Preserving Influence in a Changing World: Russia’s Grand Strategy

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Preserving Influence in a Changing World: Russia’s Grand Strategy
By Andrei P. Tsygankov1

San Francisco State University

Problems of Post-Communism, Vol. 58, No. 1, March-April, 2011, pp. 28-44.

Russia has been creating flexible international coalitions in order to achieve its central objective of becoming an independent center of power and influence.

Russia is never as strong as we fear and never as weak as we hope.

Klemens von Metternich

1. Introduction

From Europe to the Middle East and Asia, scholars and politicians are increasingly recognizing the prominent role of Russia in international affairs. From a weak and inward-looking nation of the 1990s, Russia has emerged into a power that is capable of defending its international prestige using available economic, military, and diplomatic means. It has exploited its energy clout to expand Russian relations abroad and cemented its military presence in the strategic area of the Southern Caucasus by defeating Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia. By mobilizing its soft power, the Kremlin has also contributed to reversing the colored revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine. After being seriously hit by the global financial crisis, Russia has quickly recovered as an important international player.

Russians themselves have often presented their successes as the historically inevitable return of Russia to the rank of a great power. At least until the global economic crisis, and certainly immediately following the crisis in the Caucasus, such rhetoric was supported by the official declarations that projected Russia to become the world’s fifth largest economy, free from dependence on exports of oil and a full-fledged member in a multi-polar international order, by 2020. As far as Western observers of Russia are concerned, they remain divided. While some view Russia as weak and unable to form a coherent strategy, others warn that the Kremlin is increasingly effective in challenging the West’s position in the world. The United States’ attempt to “reset” relations with Russia has yet to change this dualistic perception of Moscow’s motives.

The argument pursued in the paper is neither nor skeptical, nor alarmist. I argue that since the 2000s, Russia’s central objective has been to become an independent center of power and influence by creating flexible international coalitions. The country has largely recovered from the chronic illnesses of the 1990s by gaining a greater confidence and reviving important attributes of a great power. Using various foreign policy tools, the Kremlin has succeeded in building pragmatic alliances within the former Soviet region and across the world. As successful as this strategy has been, Russia is not in a position to become a rising great power relative to growing international challenges, such as the continued expansion of the Western and Chinese influences in Eurasia. The fact that Russia continues to muddle through is not a guarantee that such will be the case in the future. I arrive at this conclusion by evaluating Russia’s international objectives against the tools and outcomes of its foreign policy. Following the literature on grand strategy and foreign policy, I analyze both the hard and soft dimensions of Russia’s power.2 Traditionally, grand strategy has been viewed as a long-term plan to match military and economic capabilities,3 yet scholars have also paid attention to domestic and institutional aspects4 and, more recently, to ideas and visions5 behind grand strategy.

In my assessment, Russia’s success may only be preserved if the Kremlin acts on some existing opportunities and if it is more effective in explaining these objectives to the outside world. Assertive in defending its core interests, Russia must also serve as an advocate of multilateral arrangements towards achieving international peace and security. If Russia is to succeed in escaping the alternative -- an unstable society, dwindling population and truncated sovereignty – the Kremlin should learn how to better combine assertiveness and international recognition.

The article is organized in six sections. The next section reviews the Western debate on Russia’s strategy. I then describe Russia’s objectives by focusing on consensus within the foreign policy elites, views of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, and the official documents. The following two sections analyze key tools available for conducting Russia’s strategy and offer a preliminary assessment of it, respectively. In my assessment, the tools of Russia’s foreign policy are impressive, yet prescribe a greater reliance on soft, rather than hard, power in achieving global and regional influence. The final section reflects on the prospects of Russia’s strategy in the light of existing international challenges.

2. The Debate on Russia's Strategy

Western observers of Russia’s international policy may be divided into Skeptics and Alarmists. The two groups are not irreconcilable, but emphasize different aspects of Russia’s foreign policy.


The Skeptics don’t believe that the Russia’s leadership is able to and interested in designing a grand strategy or a coherent long-term plan with appropriate institutional, material and intellectual support. They are convinced that Russia remains fundamentally weakened by the competition of rival clans within the Kremlin and the overall political class. For example, Celeste Wallander argues that Russia’s grand strategy is “neither grand, nor strategic, nor sustainable,” and “whether Russia will survive as a great power in the 21st century is an open question”6 because it practices the culture of patronage and corruption that continues to reveal the ineffectiveness of the state. Dmitri Trenin makes the point by emphasizing the narrow base from which Russia formulates its international policy, standing “for a small group of people who own the country and hold political power.”7 For these reasons, write Raja Menon and Alexander Motyl, Russia’s international assertiveness is a bluff to conceal the nation’s chronically weak fundamentals.8 Although the arrival of Barak Obama to power has given the United States a dose of realism about its international abilities, the Skeptics remain influential. "The reality is, the Russians are where they are," Vice-President Joseph Biden said in the midst of the global financial crisis. "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."9

The argument by Skeptics is overstated. Although Russia is not a strong state, the relatively smooth transition of presidential power in the Kremlin from Putin to Medvedev does not fit the Skeptical perspective and may be viewed as a testament to the ruling elite’s growing consolidation. As a result of such consolidation, Russia's foreign policy too became more consistent and predictable. However narrowly formulated, such policy is widely shared within the political class and the broader society. The Kremlin's principal actions in world politics from the early 2000s – including opposition to the United States' invasion of Iraq, resistance to expansion of NATO and deployment of Missile Defense System in Europe, promotion of energy-based relations with European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, and military intervention in the Caucasus – have all found a broad domestic support. These actions have proceeded from a coherent worldview that must be reconstructed if we are to understand Russia's future international behavior.

