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Russia’s Power and Alliances in the 21st Century
By Andrei P. Tsygankov1
San Francisco State University
In “Perspectives on the Changing Global Balance of Power,” edited by Alasdair Young
and Jane Duckett, special issue of Politics, Vol. 30, No. 4, October 2010, forthcoming.
Russia's power resources have recovered significantly since the start of the 21st century
and with that recovery the Kremlin has become more assertive in pursuing its great power
ambitions. To remain a great power, however, even a regional one, Russia has to recover
its economy and learn to exploit its comparative advantages, such as expertise in energy
and military affairs and memberships in international organizations.
What you are defines what you do. Russia has historically established itself as a regional
great power and strives to preserve that position in the new international environment.
Until the Bolshevik revolution, Russia had had no global ambitions but sought to
dominate the Eurasian landmass from the Far East to the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
After the short-lived global geopolitical struggle with the Western nations during the
Cold War, Russia is returning to its identity as a regional great power. Its priorities once
again include security and prosperity in the territories adjacent to its borders, and it
increasingly sees itself as a European power with special relations to Asia and the Far
East (Tsygankov 2007). In the new world of globalization, Russia has no global
economic reach of China or India. Even though it sprawls over eleven time zones and
four major regions – Europe, Central Asia, the Far East and the Arctic – and borders
several others (Pavlovsky 2009), Russia is not a global power.
Russia is, however, a peculiar regional power. It seeks to remain regional by
acting globally, thus distinguishing itself from established global powers in the West and
rising global powers, such as Brazil, China and India. As Stephen Kotkin (2009) puts it,
Russia “remains a regional power that acts like a global superpower”, whereas China
“has been transformed into a global superpower but still mostly acts like a regional
power.” Russia acts in the way it does because geography and history have taught it the
value of staying engaged with the most advanced nations. At least since emergence of the
West as the dominant civilization, Russia has been determined to secure recognition and
be considered “like the West.” If the Western nations are great powers, Russia too aspires
to such status. If the West demonstrates accomplishments in institution-building,
economic prosperity and human rights protection, Russian leaders are also drawn to these
accomplishments and attempt to replicate them at home. Such global engagement has
been essential for developing the economic and military capabilities necessary for
survival in a region historically populated by some of the most powerful states on earth.
For helpful comments I would like to thank Valentina Feklyunina, the editors and all the
participants of the workshop.
To secure borders and meet other challenges in Eurasia, Russia has had to develop the
capabilities and status of a great power.
Remaining a great power, even a regional one, today is a serious challenge.
Russia must act in the new international context which includes preservation of a
considerable Western influence and the expansion of Chinese influences in Eurasia. To
succeed, Russia has to develop its capacity of a power by exploiting its global
comparative advantages, such as expertise in energy and military affairs and
memberships in international organizations. Such global engagement is necessary yet
again for generating revenue, protecting Russia’s sovereignty and status. Many Western
observers (e.g., Menon and Motyl 2007; Wallander 2007) are skeptical that the Russia’s
leadership is able to design a coherent long-term plan with appropriate institutional,
material and intellectual support, and this is in part because the Kremlin is fundamentally
weakened by the competition of rival factions. The Kremlin, however, has overcome
many of its weaknesses of the 1990s and reached consensus on some principle objectives
of Russia's foreign policy, such as preservation of Russia's global influence and status of
a regional great power.2
This article first explores the origins of Russia’s great power ambitions. It then
evaluates Russia’s recovery after the Soviet disintegration and the country's place in the
global power calculus by analyzing its economic, political and military capabilities. The
final section offers assessment of Russia’s likely strategy and alliances within the next
ten to twenty years given the existing international predicaments.
The origins of Russia’s great power ambitions
Russia has established itself as a great power by engaging more advanced state in projects
of common concern or challenging them to recognize Russia’s ambitions and
international claims. In so doing, Russian leaders have sought to preserve limited and
regional, rather than global, control, yet they have also recognized the importance of
acting globally for achieving what are largely regional objectives. These objectives
included defense of its borders and cultural allies – Orthodox Christians in the 19th
century, communists in the 20th century and ethnic Russians after the Soviet
disintegration – and these objectives required that Russia remain a great power and be
recognized as such by the outside world.
Historically, Russia’s power status was maintained by addressing diverse
international challenges. After the fall of Byzantium in the 15th century, Russia emerged
as the center of the Eastern Christianity and fought multiple wars with the Ottoman
Empire to defend Orthodox Christians in the Crimea and the Balkans. Russia also
challenged European states to recognize its regional ambitions. In the 20th century, the
Kremlin followed largely the same logic when it challenged the United States and Britain
to recognize the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.
