Why Russia Punches Above Its Weight in Global Affairs

Why Russia Punches Above Its Weight in Global Affairs
A man takes a picture of an artwork depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as boxing legend Muhammad Ali during the “Putin Universe” exhibition, Moscow, Russia, Oct. 7, 2015 (AP photo by Pavel Golovkin).

You can punch above your weight in statecraft as in boxing, and in today’s global security system, Russia is like an aggressive bantamweight. For the United States and the rest of the West, containing or moderating Russia’s sometimes damaging actions depends on understanding why Moscow can punch above its weight, and how that shapes its behavior.

Until the late 1940s, Americans had never thought much about Russia and thus were deeply perplexed when the World War II alliance between Washington and Moscow devolved into the Cold War. In a famous Foreign Affairs article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” career diplomat George Kennan, who was one of the foremost Russia experts in the State Department at the time, explained that Russia’s history of being invaded, plus its size and geographic location, gave it immense power, but also imbued it with a combination of paranoia and ambition. That gave Russia a deep sense of national mission, seeing itself as a bulwark of the West against hostile outside forces, and as the rightful hegemon in Eastern Europe and Eurasia.

These ideas were in abeyance during Russia’s decade of weakness following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they never went away. They resurfaced as Russia recovered its strength and sense of purpose under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin and continue to drive Moscow’s current security policy. This peculiar worldview makes Russia believe that it is in a state of constant war, whether a hot one with actual combat or a cold one fought in the political and informational realms. This is very different from the American worldview that considers peaceful competition among nations the norm and war an episodic aberration.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.