Russia’s successes did not come without a price, and many in the West have grown concerned over what they view as Russia’s unilateral and confrontational style. The second group, the Alarmists, maintain that Russia is increasingly capable of formulating a coherent grand strategy, but such a strategy is anti-democratic and anti-Western in its main orientations.10 Assisted in it by some of Russia’s own pro-Western thinkers and activists11 a number of Western observers have insisted that Russians are longing for a Soviet restoration and developing an essentially Stalinist outlook, which will lead to the further cultivation of an external enemy’s image and possibly even another cycle of state-organized violence.12 The Alarmists argue that this neo-Soviet and KGB-controlled country must be economically isolated and expelled from all Western institutions, but they are also worried that Russia has gone too far for such isolation to work. “Our biggest weakness is money,” lamented former Economist correspondent Edward Lucas. “Until that changes, we have little chance of resisting the Kremlin - and even less of persuading ordinary Russians that their corrupt, cynical, brutal and incompetent rulers are harbingers of disaster, not triumph.”13

The problem with the Alarmist position is that it misrepresents Russia’s essentially defensive posture and fails to understand the roots of the Kremlin’s international assertiveness. Contrary to the claims about the anti-Western and imperialist nature of Russia’s foreign policy, the Kremlin’s objectives are mainly driven by domestic considerations. These objectives include securing geographic borders, improving political and economic conditions, and gaining international recognition as a power with an important voice in international affairs. The Kremlin seeks to be guided by a vision that is suitable to Russia and not unacceptable to the West. Although Russia’s foreign policy is not controlled by liberals, it is also far from being shaped by anti-Western hard-liners. Security elites have indeed gained a greater presence in commercial companies, especially those energy-related, and now are in a more prominent position to influence Russia’s foreign policy. However, the security elites do not constitute a homogenous group and have diverse preferences vis-à-vis the West,14 which helps to understand why the insufficiently consolidated state did not become a hostage to influences. Overall, the majority of the country’s political class has come to think about international realities in terms of adjustment and stabilization, and not confrontation.15 Most Russians also have no illusions either about balancing the West's global power or restoring the Soviet-like empire in Eurasia. Polls indicate that the general public predominantly connects the great power status with economic development, rather than military buildup or revision of existing territorial boundaries.16
3. Russia's Strategic Objectives

Russia’s Strategic Consensus

Russia has formed its strategy in response to activities of first two foreign ministers, Andrei Kozyrev and Yevgeni Primakov. Their example is rather negative, however. From the former, Russia learned how to not formulate its international objectives, and from the latter how to not allocate resources for meeting the objectives. Soon after his appointment, Primakov proclaimed the objective of returning to world politics as an independent power thereby ending the era of Kozyrev's infatuation with the West at the expense of Russia's national interests. However, Primakov's means of achieving the proclaimed goals proved unnecessary costly, and the Kremlin soon had to devise a less expensive strategy of defending the country's interests.

By the time of arrival of Putin, Russia's political class had already formed a consensus regarding the country's grand strategy. The consensus included two central definitions of Russia's international objectives – the preservation of global influence as an independent power and dominance in the former Soviet region. It also assumed that Russia must be "pragmatic" in devoting the country's scarce resources to those objectives. Global influence was to be exercised via Russia's diplomatic activism and institutional visibility, rather than the projection of material power. Regional dominance was also viewed by the Kremlin in soft power terms, rather than as imperial control over its neighbors' domestic and international priorities. The Kremlin assumed that Russia would have sufficient economic, diplomatic, institutional and cultural capacity to regionally negotiate the preferred international postures of the former Soviet states. Yet Russia was to limit economic subsidies and military activities abroad and to rely mainly on market-based tools of international influence.17 Through diplomatic activism and economic means, the global and regional components were supposed to reinforce each other, moving Russia on the path of becoming an independent center of power and influence in the world.

The foreign policy consensus regarding Russia's key goals and means has not been principally challenged since 1999. Politicians and pundits debate the country's priority relations with Europe, China, the United States, or the states in Eurasia, but they rarely question the value of reviving global influence and doing so in pragmatic ("nezatratnyi") way. The former liberal Westernizers and supporters of Andrei Kozyrev's course have long migrated into the camp of Statists or those defending Russia's global independence, rather than integration with Western institutions and policy priorities. For quite some time, the latter choice has been advocated only by marginalized politicians, like Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemstov. Statists value stronger relationships with Europe or the United States but not at the expense of Russia’s ability to act independently and develop ties with non-Western countries. In Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s terms, solutions for Russia should come from “network diplomacy rather than entangling military-political alliances with their burdensome rigid commitments.”18

Putin and Medvedev: Differences of Emphasis

A product of the broad political consensus, Russia's grand strategy cuts across various administrations and groups within the ruling establishment. Putin and his successor Medvedev diverge in emphasis and style, but they share the principal elements of the above-articulated strategy. After his speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, Putin frequently demonstrated an aggressive rhetorical style in relations with the United States. Scholars also noted his skepticism regarding the Barak Obama-initiated “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations as well as Putin’s hesitation regarding support for a new strategic arms accord and sanctions against Iran.19 In one interview, for example, he stated that the bases for his skepticism include the United States’ continuous “re-arming” of Georgia and its unchanged intent to deploy elements of a Missile Defense System in Europe.20

