses planned for Eastern Europe. Instead, U.S. officials have offered various confidence-building measures aimed to reassure Moscow that the Czech and Polish deployments would not threaten Russia’s strategic arsenal.

The April 2008 summit in Sochi between Bush and Putin suggested some progress was possible, but Russian officials have since accused their American counterparts of failing to offer satisfactory guarantees regarding the deployments. At present, the talks have stalemated as Russian experts apparently hope the Obama administration, Democrats in Congress, or the sites’ Czech and Polish opponents will succeed in derailing the project without further Russian concessions.

The tensions between Russia and the United States over BMD, Georgia, and other issues constantly threaten to disrupt their other security cooperation. For example, the most immediate casualty of U.S.-Russian tensions following Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia has been the long-discussed U.S.-Russia Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation. On Sept. 8, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that President George Bush was recalling the proposed agreement from consideration before Congress. Bush had submitted the accord for legislative review on May 13. While Rice expressed regret at the decision, she described the rescission as “unavoidable” in the new post-Georgia international climate.

Georgia and the Caucasus

Although the precise catalyst for the war between Russia and Georgia that began on Aug. 8, 2008, is unclear, the escalation was almost inevitable given the years of tension and the diplomatic stalemate over the status of the pro-Russian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as other fundamental issues such as Georgian aspirations to enter NATO. The question was always whether Moscow would exploit its local military superiority to compel Georgia’s formal dismemberment or would instead hold the threat of armed interventions in reserve, in an attempt to influence Georgian foreign policy without incurring the damage to Russian-Western relations that might ensue from blatant military intervention against Tbilisi. The unexpected explosion of the South Ossetian conflict and the resulting full-scale Georgian attack on the breakaway province apparently led Russian policymakers to accept the risks of armed confrontation in the expectation that, given the poor state of Russian-Western relations in general, they would suffer minimal additional costs while achieving some enduring security benefits. At present, Western governments find themselves with too few usable sticks or carrots to have much impact on Russian policymaking.

Nevertheless, Russian leaders have had little success in rallying other governments to their side on the Georgia issue. Despite intense Russian lobbying, the political declaration adopted at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit shortly after the Georgia conflict does not blame Tbilisi for causing the war or refer to its alleged acts of “genocide” in South Ossetia, the pretext for Russia’s intervention. The other SCO members also distinctly opted against following or even supporting Russia’s decision to recognize the independence declarations of the pro-Moscow leaders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. So far, only Nicaragua, Hamas, and a few other unimportant governments have followed Russia’s decision.

Initially, the Georgia War appeared poised to undermine Russia-NATO cooperation regarding Afghanistan. After Western governments denounced Russia’s actions and agreed to help Georgia recover from its military defeat, Russian officials threatened to suspend the transit agreement Moscow had negotiated with NATO in April. The accord would permit the alliance to transport non-lethal equipment through Russia—and through consenting Central Asian countries—for use by NATO forces in Afghanistan. The Kremlin later relented, citing the risk of further weakening the NATO counterinsurgency operation against the Taliban. Russia’s normally hardline Ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, acknowledged that ”NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan would not be good for us.”


When Russia and the West begin looking for areas to restore their relationship, the situation in Afghanistan and Central Asia may offer greater opportunities for dialogue than many other issues. Russian policymakers evince less unease about the Western military presence in Central Asia than they do about NATO military activities in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, or the Southern Caucasus. In particular, no influential voices in Moscow, Brussels, or even Washington are calling for extending full alliance membership to the current Central Asian governments anytime soon, given their limited adherence to democratic principles and NATO’s lack of vital security interests in the region warranting a major defense commitment. In addition, Russia and NATO share an interest in preventing a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan.

For several years, Putin and other Russian officials have urged NATO to cooperate with the Russian-led CSTO on joint operations to counter Afghan narcotics trafficking. In a Sept. 18 speech, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer argued that, despite differences over Georgia, NATO and Russia should cooperate “wherever our interests converge,” specifically citing continued Russian-NATO cooperation in Afghanistan as “a clear indication that common interests can transcend disagreements in other areas.” By the end of September, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was likewise reaffirming the need for continued NATO-Russian collaboration regarding Afghanistan,”where our interests coincide and where we must continue to cooperate closely.”

The Middle East

Russian officials have also reaffirmed their willingness to work with Western and other foreign governments to promote peace and stability in the Middle East. In 2004, Lavrov told Pravda: “Russia’s policy is neither pro-Arab nor pro-Israel. It is aimed at securing Russian national interests.” These interests include earning money through arms sales, distancing Russia from unpopular Western policies and otherwise attempting—thus far unsuccessfully—to reestablish Moscow as a pivotal player in Middle Eastern affairs.

