Russia - Fall or Rise as a Superpower?

Posted in Russia | 08-Jul-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir
Putin: "Whether it was prudent to try to play Medvedev and…
Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "Whether it was prudent to try to play Medvedev and Putin off each other remains to be seen."
The recent two main political events - the first visit of US President Barack Obama to Moscow and the G8 summit in Italy - provide an opportunity that Russian leaders like the most: Russia as a global player on the world's stage - at equal eye level with the United States. The recent developments in Russia lead to the question whether or not Russia has the potential and the resources to compete with the US - as the Soviet Union had for a long period of time. But - the collapse of the Soviet Union was mainly caused by US military superiority, the economy and technology. The Soviet Union was no longer capable of keeping pace with the US.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin was able to bring Russia back to the world stage. For Putin, the demise of the Soviet Union was the "greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century." Based upon the unexpected high revenues from the export of oil and gas, Putin was able to give the Russian people the perception that Russia is strong again -fighting the deep-ingrained feeling of Russia's inferiority toward the West - especially with regards to the US.

Now, the global financial and economic crises have changed the world. Almost all countries in the world are being confronted with dramatic problems. Russia has been hit drastically by the deep cut in oil and gas export revenues. Prices for oil and gas decreased as well as a decrease in oil and gas consumption in most industrial countries.

Where does Russia stand now and tomorrow in the competition of world powers? Will Russia recover or will Russia add a new chapter of failure to world history as Paul Kennedy once described in his impressing book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers?"

What are Russia's vital interests on the world stage?

Above all: Russia wants to be a global player - at equal eye level with the US. The US is considered the yardstick - not China, India or Europe as they lack the political unity. Russia is not happy being regarded just as a member of the BRIC - countries - with Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa knocking at the door, as well.

Russian leaders are well-trained geopolitical and geo-strategic thinkers. Geopolitics is their view of world politics. They grew up in a bi-polar world and they want to get back to it. All political moves - in neighboring countries and in Central Asia as well as towards China - have to serve this final goal and objective: Being equal with the US.

What assets does Russia have that will enable it to accomplish this mission?

Needless to say, Russia is a veto power in the United Nations Security Council and a nuclear weapons power. In addition, Russia is still an energy power in spite of the current problems.

Nuclear weapons were the main topic in the talks between US President Barack Obama and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev and with Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - in the eyes of many observers still Russia's dominant figure.

It comes as no surprise that Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev reached an agreement on the reduction of nuclear warheads and delivery means - both sitting on about 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons - which are no longer the hard currency in world politics. Until December and in the coming years both are willing to reduce the weapons and delivery means drastically. The bottom line will be a kind of "minimal nuclear deterrence" combined with a credible "second strike capability." Barack Obama did not receive a positive reaction with his proposal of a global nuclear zero.

The agreement aims at a bigger issue: It is meant to be a signal against the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Both the US and Russia want to stop this proliferation and encourage other countries to give up their plans to use civilian nuclear energy as a basis for a nuclear weapons program.

"U.S. President Barack Obama at Moscow's New Economic School: The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game -…
"U.S. President Barack Obama at Moscow's New Economic School: The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game - progress must be shared."
In this context, Russia could play a vital role - looking at the developments in Iran and North Korea. Many observers of the meetings in Moscow believe that Iran was the most important issue. It is well known that Russia has a special relationship with Iran. Moscow supported Iran's path to become a nuclear power. Without Russian technology, Iran might not have been able to develop the nuclear program in the given time frame.

Moscow wanted a bargain with Washington: Give up the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic and we will agree on tougher sanctions on Iran. President Medvedev succeeded to achieve that the agreement mentions a link between both issues, but President Obama made clear that Washington will continue the survey of the missile defense program and then reach a decision without giving Moscow a kind of right to veto.

As member of the six-party talks with North Korea, Russia plays - next to China - a vital role, but so far not a very supportive one. Russia and China were not willing (or not able?) to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program, nor its recent nuclear weapons tests and long-range missile firings.

President Obama left Moscow without having made any progress concerning Iran and North Korea. Moscow still has these tools in its hands to press the US to give in with its missile shield in Eastern Europe.