For his turn, Medvedev has demonstrated a softer style, with an emphasis on the importance of improving relations with the Western nations. He has established a good rapport with Obama and cooperated with the United States on Iran and the new nuclear treaty. Medvedev has also avoided tough language and worked on improving the image of Russia in Western business circles. In his address to the Federation Council in November 2009, Medvedev insisted that the effectiveness of foreign policy must be "judged by a simple criterion: Does it improve living standards in our country?"21 In June 2010, he traveled to the United States in part to facilitate investments and cooperation in the information technology sector, and in his meeting with Russia’s ambassadors in July 2010, Medvedev further highlighted the need to establish “modernization alliances” with the United States and other Western nations.22

These differences of style and emphasis do not undermine the established strategic consensus. Both leaders are not satisfied with the currently “unipolar” structure of the international system that diminishes Russia’s global influence. Both seek to position their country for a successful competition in the world economy, including by capitalizing on Russia’s rich energy reserves. Both remain pragmatically focused on exploiting opportunities outside the West and are eager to build flexible coalitions to promote Russia’s global interests. Finally, both are on record for defending Russia’s right to “privileged interests” in the former Soviet region and are unapologetic about recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after the August 2008 war with Georgia.

Key Official Documents

The relevant official documents also emphasize the need for Russia to preserve global influence and play the role of an important regional center, but only by “pragmatic” means. Ever since Putin’s arrival to power, the definition of international objectives has shifted from attempting to balance the West toward exploiting it to Russia’s advantage. Russia seeks more actively to shape the world’s political and economic system and be recognized in such efforts by the Western nations. The thinking indicates an important change since the 2000 Foreign Policy Concept, which explicitly warned of a threat of “a unipolar structure of the world under the economic and military domination of the United States.”23

The Foreign Ministry report “A Review of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy” of 2007 embraces the objective of multi-polarity based on “a more equitable distribution of resources for influence and economic growth,”24 and presents Russia as ready to actively shape international relations. However, the report is not anti-American and defends the notion of collective leadership and multilateral diplomacy in international relations. In the same spirit, the National Security Strategy of 2008 states that Russia continues to aspire to “defend national interests as a subject of multipolar international relations,”25 but refrains from identifying the “unipolar” structure of the world as a key threat to Russia. Similarly, the Military Doctrine of 2010 identifies NATO enlargement as an external danger (opasnost’), but not as a threat (ugroza). Commentators interpreted this as indicative that Russia was afraid not of being attacked by the Western alliance, but of not participating in a NATO-centric system of European security.26

Over time, Russia’s strategy has been increasingly influenced by economic considerations reflecting Putin’s understanding of the contemporary world expressed in the early years of his presidency: “The norm of the international community and the modern world is a tough competition—for markets, investments, political, and economic influence.”27 As it is evident from the 2008 National Security Strategy, Russia seeks to obtain a greater influence by becoming one of the world’s largest economies and liberating itself of excessive dependence on exports of oil by 2020.28 The 2008 Foreign Policy Concept further recommends that Russia remain true to a “balanced multi-vector approach” in the light of the Western gradual departure from the world’s economic center.29 The Foreign Ministry document prepared for the President in February 2010 also seeks to strengthen Russia’s economic position.30 By reflecting the realities of the global financial crisis, the document builds on Medvedev’s notion of “modernization alliances” and provides detailed recommendations for attracting Western investments and creating favorable conditions for Russia’s technological modernization. Rather than being a deviation from the described strategic consensus, the document is a time-specific reflection of it.

4. The Toolkit of Russia's Foreign Policy

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s foreign policy capabilities declined so much that some scholars assumed the country’s irrelevance and inability to “make it,” with Western help or without it.”31 Russia lost one sixth of its territory, its economy shrank by some 50% and the state was divided by powerful individuals practically losing the ability to govern. By the mid-2000s, however, Russia demonstrated an internal recovery and the intent to have a coherent external policy. The tools of such policy include energy, military power, diplomacy, cultural/historical capital, and technological expertise. Within a predicable geopolitical environment these tools may be sufficient for carrying out Russia’s generally defensive strategy of preserving international influence.


Energy is a tool of domestic modernization and international influence. In addition to developing nuclear energy, Russia is an important oil and gas producer, preserving its status as a major transit country through which to carry energy from the Caucasus and Central Asia to Europe. With 13% of the world’s known oil reserves and 34% of its gas reserves,32 Russia remains set to play a key role in the world’s energy markets. Russia's main markets are in Europe, and European countries are expected to considerably increase its consumption of national gas over time. According to estimates of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Russian gas will account for about 33-34% of European demand compared with the current 25%.33 Although the dependence on energy production for growth is a problem, Russia can hardly afford not to rely on exports of raw materials in its modernization strategy.34 If global demand for energy continues to be high, then in the mid-term perspective Russia should again be able to take advantage of the situation if it is successful in developing its own reserves. Outside European markets, Moscow hardly has a choice of not developing its capacity as a global middleman by coordinating its production with other key energy producers and offering its expertise in building energy infrastructure across the world. With such capacity also comes influence in Asia, the Muslim world and the former Soviet region.