Russian officials have delicately sought to balance among the parties and their interests. For example, they have refused to identify Iran or Syria as state-sponsors of terrorism or place Hamas and Hezbollah on their terrorist list. In addition, while Russian government representatives have indicated they would not sell offensive weapons to volatile regions, they have insisted on their right to provide “defensive” weapons that would help maintain a balance of power among potential adversaries. After this August’s summit between Assad and Medvedev, for example, Foreign Minister Lavrov said that, “We will supply Syria primarily with weapons of a defensive nature that will not disturb the strategic balance in the region.”

Russian officials have justified their position to Israel and its allies by arguing that they can best serve the interests of Middle East peace by maintaining good relations with all sides, which they claim gives them leverage to mediate among the parties. Although little evidence has emerged that Russian diplomacy has been very successful at any such efforts, Israel has nevertheless sought to sustain tolerable ties with Moscow to discourage even more destabilizing arms sales and to pursue beneficial mutual economic and counterterrorist cooperation.

As with many other countries, Russian leaders generally opposed the U.S-led military intervention in Iraq. Before the invasion, they warned that toppling Saddam’s regime would likely unleash a wave of anti-Western terrorism. Subsequently, they complained that the occupying powers were failing in their responsibility to establish a secure environment. Putin and other Russian officials called on the United States and other foreign troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible and grant the United Nations a prominent role in its restoration.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov subsequently stated that while it is impossible to stabilize Iraq with military force alone, it is essential that reconciliation in that country be reached with the help of all the parties concerned. For its part, “Russia is ready to continue participating actively in efforts to promote just this approach.” The problem presently facing Moscow is that, while a strong American presence in Iraq limits Russian influence in the Middle East, a weak American presence may undermine Russian interests even more.

In the case of Iran, Russia has sought to serve as a buffer moderating both Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and Western threats to employ military force or severe sanctions on Iran. While Russia joined in the two rounds of sanctions imposed on Iran designed to coerce Tehran into ending its uranium enrichment activities, Russian diplomats have often worked to weaken proposed sanctions and have always defended Iran’s right to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes, such as civilian energy production. Russian officials have also been especially stubborn in denying that Tehran is currently seeking a nuclear weapon or is developing the long-range missile technology that NATO governments have cited to justify deploying BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. In October 2007, Putin formulated Moscow’s position as follows: “We have no evidence of Iran’s intention to produce nuclear weapons. Therefore, we proceed from the premise that Iran has no such plans. But we share the concern of other partners and believe that Iran’s programs must be transparent.”

The Georgia War has threatened to complicate further Russian-U.S. collaboration regarding Iran. After the fighting started, Foreign Minister Lavrov warned that Washington’s continued support for the Georgian government, despite its alleged aggression against Russian peacekeepers, could have consequences for Russian-American cooperation regarding other priorities. Russian diplomats have since been resisting U.S. efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran for its continued defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions relating to its nuclear research and development program.


In Asia, Russia’s geopolitical position has benefited immensely from the end of its Cold War confrontation with China. Since the late 1980s, China and Russia have expanded their bilateral economic and security cooperation to unprecedented levels. The governments have resolved all their border disputes and no longer consider a shooting war a realistic threat. Russian military exports to China constitute the most important dimension of the two countries’ security relationship. Since the two governments signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation in December 1992, China has purchased more defense items from the Russian Federation than from all other countries combined. Russian firms have derived substantial revenue from the sales, which also helped sustain Russia’s military industrial complex during the lean years of the 1990s. Under the SCO, the two countries have promoted their mutual security interests in Central Asia within a cooperative framework.

Yet, tension persists due to illegal Chinese immigration into Russia, as well the inability of Chinese authorities to halt the spillover of pollution from China into Russia. In particular, Russians worry about the long-term implications of China’s exploding population for Russia’s demographically and economically stagnant eastern regions, which some Russian leaders already consider a major security threat. In addition, now that the Chinese defense industry has become capable of producing more sophisticated armaments, Moscow confronts the uncomfortable choice of either seeing its Chinese market decrease dramatically or agreeing to sell even more advanced weapons to Beijing, a decision that could destabilize military force balances in East Asia. At some point, China’s growing interest in securing Central Asian oil and gas could lead Beijing to reconsider its policy of regional deference.

The limits of foreign policy harmonization between China and Russia are perhaps most visible in South Asia, where the two governments have adopted sharply divergent positions on critical issues. Despite the recent improvement in Chinese-Indian relations, Russia’s ties with New Delhi remain much stronger than those between China and India. Tellingly, Moscow has repeatedly been willing to sell India advanced weapons that Russia refuses to offer China. Persistent border disputes, differences over India’s growing security ties with the United States, competition over energy supplies, and other sources of Sino-Indian tensions have consistently impeded realization of the vision of a Moscow-Beijing-New Delhi axis that has periodically arisen over the past decade, especially when Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov visited New Delhi in 1998.