By the late-20th century, the international context had changed. Ideological
confrontation yielded to the logic of economic globalization, and Russia too had to
change methods to defend its position as a great power. Russia now had to shift
On Russia's consolidation and change in elite belief system, see Mankoff 2009;
Tsygankov 2010.
emphasis from defeating its rivals militarily or through counter-intelligence operations to
demonstrating its ability to compete on the global markets.
Two historical forces shaped Russia’s behavior. First, although it has emerged as
historically dependent on the West’s power and recognition, Russia has never been
colonized by the Western nations and greatly values its political and spiritual
independence (Poe 2003). Such independence has kept alive Russia's ambitions to
preserve its influence in Eurasia and Eastern Europe. Second, being a continental empire
with vast borders made Russia wary of multiple and varied challenges to its security.
Russia compensated for this vulnerability by developing a highly centralized political
system in order to be able to respond rapidly to threats from abroad.3 The highly
centralized state also gained an upper hand internally – often by suppressing resistance
from commercial classes.
Both established and rising power face relatively few external threats to their
security. Russia, however, remains preoccupied with the security of its borders and
natural resources and acts as a concerned regional power. Much of this preoccupation has
roots in Russia's militarized history and geography of resistance to real and perceived
threats from abroad. By contrast, the Western states, especially those protected by the
oceans from potential invasions, historically had fewer security challenges.
Recovering state and power capabilities
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s power capabilities declined substantially.
Russia lost one sixth of its territory, its economy shrank by some 50 percent and the state
was divided by powerful individuals practically losing the ability to govern.4 The
Western states expected Russia to follow their political and economic recommendations,
yet programs of Western assistance served mostly to encourage the destruction of the
previous economic system and to build relationships within a narrow and corrupt ruling
elite (see, Wedel 1998; Cohen 2000; Reddaway and Glinski 2001). For example, the
figures of the overall capital flight during 1992-99 exceeded the amount of financial
assistance.5 The so-called reformers in Russia were well aware of the state of affairs, yet
they were unable to say “No” to Western “assistance.”
The situation has changed since the late-1990s when Russia began to recover.
Russia’s economic power, both in terms of shares of global gross domestic product
(GDP) and GDP per capita, has increased (Young, this volume, figures 1-2). By 2007 the
economy had recovered to its 1990 level and growth continued to grow at about 7 percent
per year. Thus during 1999-2007 the overall size of the economy increased about six
times in current dollars – from $200 billion to $1.3 trillion. Russia's per-capita GDP
Although Russia’s political and economic system was not principally different from
those of Western European states in the early 17th century, autocracy had to be
transformed to comply with imperatives of military modernization (Lynch 2005: 23-25)
Many observers referred to Russia during the 1990s as being on the verge of becoming
a failed state (see, for example, Holmes 1997; Popov 2004; Willerton, Beznosov and
Carrier 2005).
According to Russia’s official statistics, capital flight was $182 billion while foreign
assistance amounted to $174 billion (Korolev 2001: 76).
quadrupled to nearly $7,000, and about 20 million people were lifted out of poverty (RIA
Novosti, March 1, 2008).
Another dimension of Russia's recovery was that its middle class now constituted
about 25 percent of the population (Kommersant, February 27, 2008). The social aspect
of recovery is essential for preventing internal destabilization and allowing the state to
conduct an active foreign policy. Over the 2000-2005, the average Russian saw a 26
percent annual growth in his income, relative to only 10 percent rise in that of the average
Chinese (Crandall 2006). As a result, the number of Russians who thought that the
chosen development course in Russia was correct had been growing year on year. Even
the global financial crisis has not changed the fact that almost 80% of Russian remains
satisfied with their living standards (RIA Novosti, March 9, 2010).
Other significant Russian power resources are its oil and gas reserves. Russia has
approximately 13 percent of the world’s known oil reserves and 34 percent of its gas
reserves (Arbatov, Belova and Feygin 2006). This power resource has gained in
importance as global energy demand and prices have risen. Russia's main energy markets
are in Europe, and Europe is expected to considerably increase its consumption of
national gas over time. According to estimates of the International Atomic Energy
Agency, Russian gas will account for about 33-34 percent of European demand compared
with the current 25 percent (RIA-Novosti, March 10, 2010). Energy remains Russia’s
important comparative advantage and, although the global economic recession has
seriously affected Russia, energy experts project recovery of the markets within the next
several years.