A key advantage for Russia remains the absence of a major war that would most certainly derail its defensive security orientation. NATO and a rising China are only hypothetical threats to Russia, and they may become real only with time’s passage and only if the sides mismanage their relationships. The threat of terrorism and political instability in the regions adjacent to Russia and the former Soviet world – Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and the Middle East – is serious, but manageable with the involvement of other powers in the region and without having to invest new massive resources to address the problem. As the August 2008 conflict in the Caucasus has demonstrated, the Russian military, even while suffering from corruption and poor training,35 can still be effective. The Russian army needs to be reformed and adequately funded, but it may not require a major rearmament program. Contemporary Russia is driven by considerations of military sufficiency, and it is no longer committed to the Soviet-like objectives of achieving parity with Western armies.36 If the economy grows at a relatively fast rate, a relatively low level of military spending, about 3% of GDP may be sufficient for modernizing much of the military equipment.37

Diplomacy and International Organizations

Russia continues to possess important diplomatic resources which it has already used effectively to resolve several violent conflicts in the region, such as those in Tajikistan and Moldova in the 1990s.38 Apart from the Caucasus and the issue of terrorism, Russia is not likely to rely on coercive tools without appropriate diplomatic preparations. Globally, Russia seeks to position itself as a maker of new rules, articulate its concerns using its membership within existing international organizations, and develop flexible coalitions. Over time, it may seek to devise collective security systems in both Europe and Eurasia. In the former Soviet region, Russia may continue to build on the examples of its cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Unable on its own to effectively respond to security challenges from NATO, Russia is likely to continue to exploit non-Western institutional vehicles, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and develop soft alliances with selected European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy, as well as China and Iran. On the other hand, in response to China’s rise, Russia will also continue to build ties with the European Union, the US, India, South Korea and Japan. Medvedev’s proposal of a pan-European treaty to establish a new security architecture, in which Russia would become a fully-fledged participant, may be also viewed as in this context of flexible coalition tactics.

Cultural and Historical Capital

Russia possesses an incomparable historical experience and cultural capital for pacifying the volatile territories from in the former Soviet area. The nations of Eurasia go back centuries and have developed similar cultural experiences. During the Soviet era, they shared external borders, fought the same enemies, and were subject to similar linguistic and cultural policies. Russia’s soft power potential in the former Soviet world remains important and includes the attractiveness of its economy, historical, linguistic and cultural ties, as well as educational and technological products, such as software and DVDs.39 In addition, Russia serves as a state-building example. Although it is in no position to offer viable competition to the United States’ liberal democratic ideas, Russia has been perceived by many as generally successful in accomplishing other state-building tasks, such as providing citizens with order, basic social services and protection against external threats. This explains why ordinary people and many politicians from Central Asia to Ukraine have often rated Russia’s current leaders higher than their own.40 Even outside the former Soviet region, the influence of Russia’s state-building experience is considerable. For instance, the report by the European Council on Foreign Relations provides evidence of Russia and China’s ability to attract votes at the United Nations. The report notes that since the late 1990s, support for Russian positions has risen from around 50% to 76% today, while support for the EU and US fell from over 70% and 75% to around 50% and a mere 30%, respectively.41

Technological Expertise

Although Russia has much to learn from advanced countries in the area of technology, the country also has some comparative advantages. During the Soviet period, Russia was known for the quality of its energy expertise and military equipment. It continues to sell expertise abroad in energy infrastructure and weapons, in part to raise revenue for domestic modernization.42 Russia’s departments of mathematics and computer science continue to supply programmers across the world.43 Russia’s future is in reviving the education system that had made these achievements possible. An educated labor force is a critical advantage in the global technological age, and the state can make an important difference by re-training labor and investing in reforming the country’s half-functioning education and health care systems.

5. The Preliminary Record

Russia’s record of acting on its strategic consensus is a mixed one. Since the 1990s, the country has gained a greater confidence and developed important attributes of an influential power. Global activism has served the country well by assisting it in solving some important regional tasks, which, in turn, have helped to improve Russia’s global standing. However, the country has not become and is not in a position to become a rising power relative to growing expansion of the Western and Chinese influences in Eurasia.

Regional Influence

Russia’s record of influence in the former Soviet region has been that of steady growth relative to the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. During the 1990s, Russia tried to retreat from the region, only to realize the impossibility of breaking away from the ex-republics. After misguided attempts to re-integrate the region around Russia by using the tool of generous financial subsidies, the Kremlin finally abandoned reintegration as an important priority. Not in the position to become the center of regional integration, Russia instead emphasized “pragmatic” bilateral ties and issue-specific multilateral contacts. By capitalizing on high oil prices, it strengthened its presence in neighboring economies; it demonstrated its military ability in the overwhelming defeat of Georgia, using several armored battalions, air power and marines. No less importantly, Russia contributed to reversing the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, which the Kremlin viewed as dangerous for Russia and destabilizing for the larger region.44 In both countries, anti-Kremlin governments were replaced with those in favor of strong ties with Russia.

