Everywhere one looks today, signs of a resurgent Russia are omnipresent. Although Vladimir Putin has undoubtedly worked hard to craft this image, it is a mirage. Russia is doomed over the long-term, and its short-term maneuvers aren’t enough to compensate for this fact.
Traditionally, Russian power has rested on four pillars: population, energy, weaponry and geography. Three of these are diminishing.
The backbone of modern Russian power has been its massive population. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in WWII. Russia no doubt played a leading role in orchestrating Hitler’s demise, starting with its legendary stands in Leningrad and Stalingrad. However, Stalin sapped the military might of Nazi Germany less because of the strategic or tactical genius he possessed, and almost entirely through his willingness to expend the lives of his citizenry.
According to some estimates, the Soviet Union lost somewhere between 22 and 28 million people during WWII. To put this in perspective, the United States and Great Britain each lost less than half a million people and even Germany only lost between 7 and 9 million lives during the war. Nonetheless, for nearly half a century after the war the Soviet Union could credibly threaten the much richer West solely because of the sheer number of men it could put under arms.
Yet like most of Europe, Russia has recently seen its population dwindle even as countries like China, India and much of the third world have seen sharp rises in their own populations. As AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt observed in World Affairs: “in the last sixteen years of the Communist era, births exceeded deaths in Russia by 11.4 million; in the first sixteen years of the post-Soviet era, deaths exceeded births by 12.4 million.” Unless Russia can reverse this depopulation for a sustained period of time, it will likely become increasingly irrelevant in international politics.
Another source of modern Russian power has been its massive energy reserves. Indeed, high oil prices during the 1970s allowed the Soviet Union to flex its muscles abroad. However, as energy prices stabilized during the 1980s the artifice upon which the Soviet system began to crumble. Far from continuing to expand, the end of the decade saw the Soviet empire disintegrate, with Moscow powerless to stop it.
The so-called resurgence Russia has enjoyed since Putin first assumed power has also been built on high energy prices. And like the Soviet leaders before him, Putin has squandered the temporary respite provided by high energy prices instead of using it to reinvest in the country and its people. As the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development noted gloomily in December 2012, “Not only are Russian exports highly concentrated in natural resources, this concentration has increased over time: the shares of oil, gas and other minerals in Russia’s exports are higher today than they were 15 years ago.”
It went on to reflect: “In 2012 Russia remains highly dependent on its natural resources. Oil and gas now account for nearly 70 percent of total goods exports…. Oil and gas revenues also contribute around half of the federal budget. The non-oil fiscal deficit has averaged more than 11 per cent of GDP since 2009, while the oil price consistent with a balanced budget is now in the region of US$115 per barrel and rising.”
The problem with the Russian Federation’s economic model, much like that of the Soviet Union’s before it, is that it is only sustainable so long as energy prices remain artificially high. But, of course, energy prices are almost certainly going to decline over the coming years as a result of greater energy efficiency in the West, slowing growth in the East, and greater supply as a result of the energy revolutions being enjoyed in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere around the world. And as goes the price of oil so goes the Russian state.
Also like the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia has managed to maintain a modicum of global influence through the sale of its military weaponry. Although Russian military technology is greatly inferior to the West and the United States, it is sufficient to meet the national security needs of most states around the world. More importantly, Moscow continues to exhibit a willingness to provide it to states that the West refuses to deal with on moral or geostrategic grounds. In these states at least, Russia has been able to maintain a degree of influence.
This source of influence will also diminish in the years ahead. In some places, this will be because of declining defense budgets. In most cases, however, it will merely be because of greater competition from the likes of China and South Korea, the former at least also willing to overlook the moral transgressions of potential buyers.
Thus, over the long-term Russian power will have to come nearly exclusively from its prized geography. To be fair, the value of this real estate is increasing thanks to the increased importance of Asia and the warming of the Arctic. Still, this alone is hardly sufficient to sustain Russia as the major power it once was, and may someday become again.
Also in the case of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Plans (the European Phased Adaptive Approach project or EPAA) is to defend the United States and Europe against ballistic missiles from Iran. Given that, Russia's opposition does not seem to make sense.
Russia's main concern, however, is twofold. Regardless of a negotiated solution with Iran, Washington's pursuit of the EPAA secures an enduring footprint in Central and Eastern Europe, a region of direct interest to Russia as it seeks to reassert its presence and influence. Moscow resents Washington's meddling and is fearful of any attempt to contain its strategic ambition across its periphery. Additionally, while the Kremlin knows that European missile defense is no threat to Russia's strategic nuclear capability right now, one of the strengths of the EPAA is its capacity for evolution. Further phases of the EPAA will seek to deploy enhanced systems with greater area coverage and capability.
