Tracking the shifting power dynamic in the Eurasia landmass

Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, dissects Russia’s foreign policy in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs in an article entitled, “Russia Reborn.” Following is the passage I think resonates the most. I’m going to keep my lead-in short here because the excerpt is long and not all of you are going to like it, so brace yourselves:

Although the Kremlin did succeed in proving its strategic independence from Europe and the United States, there can be no talk of Russia’s overall equality with either of the two. This leaves Moscow with a paradox: it is unwilling to become a junior partner to Brussels and Washington, but they will not accept it as an equal. Likewise, as Medvedev has pointed out, Russia is excluded from any meaningful security structure in Europe, but the notion of a new treaty that would formally block further NATO enlargement has been rejected. It is wholly unrealistic to think that Europe’s security will be jointly managed by a troika of United States and NATO, the EU, and Russia and the CSTO. Similarly, the idea of a grand bargain — in which Washington would allow Moscow to dominate the former Soviet states on its borders in exchange for its support for U.S. and Western policies in the Middle East and elsewhere — is a chimera. Unlike during the Great Game of the nineteenth century, the political futures of countries such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine will be decided not by strategists in Moscow or Washington but by people on the ground.

In the twenty-first century, the power of attraction trumps that of coercion. But this runs contrary to the view of many inside the Russian leadership that the world is composed of sovereign empires competing over zones of influence. Russia, a nuclear superpower, is fighting a losing battle for influence in Ukraine, Moldova (where the post-Soviet generation looks to the EU), and even Belarus (where younger urbanites consider themselves European). Georgia is overwhelmingly pro-Western, largely because Moscow’s policies over the last two decades have made the population vehemently anti-Russian. Azerbaijan has managed to do business with Western oil companies while staying on friendly terms with Moscow and avoiding being dominated by it. Armenia notionally depends on Russian security guarantees, but as a result of the continued confrontation between Georgia and Russia, it is more physically isolated. Recently, Armenia started a dialogue with Turkey that could lift the 16-year-old economic blockade imposed by Ankara at the height of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.

This suggests that a binary Europe — made up of the NATO/EU community in the west and the center and a Russian-led bloc in the east — is less imaginable now than at any moment since the end of the Cold War. Even if the CSTO becomes more competent and Moscow’s proposed customs union comes into being, these bodies’ effectiveness will be limited by Moscow’s desire to turn them into its own policy instruments — and this will clash with the interests of even Russia’s closest partners, Belarus and Kazakhstan. 

The Kremlin leadership consciously ignores the relative modesty of Russia’s economic potential, its dependency on raw materials, and its technological backwardness. Russia has slightly over 140 million people, produces around two percent of global GDP, has a level of economic productivity about one-fourth that of the United States, and is dependent on fluctuations in the price of oil. Such a country may wield a measure of power and influence with near neighbors and distant partners, but it will need to make a monumental effort to upgrade its economic clout, technological prowess, and societal appeal before it can claim the status of a world-class power.

In the tsarist and Soviet pasts, Russia compensated for its weakness and backwardness with superior manpower, political centralism, and industry heavily focused on military production. Today, it is unable to do the same. The country is in the midst of a demographic crisis that threatens to cut its population by more than 15 percent by the middle of this century. Its raw military power is also declining. The Russian defense industry is no longer capable of producing a full range of conventional weapons systems, and it has been forced to buy arms from abroad, such as drones from Israel and ships from France. The continuing failure of the Bulava ballistic missile suggests that even Russia’s nuclear weapons sector is plagued with deficiencies.

Three hundred years ago, the newly reformed Russian army defeated Swedish forces at the Battle of Poltava, heralding Russia’s emergence as a European power. The long era of Russian military dominance in Europe that followed has now come to an end. Russia is the EU’s largest and most important neighbor, but emphasizing power relationships is not to Russia’s advantage. The currency of world politics has changed, and Russia will have to work hard to acquire it. Unfortunately, Russia’s leadership is looking not so much to build a new power base at home but more to find ways to borrow power from others.