Acting assertively on the recovered state and power capabilities
Recovery of state and power capabilities allowed the Kremlin to act assertively in
foreign policy. The philosophy behind such assertiveness has been state-led international
economic expansion. Rather than becoming a wide-open to Western economic and
political influences – something that the new Russian leadership had experimented with
during the 1990s – it now pursued a course of selective openness managed by an
increasingly strong and nationalistic state. In the world of growing energy prices, the
emphasis shifted from providing macroeconomic discipline and tough fiscal policies
toward desire to capitalize on Russia’s reserves of natural gas and oil. As viewed by
Vladimir Putin, the role of the energy sector is to work with the state to promote
international economic expansion and to reinforce sovereignty and independence which
were undermined during the 1990s.
According to this perspective, relying on market forces is essential, but
insufficient: “Even in developed countries, market mechanisms do not provide solutions
to strategic tasks of resource use, protecting nature, and sustainable economic security.”6
The state therefore has to shape policy outcomes by actively seeking to control social
resources, coordinating the activities of key social players and assisting the country in
finding its niche in the global economy. Thus the Kremlin insists on the need for Russia
to protect its path of development and natural resources.
The passage is from Putin’s PhD thesis “Mineral Raw Materials in the Strategy for
Development of the Russian Economy” defended in 1999 (cited in Larsson 2006: 58).
The economic recovery provided conditions for Russia’s active business
promotion in Europe, which accounts for 50% of Russia’s foreign trade. The Kremlin
insisted on long-term contracts with Europeans and greater integration with European
markets in order to avoid repetition of the 1985-1986 scenario when sharp decline in
energy prices had considerably contributed to breakup of the Soviet economy. Outside
European markets, Moscow hardly has a choice of not developing its capacity as a global
middleman by coordinating its production with other key energy producers and offering
its expertise in building energy infrastructure across the world.
The Kremlin also has been actively selling weapons abroad in part to raise
revenue for domestic modernization. The main customers of Russia’s armament are
global and include India, China, Algeria, Venesuala, Malaysia and Syria. Despite the
global financial crisis, Russia exported in 2009 $7.4 billion worth of weapons – 10
percent more than in the previous year (Itar-Tass, January 30, 2010).
Furthermore, the Kremlin adopted a more assertive global stance to defend its
vision of international rules - partly to reflect Russia’s concerns with its sovereignty and
independence and partly to respond to dissatisfaction with the United States’s invasion of
Iraq and the former Soviet region. Soon after the invasion of Iraq, the United States
pushed the entire former Soviet region toward transforming its political institutions and
was now working on extending membership in the alliance to former Soviet states such
as Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. Washington also was routinely denouncing Russia
for using energy as political leverage to influence its neighbors’ policies. In response,
Putin (2007) accused the United States of "disdain for the basic principles of international
law" and having "overstepped its national borders in … the economic, political, cultural
and educational policies."
Putin’s successor as president, Dmitri Medvedev, built on Putin’s vision, seeking
to position Russia as a more global player and a maker of new global rules. Russia thus
seeks to articulate its concerns using its membership within existing international
organizations, particularly its position as a permanent member of the United Nations
Security Council, and proposing new international treaties, such as a new pan-European
treaty to establish a new security architecture, in which Russia would become a fullyfledged participant and NATO cease to serve as the key organization responsible for
European security. Medvedev ( 2008) also proposed an overhaul of the international
economic order so that it was less reliant on the US, which he blamed for causing the
global financial crisis by trying to substitute itself for the global commodities and
financial markets. The Kremlin, along with China and other BRIC countries, has also
advocated steps to reduce reliance on the dollar in international economic transactions.
So far, these efforts have not had much success.
Thus Russia has become stronger and more confident since 2000. It has preserved
and developed important attributes of a great power and is more recognized as such by
the outside world. In the longer run, however, Russia faces multiple challenges to its
ambition to remaining a great power. Russia’s material capabilities are limited. Although
it has recovered from the longest economic depression in its history, much of the Russia’s
recovery has been due to high oil prices. According to World Bank estimates, energy has
accounted for about 25 percent of the Russian economy and for about 50% of its GDP
growth (Rutland 2008: 1063-1064). Moreover, although Russia’s economic growth
during the seven years preceding the recent financial crisis was impressive, its share of
global GDP is a mere 2.3 percent, and may rise only to 3.5 percent by 2020 (Kuchins and
Weitz 2008: 6). Consequently, Russia is unlikely to close the gap with the United States
in terms of GDP during the next ten to fifteen years and the gaps between its GDP and
those of China and India will continue to widen. In addition, Russia’s military
expenditures do not match those of China, France, and the United Kingdom, not to
mention the US. Overall, Russia has made some progress in some areas, but continues to
stagnate and fall behind in others.