Despite the end of the Cold War, Russia and Japan have been unable to resolve their territorial dispute over what the Russians call the Southern Kurils and the Japanese label their Northern Territories. These four islands—Kunashir (known in Japanese as Kunashiri), Iturup (Etorofu), Shikotan and Habomai—have remained under Moscow’s control since the Soviet military occupied them at the end of World War II. The Soviet authorities expelled the original inhabitants and established military bases and other settlements in their place. Japanese government representatives have claimed that, while Tokyo did cede control of the Sakhalin and Kuril islands to the U.S.S.R. under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which Moscow never signed, the treaty’s provisions did not apply to the four islands of the Northern Territories, which Tokyo has never recognized as part of the Kuril chain. A 1956 Joint Declaration restored diplomatic and commercial relations between Russia and Japan, but the lingering sovereignty dispute has prevented their signing a formal peace treaty. Various proposals to divide control of the islands or establish a creative shared sovereignty arrangement have never gained decisive support in both governments simultaneously. Whenever one side seemed prepared to make a deal, the other party declined in the end to endorse it. Since any compromise settlement would invite extensive criticism from nationalist politicians, Russian and Japanese leaders have typically found it easier to stand firm on principle regardless of the high opportunity costs such stances have incurred —notably, the lack of a formal peace treaty and the discouraging of potential investors and other business deals due to increased uncertainty.

Latin America

Russian policymakers have also evinced interest in deepening ties with Latin America. After the Cold War, Russian influence in the continent plummeted. During the last few years, however, Moscow has been seeking to restore relations with former Soviet partners such as Cuba while cultivating new ties with Brazil and Venezuela. President Medvedev recently conducted a well-received week-long visit to several South American capitals that helped secure important defense, energy, and other commercial deals. On balance, however, Russia’s strategic influence on the continent is likely to remain minimal given the overwhelming U.S. military superiority in the region and China’s growing economic ties with South America.

Global Vision

In addition to their discrete strategic interests in the various regions of the world, Russian leaders also have offered a vision of their preferred world order. Above all, they insist that other governments recognize Russia’s status as a global power with legitimate interests in setting the rules and norms of the 21st-century international system. These claims extend from nuclear arms control to proposals on restructuring the global financial system. One of the most prominent refrains of Putin’s notorious speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy was that Washington was threatening world instability through its “greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law.” More recently, during an interview with journalists from G-8 member countries, Putin asserted that “we do not want confrontation; we want to engage in dialogue. However, we want a dialogue that acknowledges the equality of both parties’ interests.”

In July 2008, President Medvedev approved a new Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation, which states the official content, principles, and basic directions of Russia’s foreign policy. The document closely resembles the concept approved on June 28, 2000, by former President Putin. Since the latest concept was drafted while Putin was still President, it presumably represents his views, or at least those which Medvedev, who has generally echoed his predecessor’s line on important international issues, felt comfortable endorsing.

The main differences between the 2008 concept and the 2000 version concern operational and tactical questions. For example, the most recent concept no longer mentions the Russia-Belarus Union or the favorable prospects for good relations between Russia and the Baltic republics. It also deemphasizes the importance of the CIS and instead highlights the value of newer regional structures—the Eurasian Economic Commonwealth and the CIS’s Collective Security Treaty Organization—more effectively under Russian control. The 2008 concept also more forthrightly discusses “energy resources” as a tool of Russian diplomacy. Finally, it allocates increased attention to elevating Russia’s public image abroad while calling for additional measures to counter “information threats” that challenge Russia’s sovereignty and security.

In terms of broad principles, however, the 2008 concept reaffirms Russia’s pragmatic approach to world affairs, an implicit departure from the ideological emphasis in the foreign policies of both the Soviet Union (whose leaders professed to be guided by Marxist-Lenininsm) and the United States (whose last two administrations made “democratic enlargement” a core declaratory principle). “The main objective is to ensure national security, defend and enhance its sovereignty and territorial integrity, raise its international prestige and create favorable external conditions for its modernization.” It also reaffirms the standard Russian refrain to seek a “just and democratic global process, to resolve global problems collectively by relying on the rule of international law, to form friendly relations with neighboring countries and to eliminate or prevent the emergence of tension or conflicts.” Yet, the concept also envisages a great power directorate, presumably including Russia, in its appeal for “robust collective leadership by major powers which is necessary for a self-governing and self-organizing international system.”

Without naming the United States directly, the concept condemns unilateral actions that “destabilize the international situation, provoke international tension and the arms race, deepen international disagreements, incite ethnic and religious enmity and create threats to the security of other states.” Even so, the concept also affirms Russia’s right to conduct unilateral action if necessary, though with the claim that Moscow would not violate international norms in doing so: “If partners are not prepared for joint action, Russia will be forced to act independently for the protection of national interests, but always based on international law.”