The preservation of Russia’s influence in the region would have not come without the country’s attempts to act globally and win at least some support for its policies from established powers in the West and rising non-Western powers. For example, the Kremlin would not have been as successful in its offensive against the United States’ “unilateralism” were it not for France and Germany’s tacit support that had resulted from the three’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Were the two Western European states to support NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, it would have taken longer for the colored revolutions to run out of steam. In addition, Russia probably could not have been as successful in its war against Georgia were China to take a strong critical stance toward it. Although Beijing refused to endorse Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence, the Chinese informally supported Russia during the crisis in the Caucasus, and the issue has not complicated the two nations’ relations.45

However, Russia’s increased influence has not translated into stability in the region. The reversal of the colored revolutions has yet to bring more order to Eurasia. Evidence of instability has included the tense atmosphere in the Caucasus following the war with Georgia, renewed terrorist attacks, the persistent failure of Western forces to stabilize Afghanistan, the inability of Central Asian rulers to reign in local clans and drug lords, and the paralysis of legitimately elected bodies of power in Moldova and Ukraine.46 Despite the relative recovery of the economy, Russia could ill afford efforts to single-handedly stabilize and pacify the region. At best, the Kremlin could defend its core interests in regional settings and begin to escape the alternative of a declining security and truncated sovereignty. The global economic crisis has further revealed the tenuous nature of Russia’s regional influence and the remaining weaknesses of its power base. With GDP felling by around 9% in 2009, Russia was hit hard and had to spend a considerable portion of its reserves to bail out domestic enterprises and to scale down its activist foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.47

Preserved Global Influence

Globally, Russia’s influence is evident in growing ties with Western European nations, China and the Middle East. Relationships with Europe have been growing since the establishment of the coalition against the war in Iraq and Russia’s recovery as a leading energy supplier. The relationships have survived Russia’s heavy-handed approach in Chechnya, energy wars with Ukraine, and the August 2008 crisis in the Caucasus. Not only has Russia preserved the existing level of ties with France, Germany and other Western European nations, but Moscow has worked to strengthen these ties.48 European leaders reciprocated by proposing to establish the EU-Russia Political and Security Committee as an institution to consult on strategic issues on the continent.49 On the economic front, Russia-European ties were solidified via the construction of new strategic pipelines, like the North Stream, and the joint development of energy fields, such as Arctic oilfields.50 The United States’ attempts to “reset” relations with Moscow have further assisted the continuous development of EU-Russia ties.

Russia’s standing in the non-Western world has also improved. Moscow has played an important role in establishing international coalitions, such as the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China). The relations with China, Russia’s largest neighbor, have obtained a strategic dimension in the areas of commerce and regional security, and the two have demonstrated an increased convergence in perceiving global priorities and proposing solutions to existing issues in world politics. In September 2010, Russia completed an oil pipeline connecting to northeastern China, and two gas pipelines are planned.51 In the Middle East, Russia has worked to develop relations across the region, sustain its influence on Iran, and has considerably expanded ties with Turkey and Israel.52 Turkey has emerged as an especially important to Russia, with the two converging on perceptions of world order, developing ambitious energy plans, and cooperating on improving security in the Black Sea area.53

The increased global influence of Russia was greatly assisted by its domestic recovery and improved regional standing. Without the energy capabilities and readiness to defend its core security interests in Eurasia, Russia would not have been taken equally seriously by Western and non-Western powers. While Moscow’s heavy handed approach to political and energy disputes undermined its image of a status quo power and reliable energy supplier, it strengthened the perception of Russia as determined to be recognized in its international aspirations. Moscow’s active diplomacy also contributed to Russia’s success by often serving to soften tough policies and compensate for lacking material capabilities. For instance, after each crisis with neighbors, Russia was quick to do damage control in relations with larger powers. It is largely due to this active diplomacy that Russia has succeeded in not marginalizing itself from global politics, with all meaningful powers needing Russia for cooperation – the West for Afghanistan and Iran, China for energy and stability in Central Asia, and Turkey for economic and political security in the Caucasus.

Remaining Weaknesses54

While achievements of Russia’s strategy must be given their dues, the strategy of preserving regional and international influences continues to suffer from lagging internal capabilities and inability to explain its objectives abroad. Although the nation has become stronger and more confident since 2000, it is challenged by the growing international competition and domestic constraints on its development. It is catching up with some European economies, but is unable to narrow a widening gap with China and India. Although largely successful relative to the fifteen years of decline, Russia is only modestly successful relative to the rising challenges ahead. This pattern is noticeable in multiple areas of its development. Russia can report some successes in economic and military development, demographics,55 strengthening ties with neighbors, and fighting crime and corruption, but none of these successes warrants calling Russia a rising great power. In addition, the country has progressed in some areas, but continues to stagnate and fall behind in others. Russia has met some of its economic and security challenges, but it has also perpetuated an insufficiently diversified economic structure and weak social infrastructure.

Having recovered from the longest economic depression in its history, Russia now has a functioning economy and improved living standards. However, much of the recovery was due to high oil prices, which slowed down the government’s work to reduce reliance on energy exports. Russia’s overall growth during the seven years preceding the recent financial crisis was impressive, but its share of global GDP is a mere 2.3%, and will only rise to 3.5% by 2020.56 In terms of GDP size, Russia’s gap with the United States is not likely to be narrowed in any meaningful way, and will continue to widen relative to China and India (see Table 1). As far as Russia’s military expenditures are concerned, they have been growing by about one third each year,57 but are not matching those of China, France, and some other nations, not to mention the United States (see Table 2). Russian military doctrine acknowledges these defense limitations by allowing a limited use of nuclear weapons – a way of admitting the Kremlin’s unwillingness to embark on expensive programs of conventional weapons to reduce the gap with the United States and NATO.


