Russia’s Resurgence

Sub Title : Russia driven by Putin is looking for its rightful place under the sun

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2020

Author : Lt Gen Sanjiv Langer PVSM, AVSM

Page No. : 39

Category : Geostrategy

: December 4, 2020

Russia’s resurgence has been underway  for more than a decade and a half. The setbacks consequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union are a thing of the past. Driven by Putin, the country today is a military and economic power to reckon with. The global stage, as it is set today, affords it even greater opportunity to shine brighter

A common view is that Russia’s resurgence is linked to the ambitions of its President, Vladimir Putin. The distinguishable story is far more nuanced. Close on the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published his work “ The End of History and the Last Man” Making a convincing case for the ultimate supremacy of Western Liberal Democracy, he should have taken a closer look at Russian History and Thought. If nothing else, the Russian captivation with chess that goes back to the 14th Century, impacting their strategic thought, should have weighed on him.

The Russian psyche and its elite political, diplomatic and military, are deeply influenced by historic events. Russia believes it gets inadequate credit for its enfeeblement of Napoleon’s prestige and Army, commencing Sep 1812 at Borodino. Secreting Lenin from Switzerland in a German train, the Germans extracted from the provisional Bolshevik Government, the treaty of Brest Litovsk, in March 1918. While taking Russia out of World War I, this punitive treaty divested Russia of vast territories and populace. The Russian People and Army brought Hitler to a grinding halt, and Marshal Zhukov captured Berlin in 1945, World War II. In spite of this, the Soviets always felt they were treated unfairly in the post war world.

Russia, a nation that spans 11 time zones, and extends 14,000 by 9000 KM  with 1/8 of the total earths’ landmass, can never be ignored. Rich in literature, music, philosophy, natural resources, and marked by violence and wars, Russia has long term horizons on history and the future. The dismemberment and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was always viewed as the fruition of a Western Conspiracy, with pliable Russian leaders. This was reinforced by the fact that NATO, lost no time in seducing the proximate former Soviet bloc entities to its fold. Commencing with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, NATO had spread to seven more central and Eastern European countries, by 2009.

Russia’s red lines were crossed when Georgia and Ukraine became  NATO aspirants in 2008.  Russia responded by choosing to recommence a frozen war in Georgia, at its epicentre of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Post the Russian decline of 1991, the Georgian war was the first assertion of Russia led by the  Putin – Medelev duo, who had come to power in 2000. This put an end to Georgia’s NATO ambitions, gave warning to Ukraine, signalled Russian resurgence, and precipitated  theMedelev Doctrine. Let us put in perspective recent Russian strategic thought.

In 1996  Foreign Minister Primakov’s doctrine, was based on  the fact that Russia, was a Great, and Independent Centre of Power, it now must aspire to be an alternative to the US, in a multipolar world. Medelev, gave definition to this trend by stating that, Russia had regions where its interests were primary, and by corollary, no others could interfere. Significantly also, the protection of Russian citizens lives and dignity, wherever they might be, was a national priority. Consequently, this driving thought provided the rationale for annexation of Crimea in 2014.

30% of Russian gas pipelines used to flow through Ukraine. While Ukraine had been warned off NATO in 2008, in 2010 Russia, withdrew gas discounts to Ukraine. These discounts were linked to the lease of Sevastopol. The access to the port and Crimean waters promises billions of cu m of oil and gas to Russia. In 2013,Ukraine began actively pursuing an economic merger with the EU. Russia countered with an offer for a Eurasian Customs Union. Acceptance of the  Russian offer in 2014 led to unrest in Ukraine, fall of the President Victor Yanukovych, and a fortuitous opportunity for Russian occupation of Crimea (based on a referendum). Near simultaneously, the frozen conflict in the Donbass-Luhansk region was ignited, and a proxy invasion of Ukraine ensued. The US even backed down from arms supplies to Ukraine. This  effectively scuttled the NATO offer, and brought Ukraine grudgingly back in the Russian fold.