The concept criticizes traditional political-military alliances, such as NATO as “obsolete and inadequate to meet the entire spectrum of transnational security challenges.” Distrust of the West is also evident in the assertion that Russian diplomats will no longer rely on oral promises by foreign governments in regards to Moscow’s national security, an apparent reference to the violation by Western leaders of their alleged pledge not to establish military bases on the territories of new member countries that had previously belonged (albeit unwillingly) to the Soviet bloc. The denunciation of unilateral action designed to bypass the U.N. Security Council also appears as a rebuke to the United States for waging the Iraq War, to NATO for intervening militarily against Serbia in 1998, and to the EU member states that recognized Kosovo’s independence a decade later—all actions that Moscow had sought to block through its U.N. Security Council veto. The concept instead calls for an open system of Euro-Atlantic security without military blocs that would unite Russia with the European Union and North America—a position since refined by Medvedev with his call for a new European Security Treaty.

Foreign Policy Principles

After the Georgia War, Medvedev gave an interview with the three main Russian TV channels in which he enunciated the key principles that would henceforth govern his foreign policy. These points generally reaffirm the guidelines in the June 2000 Foreign Policy Concept but also refine them in subtle ways:

“Russia recognizes the primacy of the basic principles of international law, which define relations between civilized nations. It is in the framework of these principles, of this concept of international law, that we will develop our relations with other states.”

“The world should be multipolar. Unipolarity is unacceptable, domination is impermissible. We cannot accept a world order in which all decisions are taken by one country, even such a serious and authoritative country as the United States of America. This kind of world is unstable and fraught with conflict.”

“Russia does not want confrontation with any country; Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop, as far as possible, friendly relations both with Europe and with the United States of America, as well as with other countries of the world.”

“Our unquestionable priority is to protect the life and dignity of our citizens, wherever they are. We will also proceed from this in pursuing our foreign policy. We will also protect the interest of our business community abroad. And it should be clear to everyone that if someone makes aggressive forays, he will get a response.”

“Russia, just like other countries in the world, has regions where it has its privileged interests. In these regions, there are countries with which we have traditionally had friendly cordial relations, historically special relations. We will work very attentively in these regions and develop these friendly relations with these states, with our close neighbors.”

Although the first and third principles are unobjectionable, the second point puts the world on notice that Moscow will continue to work for a multipolar world order in which the other great powers, including Russia, enjoy as much influence as the United States. The fourth point could imply Russia’s right to intervene military to defend the “dignity” or “business interests” of Russian nationals globally, but seems most applicable to the former Soviet republics, where millions of ethnic Russians live and work. (In the case of Georgia, the Russian government liberally distributed Russian passports to the inhabitants of the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and then justified its August 2008 intervention in part by the need to protect them.) The fifth point, which affirms Russia’s “privileged interests” in neighboring states “with which we share special historical relations,” also applies most directly to the former Soviet republics. But when subsequently asked whether these “priority regions” were those that bordered on Russia, Medvedev replied: “Certainly the regions bordering [on Russia], but not only them.”

Medvedev’s first State of the Nation address on Nov. 5 was marked by a scathing attack on American foreign policy. Although he insisted that Russians were not intrinsically anti-American and that there was no reason why the Russian-American relationship had to be confrontational, Medvedev blamed the United States for largely causing the world financial crisis and the war in Georgia, which Washington then allegedly exploited to secure approval of its proposed missile defense systems for Poland and the Czech Republic. He warned that he would take retaliatory steps to safeguard Russia’s security, including deploying short-range missiles in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. Like other Russian leaders, Medvedev denounced the “double standards” of the West in recognizing Kosovo’s independence but not that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—while also implying that the Kosovo decision set a precedent for Russian actions.

Observers differ on whether Medvedev intended to send a message to the incoming Obama administration or, as he later claimed, simply describe the current domestic and international conditions confronting the Russian nation. Much of the speech addressed the need to promote further domestic economic and political reforms, including reducing the power of the Russian bureaucracy. But the speech was also significant for the vision it presented of the limits of the current global order. Medvedev declared that the Georgian and global financial crises underscored the inability of the existing global security and economic institutions to contain local conflicts or manage their subsequent escalation.

Differences over what kind of arrangement should replace them, and what role Russia will occupy in it, will likely sustain tensions between Russia and America, despite the change in power in Washington. The new Russian president has already indicated that Moscow will continue to adhere to a vigorous strategic posture. But he and other Russian leaders recognize they need to overcome serious internal challenges before Russia can achieve the stable foundations of power necessary to sustain Moscow’s recent geopolitical resurgence.

Richard Weitz is a World Politics Review senior editor and senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.