A Short Chronology:
NATO Expands Into the Former Soviet space
April 2, 2004: In the spring of 2004, three former Soviet republics -- Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- joined NATO, along with several Central European states. The 2004 accession completed a process that began in the 1990s of former Soviet republics and satellites joining the U.S.-led military alliance. The Kremlin, focused on domestic political consolidation, could not provide the necessary counterweight to curb NATO's expansion to Russia's borders.
Color Revolutions Test Russia's Limits
Dec. 3, 2004: The Color Revolutions presented Russia with a challenge as the 2003 Rose Revolution brought pro-Western Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Georgia, and the 2004 Orange Revolution led to the victory of a pro-Western coalition in Ukraine. Russia's efforts to influence political transitions in the former Soviet periphery failed as unfriendly governments emerged along the country's western and southern borders.
Russia Uses Energy Politics to Flex its Muscles
Jan. 2, 2006: Starting in January 2006, Russia used natural gas cutoffs and price hikes in Ukraine to pressure the country politically. Due to Ukraine's role as a transit country for Russian natural gas, Russia's energy posturing emphasized not only to Ukraine but also to the rest of Europe that dependency on Russian imports makes the Kremlin a political actor in Europe that cannot be ignored. Such pressure on Kiev also exploited fractures and disagreements that already existed within the Orange Coalition.
Bucharest NATO Summit Threatens Russian Interests in the Region
April 3, 2008: NATO countries failed to reach a decision on Ukrainian and Georgian membership at the Bucharest Summit but did commit to supporting membership efforts in the future. Furthermore, during the summit the NATO countries officially endorsed U.S. plans for ballistic missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Ukraine is essential for Russia's ability to defend itself, and the Kremlin regards U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Central and Eastern Europe as a threat to Russia's security.
Russia Reasserts its Military Power
Aug. 12, 2008: With NATO split over the issue of Georgia's and Ukraine's potential accession, Moscow had to show that the West would not support the former Soviet states should it come to a direct confrontation. Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008 was designed to re-establish the credibility of the country's military, confirm Russia's position as a regional power and derail any plans for Georgian or Ukrainian NATO accession. Russia's military offensive also sent a strong message to the other former Soviet states. For example, Kazakhstan reconsidered plans for exporting oil west through non-Russian routes, and both Ukraine and Kazakhstan ceased weapon shipments to Georgia as a result of the hostilities.
Political Reversals Bring Pro-Russian Governments to Office
Jan. 13, 2010: Starting in 2010, political transformations in some former Soviet countries reversed the changes brought about during the Color Revolutions. In January 2010, Ukraine's presidential elections resulted in the victory of Viktor Yanukovich, thus sealing the slow political decline of the factions that led the Orange Revolution and ultimately leading to closer cooperation between Kiev and Moscow. In April of that year, the ouster of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev signaled an evolution in the country's foreign policy orientation in favor of Russia. In October 2012, Georgia also experienced a major political shift, as the Georgian Dream coalition under the leadership of Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated the victors of the Rose Revolution in the country's parliamentary elections while promising to improve Georgia's relations with Russia.
The Customs Union Enhances Russia's Economic Sphere of Influence
Mid-2012 marks the halfway point between Russia's formation of the Customs Union in 2010 and its planned debut of the Eurasian Union in 2015. Moscow planned for the Customs Union to evolve in multiple stages over the course of several years. These stages included the introduction of the unified Customs Code in July 2010, the adoption of a unified customs border in January 2011 and the formation of a Single Economic Space in 2012. The Eurasian Union is seen as the extension and evolution of these stages into their final form.
In a technical sense the Customs Union has not evolved into what Moscow said it hoped for. Still, Russia has made considerable progress in re-establishing influence in many of its former Soviet republics. The ongoing transition from Customs Union to the Eurasian Union is important to watch, but it should be seen as one aspect of Russia's broader strategy to increase its presence and heft within the former Soviet Union.