By the time a self-assured Russia intervened in the Syrian War in Sep 2015, huge internal convergences had occurred. Putin had been in control since 2000, the military had been transformed and restructured post the 2008 Georgian war, and the State had perfected several 21st Century elements of power. Russia had mastered cyber power, perception management, information and influence ops, economic opportunism, and cemented a symbiotic relationship with China. It  has also converged with Turkey, Iran, Syria and several former Soviet Republics. Its comprehensive role in the Syrian war, convincingly proved its expeditionary  capability and  has given it bases and influence in the Mediterranean. It has mastered the new genre of “Grey Zone Wars”, a powerful cocktail mingling military, political, economic and social realms.

Hydrocarbons undoubtedly are central to Russian power. Recovering from the economic trauma of the 1990s, it witnessed a boom till 2013, when its GDP, riding hydrocarbons, increased up to 9 times. Russia has the world’s  8th largest oil reserves, 2nd largest coal reserves and largest reserves and exports of  natural gas. Assessed undisclosed gas reserves are approximately 6.7 tcm and oil is 22 Billion barrels. In the 1980s USSR was the global leader in oil, with the first pipeline to Europe in 1964. In 2015, hydrocarbons were 63% of Russia’s exports, levelling at 46% by 2018. The largest exports are to Europe and China. Its pipeline fed exports span from Japan, Taiwan, to west Asia and Europe. In transit and  re-export Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan dominate. Ukraine’s hope for independence is now threatened by Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and Turk Stream pipelines, which circumvent it. Ukraine has consequently guaranteed stability of the pipelines till 2024.

The Russian – Chinese embrace needs some focus. Positive engagement dates from 1996 as part of the Primakov initiatives. Fundamentally, the relationship has secured the large rear flanks, and distant territories, of both countries. Proximity and access  have ensured tech transfers, weapon sales and exchanges, mutual support to the Military Industrial Complexes (MIC), and energy security. China has benefited from superior technology in maritime, aviation and weapon systems. Russian gas presents a cleaner alternative to its coal and oil fired economy. Under the China focussed “Power of Siberia Project”, a huge surge is under way to expand exports. The Russian focus on multipolarity and degrading of the US has opened doors for Chinese power play. Russia on the other hand gains by retaining its autonomy, and enjoying a symbiotic relationship with a rising economic and strategic giant. Secure in this relationship, China has been free to pursue its ambitions in the South China Sea, Taiwan and against India. The alternate power structures, such as the SCO, and BRICS, give them space to work around US dominated international and Bretton Woods Institutions.

A view of Russia is inadequate unless we look in some specificity to President Vladimir Putin. Born 1952 in Leningrad, he grew up in tough times. After joining the KGB, he saw service in East Germany among other tenures. His formative view was shaped by the perception of  unjust western entrapment, and trampled Russian national dignity. Entering high power in 2000, he has effectively been in control since then, despite sidestepping as PM, when constitutionally required. Consolidation of supreme power at first involved scrapping of direct elections for Regional Governors, and making them appointees of the Central Government. The second was the constitutional amendment to permit a President four consecutive terms of six years each, which was done in 2012. This gives him the ability to stay in power till 2024, with two more terms beyond that. Longevity and ubiquity are most definitely  firm objectives.

A lot has been said and written on Putin’s and Russia’s goals and aims. Quite simply the resurgence intends to achieve global great power status and domination, that is perceived as ‘rightfully’  Russian, and unfairly denied by the West. To achieve this there are no rules except dictates of power. Sacrifices have to be made, and time is a flexible concept. The mentor of this great enterprise of course must remain President Putin. Significantly the uber Russia will now, not resemble the behemoths of the past.  Sculpted to the realities of the 21st Century, a flavour of its power spectrum is instructive.

Apart from the predisposition to conflict, there are an assortment of interventions. Alleged cyber-attacks on Estonia 2007, alleged interference in the US Elections 2016, are some examples of ‘Grey Zone Warfare’. With insulation from attribution, Russia has set itself up to dominate the Grey Zone, with paramilitary forces, non-military assets including mercenaries, information and influence ops entities, with effective means of their orchestration. The State has also harnessed business, media and large segments of citizen sympathisers. The Resurgence of Russia is buttressed by the Orthodox Church, Kremlin Youth titled Nashi,  and rehabilitated Cossacks. The above also make sure internal dissention is dissolved.