The fact that Russia has managed to muddle through thus far is not a guarantee
that it will be able to in the future, and the current economic crisis narrows the Kremlin’s
options further. During the recent crisis, Russia, which is heavily dependent on energy,
including exports, was hit particularly hard and its GDP fell by around 9 percent in 2009,
while China and India continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace. Russia has also had to
spend a considerable portion of its reserves to bail out domestic enterprises, including
non-competitive ones, and to scale down its activist foreign policy in Central Asia and
the Caucasus (Mankoff 2010). The crisis therefore has slowed down Russia's
international assertiveness.
Adjusting to changed global circumstances
In the 21st century, Russia’s foreign policy will be affected by two critical factors –
continuing economic globalization and the consequent importance of economic
development rather than security alignments; and gradual decline of the West’s power.
Under the conditions of economic globalization, Russia will continue to seek to preserve
its regional great power status by building new alliances. Unlike the old alliances, which
were exclusive military commitments, the new alliances are soft in the sense that they are
non-exclusive and driven by specific economic and political needs.
In addition, the international system is moving away from dominance of the West
that characterized the post-Cold War period, although the direction of that development
remains unclear. Military involvement in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as the
continuous global financial crisis, makes it difficult for the West to function as the
world’s economic and political authority. China and the Asia-Pacific region are emerging
as new centers of the world’s gravity. For much of the post-Cold War period inter-state
conflicts did not challenge the West's ability to intervene, but Russia’s military
intervention in Georgia in August 2008 underlined its willingness to use force in pursuing
its interests and challenged the West's monopoly to interfere as a peacemaker. In the
increasingly post-Western world, the US may require additional allies and may have to
learn to act in consultation with the Kremlin, among others. Consultations with China and
Russia with regard to Iran and North Korea are among growing signs of recognizing
these realities.
The persistence of economic globalization and the decline of the West reinforce
each other and encourage Russia to become more aggressive in integrating with the
global economy. Apart from the Caucasus and the issue of terrorism, Russia is not likely
to be preoccupied with issues of military security. A formerly “incomplete superpower,”
because it lacked non-military aspects of its greatness (Dibb 1986), Russia still has much
to do to develop its non-military capabilities – economic, demographic, institutional and
cultural – to secure its great power status. The described conditions suggest a limited
reliance on coercive tools without appropriate diplomatic preparations. During the 1990s,
Russia’s soft alliances were devised to draw the West’s attention and acquire its
recognition. In part to further these ends, Russia tried to strengthen relations with China
and India and to integrate the states of the former Soviet Union under a tighter control. In
the context of the West’s relative decline, however, soft alliances are increasingly
becoming the only means to defend its international objectives. Following a policy of
flexible coalitions, Russia may seek to devise collective security systems in both Europe
and Eurasia. For example, unable on its own to effectively respond to security challenges
from NATO, Russia will continue to exploit non-Western institutional vehicles, such as
the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and develop soft alliances with selected
European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, as well as China and Iran. On the
other hand, in response to China’s rise, Russia will also continue to build ties with
European Union, the US, India, South Korea and Japan.
Free from traditional security concerns, Russia will continue cooperate selectively
and flexibly to respond to new security challenges: nuclear proliferation, terrorism,
energy and drug trafficking. A realistic outlook also requires that the Kremlin is more
aggressive in investing in non-energy areas, such as administrative reform, demography
and human infrastructure.
Regionally, Russia too is likely to rely on economic and cultural, rather than
military influences to offset Western and Chinese power. The post-Soviet world remains
largely affected by Russia, and the Kremlin has used the influence to change power in
Kyrgyzstan and sign new cooperation agreements with Ukraine.
Russia’s objective is to recover the capabilities of a regional great power. Concern for
continued economic recovery and greater international economic integration are likely to
affect Russia’s foreign policy more than are international security issues, such as Iran’s
suspected nuclear weapons programme. The paradox is that in order to remain a regional
great power, Russia must act globally by exploiting its energy clout and entering soft
security coalitions in Europe and Eurasia. Due to internal weaknesses and the rapid
development of other middle-ranked great powers, such as China and India, however,
Russia may struggle to retain its status. The Kremlin is likely to continue to be assertive
in trying preventing such an outcome.
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