Russia has an aging and rapidly declining population, which can only be reversed by massive state intervention and years of sustained economic growth. Russia’s indicators of life expectancy and infant mortality have been deteriorating since the late 1980s. These indicators have begun to improve since 2005, but only marginally so relative to the late 1980s.58 Similar dynamics of insufficient improvements can be demonstrated by referring to Russia’s human development index, which is yet to reach to the level of 1990 – in contrast to the steady improvement in neighboring Poland.

Another problem is the administrative weakness of the Russian state. Special interests are excessively important in the formation of official policies, including foreign policy. During the 1990s Russia was on the verge of becoming a failed state, and its current state is not sufficiently consolidated, lacking both the legitimacy and capacity to isolate pressures of special interests. Although Putin and Medvedev are popular with the general public, they have yet to translate their political capital into effective administrative reforms. For example, the available statistics indicate state weakness in curbing crime, corruption and suicides. In particular, the crime rate only began to decline in 2006 and remains high relative to the 1990s, let alone the 1980s. The government record of combating corruption also remains dismal, and corruption levels remain steadily high since the Soviet breakup.59

Finally, after the disintegration of the communist system, Russians live in an ideological vacuum, and the Kremlin has failed to develop the soft power component of its foreign policy. At home, Russians are beginning to revive their traditional moral and spiritual values. For example, the number of self-identified religious believers in Russia has grown three times since the early 1990s, the number of churches and monasteries has multiplied, and the Orthodox Church has been one of the most trusted institution in the country.60 However, the Kremlin is yet to articulate Russia’s values and translate them into a foreign policy capital. While claiming a moral ground for its international actions, Russia remains perceived by many in the world as a corrupt power with the ruling elite preoccupied with political survival and personal enrichment, not the advancement of national ideals. Phenomena of corruption, street crime, and violent ethno-nationalism continue to reflect Russia’s deep spiritual crisis and inability to offer attractive soft power projects for its neighbors.

Thus far, the state has abstained from attempting to articulate a response to the ideological and spiritual questions of our time, and the Kremlin has been more comfortable with describing Russia’s interests in terms of increasing the size of GDP and the middle class. Even in the regions not attracted to the Western soft power language – most prominently Central Asia and Belarus – the Kremlin has failed to propose an attractive strategic vision. Relying on traditional tools of buying political supporters and using coercion against opponents, while successful in some respects, cannot offer long-term solutions or substitute for a foreign policy philosophy. Criticism of the West’s double standards is also no substitute for Russia’s own consistency in defending its international objectives. Examples of such inconsistencies include recognizing the independence of Georgia’s breakaway provinces, but not Kosovo, or supporting friendly political forces in the former Soviet states, while attacking the United States for funding the colored revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

6. The Future of Russia’s Strategy

Future international challenges may make it more difficult for Russia to preserve its successes and not to descend into the ranks of a secondary power. These challenges include the continued Western expansion in the former Soviet region, the rise of China, and the volatility of world oil prices. Against Moscow’s wishes, Washington pursues military cooperation with Russia’s neighbors and works to undermine Russia’s energy influence in the region. China presents Russia with another challenge of progressive power differentials. As Russia continues to supply China with energy and weapons, and as China grows at a considerably higher rate than its northern neighbor, the risk of Moscow becoming a junior partner in a Beijing-led coalition increases. Finally, there is the challenge of oil markets, as Russia remains dependent on their stability for its continued modernization. In order to successfully meet these challenges, the Kremlin will have to improve domestic governance and seize new international opportunities.

Reviving the State Governance

Neither modernization, nor international strategy is possible without reviving the state ability to make decisions independently from pressures of special interest. The formally dualistic power structure, with Medvedev as President and Putin as Prime Minister, has done an important service to the country by integrating within the elite circles liberals, who place a greater emphasis on civil society and the rule of law, and conservatives, who are concerned with preserving stability, governance and independence. Nevertheless, the structure is also excessively dependent on personalities and needs to be reformed further to establish a reliable mechanism for the transfer of power. Only an administratively strong state can concentrate on solving Russia’s formidable demographic and institutional problems. Within the next five to ten years, the state must not only continue to conduct an active foreign policy, but facilitate reversal of the unfavorable demographic balance across regions and in the country as a whole, offer new programs for educating and re-training labor for the global technological age, and reform the country’s education and health care infrastructure. Although energy remains the country’s important comparative advantage, a realistic outlook requires that the Russia is more aggressive in investing in non-energy areas and human infrastructure.

Building Continental Alliance in Europe

A number of Russian statesmen, beginning with foreign ministers Nikolai de Giers and Alexander Gorchakov, have historically favored a strong continental alliance with France and Germany, viewed as essential for preserving peace and continuing with modernization at home. Although Russia has tragically failed to sustain their vision, history may be giving it another opportunity to build strong relations with European powers. Today Russia and the European states may be in a position to qualitatively strengthen their ties, assuming that the new continental alliance is not advanced at the expense of other important countries, such as the United States and China. In addition to continuing with strengthening economic and energy relations, Moscow should work to develop political and military relations with the two nations outside the NATO framework. The latter seeks to remain central to defining European security and is not likely to engage Russia as an equal participant.61 So long as this is the case, Russia is better off cooperating with France, Germany and other continental states on bilateral basis, as well as experimenting with new multilateral formats. The list of issues that Russia and Europe may try to tackle jointly includes the frozen conflicts in the Caucasus and Moldova, instability in Central Asia, and energy supplies.