It was in Russia's own interest to offer an air corridor for American troops and weapons - about 4 500 flights per year. Russia is interested in a stable Afghanistan with drastically reduced production of drugs that are increasingly being found in Central Asia and in southern region of Russia.

Russia is not interested in a US victory in Afghanistan. The longer the US is dragged into the war in Afghanistan, the better for Russia. This is the kind of old thinking still prevalent in Russia. Prior to their meeting, President Obama labeled Prime Minister Putin as follows: "I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new." Whether it was prudent to try to play Medvedev and Putin off each other remains to be seen. It would seem to make more sense to treat them as a political tandem.

What are the main stumbling blocks for Russia being at equal eye level with the US?

It is a problem for Russia to execute a kind of "smart power" - a well-orchestrated combination of elements of hard power and soft power.

Russia is still strong on hard power - as demonstrated by the military in the war with Georgia and with the stop of supply of gas and oil to Ukraine and other European countries. Russia uses the net of pipelines to the West to increase the dependency of Western countries. But the revenues from oil and gas exports decreased drastically because of a drop in price on the international market.

It becomes obvious that in the past, Russia missed the chance to use the former high revenues to decrease its dependency on the export of oil and gas -i.e. investing in new technologies and education. In the mid-term prices might go up again, but the price of producing oil and gas will increase as well.

Russia has already passed the peak in oil production. It has little to offer in the field of smart power. Russia does not serve as a role model for other countries. The authoritarian regime, the suppression of free speech and free media - escalating to the murder of about 20 critical journalists over the past 4-5 years -, the extent of organized crime and corruption, the state-controlled strategic economy and jurisdiction, the harsh treatment of minorities, the huge inefficient bureaucracy and the rude behavior in most Muslim regions are counterproductive to present Russia as an attractive partner.

In addition, there are severe domestic problems: The first one is demography. Russia's population is shrinking, aging and graying with a poor life expectancy - about ten years lower than the European average - and a poor pension and healthcare system. Demography will not change in the next decades.

While Russia loses about one million people per year, India gains about 12 million new citizens per year.

In the next decades Russia's population will decrease from its present 140 million to 110 - 120 million -while the US will reach a population of nearly 340 million with an average age much younger than in Russia.

"Nuclear warheads and delivery means are no longer the hard currency in world politics"
"Nuclear warheads and delivery means are no longer the hard currency in world politics"
Hitler talked about Germany as being a country of "people without space." Russia is running into the situation of becoming a country of "space without people." In Siberia, there are not very many Russians left - Chinese people are replacing the Russians. In an article from "The Economist" on July 11, 2009 entitled "Blind-sided in Asia" it is stated that: "The population density in the Russian Far East is barely one person per square kilometer. Across the river Amur in China, it is 140 times as much."

Both China and Japan are eager to secure the supply of energy from Siberian territory. Regarding Russia's relations to Asia in general, "The Economist" comes to the conclusion: "Russia's links with Asia are weak...Russia's new national security strategy, published in May, talks about the country's ambitions as a world power, but except for North Korea, signally fails to mention the Asia-Pacific region...So Russia's chief Asian policy boils down to a China policy."

In this context the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) gives Russia and China a forum for cooperation with states of Central Asia - including military exercises. However, a close alliance between Russia and China is not in sight. Siberia with its richness of raw material and empty space might become a mid-term bone of contention between Russia and China. The Russian town Pikalyovo became famous in July when workers blocked streets because they hadn't received their salaries for a long time. Prime Minister Putin had to travel to the town, close to St. Petersburg, to defuse the conflict. Pikalyovo became a blueprint for similar blockades in other parts of Russia.

Even with a booming economy, Russia's resources would be absorbed by these domestic problems - not to mention the potential escalations leading to new wars in the "Muslim belt." Even the Russian military lost a lot of its former quality. The morale is low, they are over-manned and under-financed; with some exceptions, weapons and equipment are out-dated. Hundreds of soldiers are killed in routine service - including a high rate of suicide. In the piece "Welcome to Moscow" from "The Economist" of July 4, 2009, harsh assessments are made about Russia: "Over the past ten years, under Vladimir Putin's leadership, Russia has become more nationalistic, corrupt and corporatist...Paranoid, mischievous and heading in the wrong direction...With the economy declining and social discontent rising, a stand - off with the West might be tempting for Mr. Putin's cabal - but ruinous for most Russians." That Russia "slammed the door on the World Trade Organization" is for "The Economist" the signal that Russia's leaders are no longer interested in a close economic relationship with the West.