A significant principle of new Russia, is its objective to enjoy in its designated strategic sphere, uncontested influence, without any costs or consequences of administration. It consequently seeks to establish a Eurasian Union. The Russian global voice is eloquent. The  frequent use of the Veto in the UN Security Council, is one manifestation. Russia has also been quick to assert its autonomous sphere. The 2018 blockade of the strait of Kerch, effectively cutting off the Ukrainian port of Mariupol causing losses of up to $400 million, is illustrative. The remarkable influence and intervention in Venezuela is demonstrative of its reach, which echoes with the Cuban intervention of the 1960s.  It has deep hydrocarbon and defence based cooperation there. Despite this pragmatically, it has taken up the slack in Venezuelan oil exports to the US and cranked up its exports to the US by 16% in July. Aggressively developing and marketing the  COVID-19 vaccine, is another international assertion.

President Putin is also in a league of extraordinarily powerful gentlemen. The great helmsman Xi, seeks singular leadership of China, with hopes of immortality. President Erdogan seeks to lead Turkey to a new future. President Assad has outlived the destruction of Syria, and is clawing his way back. There are many leaders in the CIS who grasp for Russian backing.

The core of Russia’s  stature comes from its economic footprint, Nuclear solidity, and re-proven military power. There are several estimates of Russian hydrocarbon futures, with plenty of western views that their boom-time is over. It would be wise to be more circumspect. Despite the present economic crises, the world has little choice in the future for manufacturing, but fossil fuels. Change from oil and coal to gas in the long interim has great advantages for Russia. The Russian energy centrality to Europe and China is secure, till the world substantially shifts to alternate fuels, which is not likely before 2050. Russian hydrocarbon exports are estimated to climb substantially by 2021 and beyond. Its Nuclear arsenal remains formidable. The lead it enjoys in segments of aviation, maritime systems, and weapons and missiles will fire its MIC, for a couple of decades at least. In its totality, the prospects for Russia’s resurgence and its consolidation of power are propitious.

Russia’s resurgence is also instructive to us in several ways:

Consider the vicissitudes of time; In 1812 an embattled Russia, bloodied Napoleon’s surge. By 1905 a powerful Russia, faced off with Japan, and lost its entire Baltic Fleet and the war in 40 minutes. In 1918, Russia loses vast territories and is disgraced. 1945 sees it crushing Hitler’s offensive, and capturing Berlin. It was one of the two super powers till 1991, when Russian Communism and USSR demised after seven decades. Russia resurges in three decades, and today re-emerges as a world power.

Never ignore patterns of history

When power, wealth and knowledge converge in peoples and nations, the resultant surge seeks strategic space. For Russia, it means an inviolable periphery and proximate space, coupled with international license. With growing influence come greater ambitions. The US international recuse gives Russia oxygen. In the power equations of the globe there is no permanence.

Power flows, knows no voids, for power is a faithless long term consort

Foreign Minister Primakov’s overtures to China in 1996, sought an ally for a struggling Russia. That it would crack open the world power order and replace the only Hyper Power (USA), with multipolarity, is the consequence of unintended outcomes. Russo-Chinese synergy has been mutually beneficial and ensured that both have grown. How the three, USA, China and Russia, will manifest is the contest of the next decades.

The US, Russia and China, will grapple for Global Power

On this global high table, of the three nations that qualify, the US and Russia are old seasoned players with a horizon that goes back to the First World War. Aspirational China has demonstrated an oversized vision, aggressiveness, expediency, and a jaundiced and eccentric view of history and law.

The US may have recused from its international envelope, yet it remains the only power with capabilities of exceptionalism. Wealth, power and knowledge, can be harnessed instantly. Intentions can transform rapidly.

Russia, has displayed a solidity of approach, and a willingness to run the gauntlet. Its expeditionary capabilities are impressive, but reach beyond its outer strategic limits of Eastern Europe, the CIS, and segments of Asia are largely constrained.

China is inspired by its own sense of superiority, and centrality. It sees itself as the rightful inheritor of global power, to the exclusion of others. Riding great economic power and military surge, it unabashedly uses the full spectrum of power to assert its primacy. Its rationale is self-determined and self-justified.

As the globe stutters on with the Pandemic raging, the frission between these three cannot be ignored. A new administration in the US indicates its rejuvenation of the US world focus. While Russia and China are in steady states, the US is set to change. As the dice is rolled on the high table, with no holds barred, and no financial limits, two veterans and one wild card, grasp at the chips, outcomes to say the least will be bewildering.