Developing Special Ties with Non-Western States

It is equally important for Russia to continue to be active in developing ties with the non-Western states. In the context of the West’s relative decline, stronger economic and political ties with Iran, Turkey and Israel are essential for preserving influence in Europe and the former Soviet region. In addition to trying to establish a new collective security system in Europe, Russia should seek to devise a similar arrangement in Eurasia. Unable on its own to effectively respond to the activities of the United States and NATO, Russia may continue to exploit non-Western institutional vehicles, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and develop bilateral security ties with selected non-Western countries, such as China, Turkey, and Iran. Although China’s rise requires that Russia continue to build relations with other states in East Asia and beyond, it is critically important that Moscow not fall behind in strengthening ties with Beijing. An insufficiently engaged China is more likely to show expansionist tendencies than a China which is a participant of collective security arrangements with Russia, Europe and other powers.

Preserving a Definitive Voice in the Post-Soviet Region

The post-Cold War Russia seeks to act globally mainly to secure its status of a regional great power.62 It has no veto power in defining its neighbors’ foreign policies, but Russia also cannot feel secure surrounded by unfriendly countries and will seek to preserve a definitive voice in structuring the region’s security architecture. For example, if Georgia is not satisfied with the neutral status of Finland or Moldova, it faces the perspective of Russia’s permanent military presence on what Tbilisi sees as its legitimate ethno-territory. For the same strategic reasons, Russia is within its rights to monitor military build-up in China and, if necessary, strengthen Russia’s military presence in the Far Eastern region.

Although Russia is likely to act assertively in defending its core security interests, the key to regional influence is in mobilizing economic and cultural tools. Without trying to challenge other powers, Russia should offer a vision that is sensitive to its history and current tasks. For example, instead of challenging the notion of liberal democracy, Russia may contextualize it as a necessary, but insufficient condition of successful state-building. As some scholars have argued,63 development of democracy is a part, but hardly the center, of the state-building process. In addition to democracy, the government must provide its citizens with order, basic social services and protection against external threats. If such vision of a responsible state is formulated, it has an opportunity to be promoted abroad, especially among the nations that are solving similar state-building tasks. As Russia’s grand strategy partly depends on its acceptance by the outside world, it is imperative that Moscow continue to explain its objectives and the means of achieving them. With a clear vision and a confident moral authority, Russia is also less likely to rely on coercion and tough talk in defending its interests abroad.

Although Russia has completed the transition from communism and found a coherent international strategy, the future challenge is to assemble the will to act on it. Globally, Russia seeks to preserve and consolidate the successes it has already achieved. Improving economic and security standing by capitalizing on national energy reserves, integrating with the world economy and strengthening the military remain sound objectives. At home, a formerly “incomplete superpower”,64 Russia has much work ahead to become more “complete” by developing non-military aspects of its great power status – economic, demographic, institutional and cultural. The described conditions do not dictate the non-use of coercive tools, but they suggest a limited reliance on such tools without appropriate diplomatic preparations.

Table 1. Individual Countries’ Share of Total World Gross Domestic Product at Purchasing Power Parities*

*Purchasing Power Parities reflect changes in the country’s nominal exchange rate and the price level. Russia’s share is indicated with the thick dotted line
Source: IMF Data Mapper,

Table 2. Military Expenditures, Constant ( 2005 ) US$ million

*Russia’s share is indicated with the thick dotted line
Source: The SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,

1 Professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University. The paper was originally presented at an annual meeting of International Studies Association, New York, February 13-16, 2009. The paper’s discussant, William Wohlforth, and the panel’s participants provided helpful reactions. The paper also benefited from detailed comments of the three anonimous reviewers. For additional reactions to ideas contained in the paper, I would like to thank Nadezhda Arbatova, Aleksei Bogaturov, Andrei Kortunov, Fyodor Lukyanov, Sergei Medvedev, Tatyana Shakleyina, Valeri Solovei, Eduard Solovyev, Dmitri Trenin, Pavel Tsygankov, and Igor’ Zevelev. The responsibility for the article’s content remains entirely my own.

2 On soft power, see especially Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). Building on Nye’s work, I use a broader definition of soft power that combines internal aspects, such as national spirit and ideology, with external aspects that include political legitimacy, economic and cultural attractiveness. The latter can captured with the general concept of reputation and further promoted through public relations and propaganda campaigns.

3 Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York, 1986); John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

4 Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991); Richard Rosecrance and Arthur A. Stein, eds. The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

5 Peter J. Katzenstein, eds. The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996); Jeffrey W. Legro, Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

6 Celeste A. Wallander, “Russia: The Domestic Sources of a Less-then-a-Grand Strategy,” in Strategic Asia 2007-2008: Domestic Political Change and Grand Strategy, edited by Ashley J. Tellis and Michael Wills (The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2007), p. 140.