What future lies ahead for Russia?

Russian leaders face a tough decision: They can try to make a comeback as a superpower, but this attempt is bound to fail. The collapse of the Soviet Union should be taken as a warning. The second option is not very popular, but more realistic. Russia has to adjust its political goals and objectives to the available resources. This is easier said than done. For former great powers - like France, Germany, Great Britain, Portugal and Spain - it took decades and generations to find and accept the new role.

Russia should give up its dream of being at equal eye level with the US. If and when people talk about a G2 - this would be the United States and China - not the US and Russia. A G3 would be the US, China and India. Europe and Russia - for different reasons - will not play a dominant role in the emerging multi-polar world.

Russia has to defend its position in the G8, G13 and G20. This is no easy task. Russia should accept the EU as a partner of the common continent Eurasia. Russian energy resources and European technology could be brought together - for mutual benefit.

But Russia should give up the attempt to reduce the significance of NATO and the role of the US in Europe in favor of a vague "European Security Architecture." As a somewhat late reaction to Russia's misuse of energy as a strategic weapon, Europe is aiming at reducing its energy dependence from Russia. The recently started European projects "Desertec" - to produce solar energy in Africa - and the "Nabucco pipeline" - bypassing Russia and Ukraine - are strong signals.

Renewable energies, diversifying imports and a reduction in energy consumption will have consequences for Russia. It might well be that Russia's dependency on Europe's know how and technological aid might become stronger than vice versa.

Russia has to accept it if and when more of its neighboring countries seek membership in NATO. President Obama stated clearly in Moscow that sovereign countries - like Ukraine and Georgia - are free in their decision to join NATO even if it will take a long time until their political situation becomes more stable and the majority of their people want to join. In his speech at the New Economic School on July 7 President Obama emphasized: "America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia ...The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game - progress must be shared." One could add: the world - especially Europe - wants a reliable and stable partner in Russia. A collapse of Russia is of interest to no one.

Medvedev and Putin have to decide whether the relations between Russia and the US go beyond the improved atmospherics to real substance. A substantial support of the US in the conflict with Iran - as vaguely indicated at the G8 summit in Italy - might lead President Obama to some compromises concerning the missile shield. An integration of Russia in the necessary early warning system might be an option. Russia's behavior toward Iran and North Korea will become a litmus test for improved cooperation with the US. In Moscow, the geopolitical divide between the United States and Russia was not bridged. There remain profound differences on issues like Iran, missile defense, Georgia and Ukraine. The "reset" for the relations between the US and Russia has not been achieved - beyond the atmospherics.

"Russia's population is shrinking, aging and graying with a poor life expectancy"
"Russia's population is shrinking, aging and graying with a poor life expectancy"

  • Russia should give up the illusion of being at an equal eye level with the United States. It should become a reliable and strong partner on the Eurasian continent, respecting the political status quo.
  • Russia should respect sovereign decisions of neighbor countries - like Georgia and Ukraine.
  • Russia should aim at close cooperation with Europe and the World Trade Organization in order to establish the exchange of Russian energy and Western technology for mutual benefit.
  • Russia should invest more money to be better prepared for the time without oil revenues, e.g. education, research and development.
  • Russia should cooperate with other countries - mainly the US - to defuse the conflicts with Iran and North Korea.
  • Russia should mitigate its domestic social problems - mainly caused by the negative demographic environment.
  • Russia should reduce the armed forces to free money for their modernization.
  • Russia could expect a fair partnership as a respected regional power.
  • Russia should improve the preconditions for foreign direct investment -e.g. by fighting against the corrupt inefficient bureaucracy and by creating an independent jurisdiction.
  • Moscow should give the provinces more freedom to operate, in the long run in a "Federal Republic of Russia."
  • Russia could expect a fair partnership and successful cooperation as a respected regional power.

Text: Medvedev's Speech at the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation on November 5, 2008

Text: Obama's Speech at the New Economic School on July 7, 2009