Can Russia project power while battered by economic woes?
As the United States foreign policy under new President Donald Trump is still faltering and China refrains from becoming a full global playmaker, Russia and its post-Soviet helmsman Vladimir Putin are apparently calling the shots in the world stage.
From the Baltic in Europe to the South China Sea in East Asia, a Russian diplomatic cobweb has in fact been spun across the Eurasian continent and its appendices in North Africa. Now, the question is whether Moscow will be able to handle this strategic over-extension, which entails the use of considerable resources, while its economy is in bad shape.
Many believe that the Kremlin’s current transcontinental projection will not be halted by the country’s economic problems; and this because Russia – included in its Soviet configuration – has always been an imperial power capable of facing up to structural economic weaknesses.
According to this vision, economic liabilities historically have never prevented the Russian bear from expanding its territorial boundaries to prop up the nation’s internal security. In this equation, the Russian rulers would have successfully leveraged on the deeply-rooted patriotic sentiment of their people, who have showed a strong resilience to material shortages through the centuries.
A growing global presence
So, encouraged by the perceived vulnerability of the US, which is linked to many factors, among them former President Barack Obama’s decision to shift focus from Europe and the Middle East to Asia-Pacific, Donald Trump’s shocking electoral triumph, a confused presidential transition and a turbulent start of tenure for the new US commander-in-chief, it is reasonable to expect that Russia will continue to move on many fronts, regardless of its economic woes.
Moscow’s hunt for geopolitical influence is indeed remarkable, starting from its squabbling with the European Union (EU) and Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Eastern Europe, where it has been supporting separatist rebel groups in eastern Ukraine after annexing Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin is also developing a robust military apparatus in the Baltic area and reactivating military capabilities in the Arctic region.
The post-Soviet space from the Caucasus to Central Asia obviously remains Russia’s strategic backyard. Still, the Kremlin will insist on playing the kingmaker’s role in the Syrian crisis while trying to extend its clout in the Middle East and North Africa. In this sense, Moscow is enhancing ties with Egypt, eying a possible part in the Libyan peace process and cautiously monitoring developments in the worn-torn Yemen.
Furthermore, the Russian diplomacy is reaching out to Afghanistan, where it is working to find a diplomatic solution to the current civil war, quite separately from Washington. To conclude, Russia has a visible presence in the Pacific region, where it still has to settle the age-old territorial row with Japan over the Kuril Islands; Moscow is also an important stakeholder in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, discreetly teams up with China on the South China Sea territorial disputes and has even promised naval help to the Philippines against piracy in the Sulu and Celebes seas.
Like in the 1970s…
Russia/Soviet Union found itself in a similar situation between 1974 and 1979, when it raised the stakes in the confrontation with the US. In the space of six years, in fact, the Kremlin displayed a wide-ranging foreign policy that led many to believe that it was going to win the Cold War. All of this as Washington was struggling with a deep political and identity crisis amid a climate of widespread cultural contestation, marked by President Richard Nixon’s resignation due to the Watergate scandal and the country’s defeat in the Vietnam War.
Moscow tried to profit from the American apparent disorientation during that period and launched its multi-pronged challenge. It backed communist guerrillas in Central America and sent military “advisers” in Angola and Mozambique. In these two African countries, which had just gained independence from Portugal, the Russian troops supported – along with Cuban soldiers – the local Marxist armed formations in their efforts to seize power.
Then, Russian regular and irregular military personnel came to the rescue of Ethiopia as this was fighting the Ogaden War against Somalia. In addition, Moscow strengthened further its ties with the Baathist regime in Syria, buttressed the communist-leaning government in Southern Yemen, where it had naval facilities, and sustained Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia against the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge regime. Lastly, the Soviet Red Army placed the icing on the cake by invading Afghanistan.
Economy ultimately counts
This far-flung foreign commitment proved to be largely unsustainable in the short-run. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was in a critical economic situation, largely dependent on grain and technology supplies from the US, with a centralized and inefficient political system and a natural resource-based economy resembling an underdeveloped country’s. A picture that has several similarities with the current health of the Russian economy, hit hard by years of budget deficit. Though a timid recovery is forecast in 2017, at the recent Gaidar Economic Forum, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned the nation against the structural problems of Russia’s economy, particularly its technological gap with developed countries, the dependence on commodity export at a time of low oil and gas prices and the excessive public role in the productive processes.
Thus, a hypertrophic foreign conduct, not backed up by a solid economy, contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire – along with other geopolitical and cultural factors. If Russia wants to avoid this outcome and protract the “Putinian Pax” for a while, it will have to eliminate this antinomy; or, at least, it will have to find creative alternatives. The idea of using money and propaganda to bolster the rise of anti-EU and anti-NATO populist movements in Europe could serve this purpose. Unless, like in the 1980s, the Western world comes out with new, effective antidotes to the Russian advance.