7 Ibid, p. 163.

8 Raja Menon and Alexander Motyl, “The Myth of Russian Resurgence,” The American Interest, 2, 4, March-April 2007, pp. 96-101. For an earlier argument about Russia’s chronic weakness, see William E. Odom, “Realism about Russia,” National Interest Fall 2001.

9 Vice President Joe Biden’s Interview to Peter Spiegel, Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2009. <> According to my interviews in Moscow in the summer 2010, a number of experts in Russian foreign policy community generally share Biden’s characterization and are skeptical regarding the Kremlin’s ability to have a grand strategy.

10 Richard Cheney, Vice President's Remarks at the 2006 Vilnius Conference The White House, Office of the Vice President, May 4, 2006, at <>; Ariel Cohen, “Domestic Factors Driving Russia’s Foreign Policy,” Heritage Foundation Policy Brief, November 2007; Janusz Bugajski, Dismantling the West: Russia's Atlantic Agenda (Potomac Books, 2009); Janusz Bugajski, “Russia’s Pragmatic Reimperialization,” Caucasus Review of International Affairs 4, 1, 2010; “Russia's Expanding Influence,”, 4 parts, March 9, 10, 11, 12, 2010.

11 For some examples, see Vladimir Ryzhkov, “A plea to save Russia from an enemy within,” Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2007; Garry Kasparov, “Don Putin,” Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2007; Garry Kasparov, “Our Struggle Against Tyranny in Russia,” Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2007; Oleg Kozlovsky, “Putin's Gulag Stability,” Washington Post, May 19, 2008; Lev Gudkov, Igor Klyamkin, Georgy Satarov, and Lilia Shevtsova, "False Choices For Russia", Washington Post, June 2009; Sergei Guriev and Aleh Tsyvinsky, “Modernization ­1937,” Moscow Times, November 25, 2009; Lilia Shevtsova, Lonely Power (Washington, DC: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010).

12 Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: The Future of Russia and the Threat to the West (London: Bloomsbury, 2009); David J. Kramer, “Medvedev Is No Democrat,” Moscow Times, July 26, 2010; “Oppression in modern Russia,” Editorial, Washington Post, August 30, 2010. For analysis of American phobias of Russia after the Cold War, see Andrei P. Tsygankov, Russophobia: Anti-Russian Lobby and American Foreign Policy (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

13 Edward Lucas, “Why kowtow to brutal, cynical Russia?” The Times, February 5, 2008.

14 Both Russian and Western analysts have speculated that the security class has become omnipresent in policy making. See, for example, O. Kryshtanovskaya and S. White, “Putin’s Militocracy,” Post-Soviet Affairs 19, 4, 2003; Daniel Treisman, “Putin’s Silovarchs,” Orbis, Winter 2007. For alternative perspectives on the objectives and the role of the security class, see Sharon Werning Rivera and David W. Rivera, “The Russian Elite under Putin: Militocratic or Bourgeois? Post-Soviet Affairs 22, 2, 2006 and Bettina Renz, “Putin’s Militocracy? An Alternative Interpretation of Siloviki in Russian Politics,” Europe-Asia Studies 58, 6, 2006.

15 For documentation of this change in Russian elite belief system see, for example, Leon Aron, “The Foreign Policy Doctrine of Postcommunist Russia and Its Domestic Context,” in: Russia’s New Foreign Policy, edited by Michael Mandelbaum (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998); Andrei P. Tsygankov, “Russia's International Assertiveness: What Does It Mean for the West?” Problems of Post-Communism 55, 1, 2008; Anne L. Clunan, The Social Construction of Russia's Resurgence: Aspirations, Identity, and Security Interests (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009); Dmitri Trenin, “Russia’s Spheres of Interest, not Influence,” The Washington Quarterly 32, 4, 2009.

16 For instance, according to a poll by VTsIOM (All-Russia Public Opinion Research Centre) taken on 14-15 August, 2010, 49% of Russians believe that main obstacle on the path to achieving the status of a great power is the lag behind leading countries in economic development versus 26% linking it to powerful Armed Forces and 7% to receiving control over the territories of the former USSR (“Russia must overcome lag in economic development to become great power – poll,” Interfax, October 12, 2010).

17 Such was the meaning of the "liberal empire" as Russia's key objective in the region introduced by Russia's former privatization tsar Anatoli Chubais' (see his “Missiya Rossiyi v XX veke [Russia’s mission in the 20th century],” Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 1, 2003), p. 1.

18 Interview of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs with the BBC Russian Service, April 23, 2009.

19 Dina Rome Spechler, “Russian Foreign Policy During the Putin Presidency: The Impact of Competing Approaches,” Problems of Post-Communism 57, 5, 2010, p. 46.

20 Vladimir Putin, “Dayu vam chestnoye partiynoye slovo [I give you my party word],” Kommersant, August 30, 2010.

21 Dmitri Medvedev, Poslaniye Federal’nomu Sobraniyu Rossiyskoi Federatsiyi [Address to Federation Council of the Russia’s Federation],, November 12, 2009.

22 Dmitri Medvedev, Speech at meeting with Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives in international organisations,, July 12, 2010.

23 Vneshnyaya politika i bezopasnost’ sovremennoi Rossiyi [Foreign policy and security of contemporary Russia], edited by Tatyana Shakleyina (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2002), vol. 4, pp. 110–11.

24 Obzor vneshnei politiki Rossiyskoi federatsiyi [Review of foreign policy of the Russia’s Federation], March 27, 2007
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