One of Russia’s many puzzles is the consistency – and even predictability – of its unpredictability. It is a major power (large regional power, minor global power, “middle power”, something in between?), but neither world-bestriding nor a comparable peer to the likes of, say, China, much less the US or Europe in aggregate. Yet Russia often fails to conform to Western conceptions of middling-power rationality, which is why the realist model of international relations often fails to anticipate or even adequately explain many Russian moves. Other models fare little better – or, oftentimes, far worse.
The most convincing analysis of “surprise” Russian actions – in the Caucasus, in Ukraine, and now in Syria – is the suggestion that while the Russian government lacks a coherent grand strategy, its leadership is filled with expert tacticians eager and able to exploit geopolitical opportunities as they emerge. In 2008 the hasty (and likely largely unplanned) Georgian drive into South Ossetia during the Beijing Summer Olympics; in 2014 over-drafting on international goodwill banked by the Sochi Winter Olympics and launching a war in Ukraine; and in late 2015 shifting from covertly supporting the Syrian regime to outright intervention. And so it went.
The tactical opportunism explanation, though sensible enough on its face, at least suggests the notion that these and other Russian actions are independently decided and largely unrelated. And while the complex hierarchies of power and order in the Russian regime certainly lends itself to a considerable degree of chaos, there does seem to be a pattern to these military adventures, or at least a kind of internal logic, that binds them together: the post-Soviet Russian quest for great power status.
The motivations undergirding this broader idea of great powerdom are worth debating. In some analytical formulations, Russian military interventions tend to coincide with moments of flagging domestic political and/or economic fortunes. In 1999 in Chechnya, it was a crude but effective tonic for the pain of shock therapy and late Yeltsinism. In 2008 it was the global economic crisis. In 2014 it was the wave of opposition-led protests that took place between 2011 and 2013, representing the first sustained, popular challenge to the Putinist model. In late 2015 the Syrian adventure simultaneously distracted from a weakened economy, depleted by low energy prices and international sanctions as well as the quagmire in eastern Ukraine.
However, Moscow’s ability to manipulate public opinion with military adventurism is inherently contingent on the Russian public’s susceptibility to the elite’s national greatness narrative. In other words, the regime is only tapping into a latent public yearning for Russian geopolitical peerage with the likes of the US and, perhaps, China. According to a November 2014 poll by the Levada Center, 68% of Russians see their country as a superpower – the first time a majority agreed with that claim since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yet on nearly every metric Russia is objectively no equal. Economically, it lags far behind the US, China and almost a dozen or so other countries, and looks to continue to its energy-depleted tumble into 2016. Despite pouring billions into complex political warfare schemes and influence apparatuses like RT and Sputnik, Russian soft power – that is, its organic ability to attract – is in shambles.
Militarily, though Russia has earned plaudits for its military modernization drive under former defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov, much remains unfinished and largely arrested after the accession of current Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu. While the Russian army remains relatively large (albeit charged with patrolling the borders of the largest country on earth), and is frequently underestimated, it continues to have major shortcomings and remains unable to sustain major power projection operations abroad. Only in its nuclear forces can Russia be meaningfully described as a peer to the US (and surpassing China), which helps explain why Russian nuclear doctrine explicitly calls for first strike “de-escalation” capabilities in the event of a conventional war with the West. It is also the reason why Russian influence peddlers – and occasionally even its politicians – denounce Western military assertiveness in Eastern Europe with warnings of “World War III” and other such emotive, apocalyptic language.
Yet despite its structural limitations – and perhaps to some degree because of them – Moscow must comport itself internationally in such a way that conveys strength and international greatness. In this way, Russian military adventures in Georgia, Ukraine and most recently in Syria are meant as demonstrations of power that maximize the appearance of Russian strength even if, ultimately, their tactical or strategic impacts on the ground are limited. In Georgia, the 2008 Russian military victory did not depose Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime, and only served to calcify what was virtually the status quo in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In Ukraine, Russia has been content to maintain the conflict at a low-to-medium burn, but Moscow never openly deployed forces in Ukraine even at the height of hostilities. Eventually, the ‘Novorossiya project’ was gradually abandoned, and the Donbas separatists have been left to serve merely as instruments of leverage against Kyiv. And in its most recent intervention in Syria, Russia has noticeably devoted its resources not to destroying Islamic State, but to doing what appears to be the bare minimum to ensure the survival of the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Yet Russia has sought and found acclaim for its intervention, even if it only ultimately serves its own narrow interests.
In this way, Russia is a “pocket superpower”. It does not have the structural mechanisms or resources to act or effect change like an actual superpower, but it has marshalled its capabilities to lend the appearance of being a genuine global player. For a long time, the West was eager to play along – G8, Russia-Nato Council, etc. – in the hope that Russia would happily accept the trade-offs of prosperity for Westernization and Euro-Atlantic norms. Yet Moscow’s interest in these various Western prestige clubs were not reflective of Russian desires to Europeanize, but as validation in its quest to rebuild its claim to great power status.
Transitologists might observe a familiar pattern in all of this – Moscow’s attempts to artificially engineer the veneers of superpower are not dissimilar from its painstaking work in prettifying its authoritarian structures with the accoutrements of pluralism and democracy. Elections are held, judges hear cases, commissions mull over “human rights”, and petty legalisms are often paradoxically closely observed – yet Russia remains patently un-free. Russia is also no superpower, but its social contract increasingly depends on fortifying the illusion of greatness.
More interventions, not less
As Russia continues its downward economic spiral, shoved along by cratering energy prices, international sanctions and the weighty burdens of governance by graft, its dependence on the “superpower card” is likely to only increase. That means Moscow may increasingly go abroad in search of new enemies to slay, or at least to appear to do so. This is the inherent problem with Washington’s current policy of strategic patience. US President Barack Obama’s expectation that Russia’s decline will involve going quietly into the night is a major assumption that carries great risk.
From this perspective, the recent Russian military adventure in Syria is in many ways a best-case scenario, even counting the emerging Turkey-Russia cold war. Russian backing for the Assad regime is in many ways problematic for strategic as well as humanitarian reasons, but it is at least not actively empowering malevolent actors like IS – although by backing Assad it at least does passively. Yet we do not have many reasons to believe that a future Russian intervention would be so relatively benign.
Relatedly, Russian decline also increases the possibility that the Kremlin will increasingly adopt totalitarianism as a means to maintain domestic control. Unless it can find ways to turn its economy around – revitalizing external trade with the West, massive internal reforms, and/or increasing efficiency within the Eurasian Economic Union, or something else – totalitarianism may emerge as the option of least resistance for Russian leadership.
A totalitarian, frequently aggressive Russia is just as likely to emerge as a result of Western strategic patience as a declining, declawed Russian state – and probably more likely. This does not mean that US and Western policy should prioritize confrontation as a way of heading off Russian convulsions. But it does mean that a policy to wait out Russian aggression may not work, and could only create newer problems down the road.
Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions and Black Sea regional analyst. Follow him on @mhikaric