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Russia Is Back! Are We Ready for the Challenge?

By Julio Espinoza, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, in Moscow, the U.S. Secretary of State held high-level conversations with his Russian counterpart and the President of Russia. According to CNBC, his words were: “There is a low level of trust between our countries. The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Both countries agreed to examine the factors causing bilateral tensions, such as Syria, North Korea, and Ukraine, but they did not reach further agreement on the geopolitical game in the Middle East, Asia, or the U.S. elections.

The U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated rapidly over the last few years. Russia seems to be a weak paranoid state with ideas of grandeur but without a clear identity. Even though Russia remains far stronger militarily and economically than any of the other former Soviet Union Republics, Moscow lags behind the West in hard power. Or at least that is what we in the West want to believe because the Putin-Medvedev dictatorship has been revamping the aging Russian military and implementing an assertive foreign and national security policy. Now that Russia is re-emerging we need to understand ways to cope with the Russian Bear.

Courtesy of Bankoboev.ru
The Russian Bear. Courtesy of Bankoboev.ru

Over the media, particularly after the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, the Crimea annexation of 2014, and the meddling in U.S. elections in 2016, Moscow is perceived as a rising power and a possible threat to the West. This is why it is important to assess the real strength of the Russian Bear in order to know how powerful Moscow actually is. That is why in both this article and  future contributions, I intend to analyze the security and foreign policy of the Kremlin throughout the Putin and Medvedev Administrations in a way that contrasts their intentions with the resources of the Russian Federation.

Is Russia strong enough to be considered an equal partner or equal competitor to the West? Now being a weak state in identity, political, economic, and military terms, the Eurasian giant is implementing security and foreign policies that make the most of Russian imperialism and pragmatism. I believe they are doing this for two reasons: 1) Russia needs to catch up with the West, particularly with the U.S. in terms of military capabilities; and 2) the post-Soviet regime in Moscow needs to legitimize its authoritarian and oligarchic practices to remain in power by means of suicidal statecraft, or militarization at the cost of statehood sustainability. The Kremlin needs the external threats (Chechnya, ISIS, or the West) to foster “state making” after the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

Mother Russia’s foreign policy has always been guided by perceptions of weakness and insecurity of Russia vis-à-vis its strategic competitors. Paranoid, Moscow perceives itself living in a dangerous world, which right now turns out to be true if considering current threats coming from the peripheries within the country (Chechnya), the near abroad (the spread of radical Islam, the rise of China), Central and Eastern Europe (the expansion of NATO and the European Union), and the traditional competitors in the international system (the U.S., Japan, E.U.). The long-standing sources of statehood weakness for Russia have always been its hyper-continental size, lack of clearly defined borders, low population density, underdeveloped social and communications infrastructure, and fragmented national identity produced by Russian imperialism. Ideology has also played a motivating role in “state making” and policy making in Mother Russia. Its leaders have been realists, whose self-conceptions and narratives about Russian past and future have influenced the Russian interests and behavior, such as the Putin-Medvedev discourse of regaining the role of a great power demonstrates. Russia, while trapped in a totalitarian regime, has been lagging behind in military affairs reform in comparison to the West. Albeit the mounting assertiveness in security and foreign policy discourses, Russia is not an equal partner but a weak competitor to the West. Due to statehood weaknesses, Russia will fully catch up with the lean and high-tech West only in the long term due to Russia’s systemic limitations mentioned above.

Russia-U.S. rivalry. Courtesy of voltairenet.org
Russia-U.S. rivalry. Courtesy of voltairenet.org

After a century, there still has been no change in Russian security thinking. Moscow continues to implement imperialistic and pragmatic security and foreign policies, just like in the 19th Century. There is no doubt that the Putin-Medvedev administrations have revamped the Russian stature in international politics. However, the assertiveness is highly declamatory and targeted towards gaining domestic legitimacy in view of pursuing “state making” and defense reform because Moscow faces structural state weaknesses and lags behind the revolution in military affairs. Therefore the only tool Russia has to display leadership in the international arena is its diminished military capabilities and diplomacy of declarations. As Moscow faces structural constraints that will slow their military modernization, it seems that Russia needs to start considering its soft power in order to increase its regional and global influence. Russia’s near-abroad is a good opportunity to demonstrate leadership by providing security, aid, and trade opportunities.

So far, the best alternative for the Trump Administration is continuing with the Cold War strategy of containment and deterrance. For the U.S. the best choice is to trap, encircle, Russia by promoting free-market economic principles and democracy in the post-Soviet space. In future contributions, I will elaborate more on Russia’s identity and foreign and security policies. Stay tuned because, if we want to continue calling ourselves the hegemon, we cannot underestimate our old strategic rival: Russia is back! Are we ready for the challenge?

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