Russia: Between Cooperation and Reluctance

By Julio Espinoza, Staff Writer

Not a foe, neither a friend, what is Russia to the world? My last two articles tried to shed light on Russia’s strategic interests and new foreign and security policies. Having lived in the former Soviet Union, I can claim that if Russia wants to catch up with the West, that will only happen in the long term if Russia leaves behind its imperialistic discourse, plays a cooperative role while observing international law, and avoids being an anti-systemic player. I argue that Moscow’s best policy option right now is to bandwagon the West and refrain from an imperialistic-revisionist behavior that would only isolate Russia.

The role of Russia in the international community is not yet clear. What is the contribution of Russia to the international community so far? Great powers use universal concepts (democracy, security, sustainable development, cooperation, conflict prevention) to foster global governance and decrease the likelihood of war. But so far Russia has not provided one single public good to the international community to claim a seat as a great power but has created chaos in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We can certainly agree that the role of Russia is not clear, even if Moscow claims a major role in the world.

I have argued before that Moscow, being a weak state in identity, political, economic and military capabilities, is implementing security and foreign policies through Russian imperialism and pragmatism to catch up with the West and legitimizing its authoritarian and oligarchic practices. The Putin and Medvedev Administration raised the profile of Russia from a pro-West stand to a more assertive and aggressive one as soon as the economic performance of Russia was favorable and Russia’s stability in its near abroad was at risk (expansion of the E.U. and NATO). Facing the expansion of liberalism on the western border, Moscow took measures to secure its near abroad and fostered the creation of the Eurasian Economic Community in 2000, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001, and the Collective Security Treaty Organization in 2002.

Victory Day Parade. Courtesy of ABC news.
Victory Day Parade. Courtesy of ABC News

During the last two decades, Moscow has emphasized promoting Russian nationalism and establishing Russia as an independent great power that could be seen as an alternative to the West. The Putin and Medvedev Administration has condemned NATO expansion, suspended the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, used the energy cuts off to blackmail Europe (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009 being the most outstanding examples), supported anti-systemic countries (Iran, Venezuela, Libya, Syria, Cuba, China), used military force against Georgia and Ukraine, reinstalled the military parade in the Red Square, and announced a military reform to create a modern army capable of conducting high-tech warfare worldwide. However, I would argue that Russia lacks the capabilities to challenge the West in most of the dimensions of the global chessboard (economic and ideological), except for perhaps the military dimension where Russia is still the second most powerful military powerhouse. Russia is actually very interdependent to the West, mostly because of energy, trade, and finance flows. It will take time for Russia to become a modern state and great power in the Western concept, according to which leadership is based on domestic prosperity and democracy.

In my opinion, Russia lacks the capabilities to pursue a militaristic course because Moscow is basically stuck between democracy and authoritarianism, between market economy and state oligarchy. The war in Chechnya, and now the wars in Ukraine and Syria, impede liberal reforms and revive the militaristic paradigm of the Russian state. The global demand for energy commodities has allowed the Kremlin to strengthen the Russian economy and delay democratic reforms while prolonging domestic inertias through authoritarian, paternalistic, and clientelistic practices. Russia is a regime that looks like a democracy in the surface, but under the Russian skin there is turmoil and totalitarianism. The Russian economy is based on commodities and less competitive heavy industries. Russia’s life expectancy at birth is low compared to the West, and most of the Russian people live below the average human development index. In addition, Russia’s population is contracting, an average of 130 million people, with a negative impact on economic growth.

During the last decade, Russian military spending increased significantly to replace old military equipment. The reforms point in the right direction to revamp the military, but the pace is slow due to Russia’s structural limitations and over-dependence on energy revenues. The demographic crisis will have a negative impact on recruitment of new military personnel; the strong military culture has helped to maintain a large rigid military establishment that benefits from the status quo.

The Russian military will catch up with the West in the long term unless they lose a confrontation abroad in a shameful way. Therefore, the best policy option for the Putin Administration is to cooperate with the West in order to claim a seat as a great power by observing international law, preventing conflict, and expanding liberal values.

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