The Russian Bear is out of hibernation, and he’s more than a little grumpy.
For the last ten years the focus of geopolitics wonks and geeks has been the growing economic and military clout of China. However another global power has been quietly but steadily increasing its footprint on world affairs. It may lack the slick PR of American power, or the break neck growth of China and India, but its re-emergence as a Great Power should not go unnoticed. We refer of course, to Russia.
That Russia is a principle player should come as no great surprise. Russia has always been a big hitter. Until recently it was presiding over a globe spanning empire of client states, vassals and allies, backed by a ruthless intelligence service and a gargantuan army. Its coal, timber and steel production dwarfed that of its neighbours. It pioneered space flight and deep sea exploration.
Yet for today’s generation, the ‘Russian Menace’ seems a rather quaint idea, almost akin to British rivalry with France. My generation grew up with a bloated, old and enfeebled bear to the east, not the lean, growling beast our parents knew. The collapse of Soviet Communism not only saw Russia lose its empire, it saw its economy collapse and its domestic politics become a standing joke.
Today things are different. Boosted by oil and gas revenues, Russian coffers are healthier than they have been in a long time. The economy is still in desperate need of far reaching reform, but for now Moscow can paper over other cracks. Politically, Russia has reverted to form and Vladimir Putin rules with the thinnest of democratic veneers. In the West his unique brand of corruption, coercion and outright vote rigging wouldn’t stand, but Russians are famously hardy and particle people. Centuries of rule by tsars and princes with varying degrees of oppression and cruelty will inevitably shape a people. Russians have reached a compromise with Putin and his United Russia Party; maintain stability, give us modest increases in living standards and keep the country strong, and we’ll allow the odd bit of electoral foul play. Even the open and rampant corruption by officials is shrugged off as a part of life.
So with Russia reasonably settled at home, what does that mean for the rest of the world?
The most immediate impact is being felt in Russia’s old stomping grounds of Eastern Europe and the Caucuses. Ukraine and Belarus have both felt themselves on the receiving end of Russia’s new found confidence. Gas transit agreements with the two former Soviet republics have been renegotiated several times and always for Russian gain. The methods used have been somewhat less than subtle too. “Sign here or the gas is switched off” is not too much of an over simplification. The Ukraine is particular susceptible to Russian meddling, having as it does half its population as Russian speakers. Ukraine is also home to Sevastopol, Russia’s primary southern naval base.
The Baltic States too have found themselves pressured by Russia into giving their ethnic Russian’s greater rights. It may be no coincidence that the Baltic is also a proposed transit route for new Russian pipelines.
Georgia was arguably the most overt expression of new Russian power. The ground work for Russian intervention in the Georgian civil conflict had been laid long before the shooting started. Citizens in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had been given Russian citizenship and passports to make the ‘defence of Russian citizens’ a legitimate reason for intervention. Western powers looked on horrified as tiny Georgia stood up to the Russian armoured legions. NATO were particularly irked as the Georgian army had been trained and equipped by NATO, and were supposed to be capable of putting up far more of a fight than they did.
The two regions are now all but Russian fiefdoms. Along with Chechnya, Moscow views these regions as vital to its security, and points to the Beslan massacre as an example of what happens if the Caucuses aren’t under Moscow’s tutelage.
Next to Eastern Europe, the Middle East is perhaps the most important sphere of Russian foreign policy…..and it’s not going well.
A little over a decade ago, Libya, Iraq and Syria (or more accurately Gadaffi, Hussein and Assad) were the lynchpins of Russian influence in the Arab world. As you may have heard, two thirds of that trio are no longer with us. This makes Syria, always the closest ally, all the more important to Russia.
At the time of writing this piece, the thuggish regime of Assad is reviled around the world, but is seemingly secure. This is due in no small part to help from its rapidly diminishing circle of friends, principally Iran and Russia. Syria’s myriad of intelligence agencies are trained by Russia, and much of its military hardware is old Soviet stock. In return the Russian navy has use of the Syrian port of Tartus, its only naval base outside the former Warsaw Pact. If Assad were replaced by a less pro-Russian government, Moscow would be all but shut out of the Arab world.
So Syria aside, Russia can feel quite proud of itself. It is again a force to be reckoned with. Yet serious challenges lay ahead, both at home and abroad.
How sustainable is the democratic deficit in the 21st century? As living standards rise and information becomes less and less controllable by governments, can Putin justify such central control? Add to this, Russia’s demographic nightmare of a First World birth rate coupled with a Third World mortality rate. Russia’s population is shrinking fast.
Away from home, Russia will have to deal with an unpredictable Arab world and a European Union increasingly sensitive about it energy security and looking to diversify. And finally Russia needs to plan for how to deal with a super powerful China on its border.
Russia has an embarrassment of natural riches, borders on two continents, and an enviably cultured and educated population. How it wields this rediscovered might will effect us all.