Russia Engages in a Battle for Influence in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia
Nov. 27, 2013: Russian pressure and economic incentives led the Yanukovich administration to decline signing the European Union association agreement in 2013. During the November Vilnius Summit, Georgia and Moldova initialed agreements. As ongoing protests challenge the Yanukovich government's decision in Ukraine, and as both Georgia and Moldova struggle with Russian political pressure and their respective pro-Russian breakaway regions, the struggle for influence in the former Soviet periphery is continuing, though Russia retains considerable leverage throughout the region.
Ukrainian anti-government demonstrators in Kiev's Independence Square on Feb. 22
Conclusion: The end of the Cold War redrew the political lines of Europe. The Soviet Union collapsed, leaving 15 newly independent states in Eurasia. The Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, and so the former Soviet satellite states in Central Europe no longer were under Moscow's military and economic umbrella. With the West riding high on its victory, the European Union and NATO then began a process of eastward enlargement. Over the next 15 years, many of the states from the former Soviet bloc were integrated into the Western alliance structure. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. The rest of Central Europe and the Baltic states joined the European Union and NATO between 2004 and 2007.
The push for Western integration did not stop there. Ukraine and Georgia both experienced color revolutions in the mid-2000s that ushered in Western-friendly governments. These governments then formally sought to gain EU and NATO membership, with the West starting to support their long-term orientation toward these blocs in much the same way they did with Central Europe and the Baltics a decade earlier.
This deeper push into the Russian periphery did not succeed. By then, Russia was no longer the weak and chaotic state of the 1990s and early 2000s. It had consolidated internally and recovered economically on the back of high energy prices. Russia was thus in a position to respond to these moves, which it did in the form of occasional natural gas cutoffs to Ukraine and the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The war not only showed that Russia was able to defeat Georgia militarily in a matter of days, but also that notions that the West would offer Georgia military support were illusory. The war also served as a message from Moscow to the rest of the former Soviet periphery that it would not tolerate any serious efforts toward further Western integration.
Moscow used the next five years to push back against Western gains on the Russian periphery. During this period, it was the European Union and the United States that were distracted, the former with its own political and economic crisis and the latter with its commitments in the Middle East. A relatively unburdened Russia took full advantage of this window of opportunity.
Meanwhile, pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia were voted out in favor of administrations more friendly -- or at least more pragmatic -- toward Moscow. Russia strengthened its influence in other states courted by the West, such as Belarus and Armenia. It also boosted its own rival economic and security blocs like the Customs Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization to counter EU and NATO expansion.
But while the West may have been down in the competition over the borderlands during this time, it wasn't out. Efforts at EU integration of the countries on Russia's periphery continued, albeit more slowly and indirectly. These efforts included free-trade and association agreements meant to strengthen ties between the Russian periphery and the European Union without involving actual membership.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's rejection of such deals led to the Western-backed demonstrations in Kiev that culminated in his overthrow. This not only led to the current standoff between Russia and the West over the fate of Ukraine, it has also thrown other countries in the periphery, like Georgia and Moldova, back into the center of the tug-of-war over their orientation once again. The standoff has been a source of concern to those already under the EU and NATO economic and security umbrella, including Poland and the Baltics. These countries fear they, too, could fall back into the increasingly intense Western-Russian competition for influence in the Russian periphery.
The West's efforts in Ukraine are therefore merely the latest chapter in the competition between Russia and the West that has taken various forms since the end of the Cold War. The Western counterpunch over Ukraine is a major message to Moscow: Russia cannot take its position and influence in the borderland states for granted. But as it is likely to show now in Crimea and via efforts to extend Russian citizenship to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers throughout the former Soviet Union, Moscow is not without its own levers, and the European Union and the United States still have their own constraints to serious engagement in the Russian periphery.
Gunmen have infiltrated and shut down Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol, Interfax-Ukraine reported March 2. In addition, a Ukrainian military source said the Russian military, after initially claiming it was simply guarding a Ukrainian air force anti-aircraft missile division in Sevastopol, took control of the unit and its equipment. Russia’s moves in the autonomous republic of Crimea have raised tensions between Kiev and Moscow, but the new Ukrainian government and its military are in no position to challenge Russia.
This could mean that Crimea might now be permanently lost for the Ukraine.
There is a grouping in the region called the Visegrad battlegroup. It is within the framework of NATO and consists of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It is now more a concept than a military. However, with U.S. commitment and the inclusion of Romania, it could become a low-cost (to the United States) balance to a Russia suddenly feeling insecure and therefore unpredictable. This, and countering Russian commercial imperialism with a U.S. alternative at a time when Europe is hardly in a position to sustain the economies in these countries, would be logical.