By Julio Espinoza, Staff Writer
In my last contribution I argued that Russia sits on a vast territory surrounded by threats and is full of structural weakness. The country seems to be a weak and paranoid state with delusions of grandeur, but with no real power other than an assertive discourse and limited military capacity. If it is true that Russia remains far stronger militarily and economically than any of the other newly independent states of the Post-Soviet space, then Russia is also still catching up with the West in military capabilities, as the most recent developments show.
What is the essence of Russia’s creed? In political science, state behavior is affected not only by certain objective factors (geopolitical location, level of economic development, and physical power), but also by the state’s self-conception (nationalism, the national creed, the national mission). Ideology has always played a motivating role in state making and policy making. Russia’s leaders have been realists, whose self-conceptions and narratives about Russian past and future have influenced Russian interests and behavior, such as the Putin-Medvedev discourse of regaining the role of great power demonstrates.
Although in the 1990s, Russia was in the middle of an identity crisis after the collapse of the Soviet system, it seemed that Moscow had already made up its mind. In the 1990s, Russian political elites as well as public opinion were deeply divided on the question of what constitutes both the Russian nation and the Russian state. At the beginning, the country remained split between those who supported the liberal pro-Westerner direction of the economic and political changes initiated by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and those for whom the imperial past as an authentic part of Russian’s history was essential for rebuilding the state.
It seems that Moscow now is claiming their seat in the club of superpowers, but Russia is still uncertain on a few things like their boundaries (the edge of the federation or the Confederation of Independent States?), their shape and structure as a federation (is Chechnya in or out?), their relations with neighboring states (are Belarus and Ukraine in or out?), and even the nature of their regime (a republic or an empire?).
But Russia has been unable to gain legitimacy from the other former Soviet states in exercising hegemony due to its confusion, corruption, and imperialistic pretensions. This can change if the Putin Administration can take advantage of the still unclear U.S. foreign policy in the Post-Soviet space and weak response to the Russian hacking and meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. President Putin already sent two strong messages that found a weak response from the West (the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014).
We let the Russian tanks roll over in sovereign European land in a clear violation of international law. Russian bombers and ships are being detected more often cruising the U.S. territorial waters. What will be our response to the Russians now that the Trump Administration is following a hawkish response in the Middle East? Are we going to contain or confront the Russians, or a combination of both? We need to decide soon, otherwise, the next Russian invasion in Eastern Europe might be in the works, justifiable by the union and protection of all Russian speakers in Europe and Central Asia.