U.S.-Russian relations seem to have been relatively quiet recently, as there are numerous contradictory views in Washington about the true nature of Russia’s current foreign policy. Doubts remain about the sincerity of the U.S. State Department’s so-called “reset” of relations with Russia — the term used in 2009 when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed a reset button to her Russian counterpart as a symbol of a freeze on escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington. The concern is whether the “reset” is truly a shift in relations between the two former adversaries or simply a respite before relations deteriorate again.
The reset actually had little to do with the United States wanting Russia as a friend and ally. Rather, Washington wanted to create room to handle other situations — mainly Afghanistan and Iran — and ask Russia for help. (Russia is aiding in moving supplies into Afghanistan and withholding critical support from Iran.) Meanwhile, Russia also wanted more room to set up a system that would help it create a new version of its old empire.
Russia’s ultimate plan is to re-establish control over much of its former territories. This inevitably will lead Moscow and Washington back into a confrontation, negating any so-called reset, as Russian power throughout Eurasia is a direct threat to the U.S. ability to maintain its global influence. This is how Russia has acted throughout history in order to survive. The Soviet Union did not act differently from most of the Russian empires before it, and Russia today is following the same behavioral pattern.
Geography and Empire-Building
Russia’s defining geographic characteristic is its indefensibility, which means its main strategy is to secure itself. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia’s core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it and thus has been invaded several times. Because of this, throughout history Russia has expanded its geographic barriers in order to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and the myriad enemies surrounding it. This means expanding to the natural barriers of the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia. The one geographic hole is the North European Plain, where Russia historically has claimed as much territory as possible (such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany). In short, for Russia to be secure it must create some kind of empire.
There are two problems with creating an empire: the people and the economy. Because they absorb so many lands, Russian empires have faced difficulties providing for vast numbers of people and suppressing those who did not conform (especially those who were not ethnic Russians). This leads to an inherently weak economy that can never overcome the infrastructural challenges of providing for the population of a vast empire. However, this has never stopped Russia from being a major force for long periods of time, despite its economic drawbacks, because Russia often emphasizes its strong military and security apparatus more than (and sometimes at the expense of) economic development.
Maintaining a Strong State
Russian power must be measured in terms of the strength of the state and its ability to rule the people. This is not the same as the Russian government’s popularity (though former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s popularity is undeniable); it is the ability of the Russian leadership, whether czar, Communist Party or prime minister, to maintain a tight grip on society and security. This allows Moscow to divert resources from popular consumption to state security and to suppress resistance. If the government has firm control over the people, popular discontent over politics, social policies or the economy do not pose a threat to the state — certainly not in the short term.
It is when the Russian leadership loses control over the security apparatus that Russian regimes collapse. For example, when the czar lost control of the army during World War I, he lost power and the Russian empire fell apart. Under Josef Stalin, there was massive economic dysfunction and widespread discontent, but Stalin maintained firm control over both the security apparatuses and the army, which he used to deal with any hint of dissent. Economic weakness and a brutal regime eventually were accepted as the inevitable price of security and of being a strategic power.
Moscow is using the same logic and strategies today. When Putin came to power in 1999, the Russian state was broken and vulnerable to other global powers. In order to regain Russia’s stability — and eventually its place on the global stage — Putin first had to consolidate the Kremlin’s power within the country, which meant consolidating the country economically, politically and socially. This occurred after Putin reorganized and strengthened the security apparatuses, giving him greater ability to dominate the people under one political party, purge foreign influence from the economy and build a cult of personality among the people.
Putin then set his sights on a Russian empire of sorts in order to secure the country’s future. This was not a matter of ego for Putin but a national security concern derived from centuries of historic precedent.
Putin had just seen the United States encroach on the territory Russia deemed imperative to its survival: Washington helped usher most Central European states and the former Soviet Baltic states into NATO and the European Union; supported pro-Western “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; set up military bases in Central Asia; and announced plans to place ballistic missile defense installations in Central Europe. To Russia, it seemed the United States was devouring its periphery to ensure that Moscow would forever remain vulnerable.
Over the past six years, Russia has pushed back to some degree against Western influence in most of its former Soviet states. One reason for this success is that the United States has been preoccupied with other issues, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia. Moreover, Washington has held the misconception that Russia will not formally attempt to re-create a kind of empire. But, as has been seen throughout history, it must.
Putin announced in September that he would seek to return to the Russian presidency in 2012, and he has started laying out his goals for his new reign. He said Russia would formalize its relationship with former Soviet states by creating a Eurasia Union (EuU); other former Soviet states proposed the concept nearly a decade ago, but Russia is now in a position in which it can begin implementing it. Russia will begin this new iteration of a Russian empire by creating a union with former Soviet states based on Moscow’s current associations, such as the Customs Union, the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. This will allow the EuU to strategically encompass both the economic and security spheres.
The forthcoming EuU is not a re-creation of the Soviet Union. Putin understands the inherent vulnerabilities Russia would face in bearing the economic and strategic burden of taking care of so many people across nearly 9 million square miles. This was one of the Soviet Union’s greatest weaknesses: trying to control so much directly. Instead, Putin is creating a union in which Moscow would influence foreign policy and security but would not be responsible for most of the inner workings of each country. Russia simply does not have the means to support such an intensive strategy. Moscow does not feel the need to sort through Kyrgyz political theater or support Ukraine’s economy to control those countries.
The Kremlin intends to have the EuU fully formed by 2015, when Russia believes the United States will return its focus to Eurasia. Washington is wrapping up its commitments to Iraq this year and intends to end combat operations and greatly reduce forces in Afghanistan, so by 2015, the United States will have military and diplomatic attention to spare. This is also the same time period in which the U.S. ballistic missile defense installations in Central Europe will break ground. To Russia, this amounts to a U.S. and pro-U.S. front in Central Europe forming on the former Soviet (and future EuU) borders. It is the creation of a new version of the Russian empire, combined with the U.S. consolidation of influence on that empire’s periphery, that most likely will spark new hostilities between Moscow and Washington.
This could set the stage for a new version of the Cold War, though it would not be as long-lived as the previous one. Putin’s other reason for re-establishing some kind of Russian empire is that he knows the next crisis to affect Russia most likely will keep the country from ever resurging again: Russia is dying. The country’s demographics are among some of the world’s worst, having declined steadily since World War I. Its birth rates are well below death rates, and it already has more citizens in their 50s than in their teens. Russia could be a major power without a solid economy, but no country can be a global power without people. This is why Putin is attempting to strengthen and secure Russia now, before demographics weaken it. However, even taking its demographics into account, Russia will be able to sustain its current growth in power for at least another generation. This means that the next few years likely are Russia’s last great moment — one that will be marked by the country’s return as a regional empire and a new confrontation with its previous adversary, the United States.