Most nations lack the power and the self-confidence to seek to change the global order and—whether satisfied with it or not—must accept the existing order and seek to adapt to it. Russia is not one of those nations.
Russia’s twenty-first century foreign policy strategy—to the extent that it exists in a coherent form—is not a plan to cope with what may come, but an effort to encourage global trends that officials in Moscow believe will advance their country’s interests.
Yet, while Russia can influence some global and regional developments, its power does not fully match its ambitions. Russia does have real power, of course, possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, fourth largest military, largest natural gas reserves, eighth largest proven oil reserves, and other advantages. However, its economy does not rank in the top ten globally and is one-tenth the size of America’s and one-fourth the size of China’s or Japan’s. Its population has fallen to 141 million and faces ongoing demographic contraction and health challenges. Its nuclear and conventional arsenals, energy complex, and industrial base are in varying stages of decay due to insufficient investment and often poor management; only about 10% of the Russian military has modern weapons. And Russia’s political and cultural appeal is weak, especially outside the former Soviet region.
Perhaps the principal driver of Russia’s self-confidence is its Soviet legacy. Russian officials and citizens believe that Moscow can contribute to shaping the global order because they know that their government has done so in the past and are reluctant to abandon this element of their national identity. Europe’s former colonial powers gradually accepted more limited global roles as their empires disintegrated—but it took time. Similarly, Russians have not yet fully adjusted to new realities and are likely only do so through generational change. When then-president Vladimir Putin compared Russia’s economy and standard of living to the more comfortable Portugal and Spain in 1999, his apparent goal was not to ease this downward adjustment but on the contrary to shock and mobilize Russians who wanted more. His views were reflected in his description of the two countries, which delivered significantly more to their citizens than his own, as “irrelevant to the leaders of the global economy.”
Russia’s vast energy wealth has delayed the process of redefining its international role by creating the illusion that the country could become an energy superpower. As energy prices skyrocketed in the last decade, fuelling rapid growth of Russia’s economy and international influence, Moscow’s foreign policy elite began to see natural gas and oil as “the new nuclear weapons,” a dimension of national power that would ensure Moscow’s seat on the global board of directors. Russian leaders assertively exploited their country’s energy leverage in central Europe and globally, yearning for a genuine independence in defining Russian foreign policy that eliminated any need to defer to others (especially Washington).
By the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, however, the global financial crisis battered Russia and punctured the energy superpower mythology. Russia’s economy was among the hardest hit on a global basis and the most severely affected of the world’s major economies; Russia’s GDP fell 10.9% from peak to trough. At the same time, Russia’s Central Bank burned through $215 billion between August 2008 and April 2009, or one-third of its reserves, in a futile effort to stop a collapse in the value of the ruble, which nevertheless fell by 35%.
The crisis had a significant psychological impact because Moscow had been riding high, enjoying the satisfaction of surging energy revenues, seizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and humiliating President Mikheil Saakashvili (and, by extension, Washington) in the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war. At the World Economic Forum in January 2008, the normally cautious Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin had confidently declared Russia an “island of stability in the sea of the world crisis.” Around that same time, other senior Russian officials smugly noted America’s deepening mortgage crisis.
While energy prices have rebounded substantially since the spring of 2009, and pressures on the Russian government have ebbed as a result, Moscow’s hard times do seem to have influenced Russian thinking about the country’s economic future to some degree. Whether the crisis will produce real change in Russia’s foreign policy remains to be seen.
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