What Russia Wants

From Gorbachev to Yeltsin to Putin, every new Russian president has drastically altered his country's relationship with the world. How will President Dmitry Medvedev change it again? Here are the clues that reveal what the Kremlin is thinking, and, more importantly, what it really wants.

This much we know: In the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has transformed itself from a one-party state into a one-pipeline state — a semiauthoritarian regime in democratic clothing. At the same time, Russia has grown increasingly independent and unpredictable on the international political scene. And now that Vladimir Putin has successfully installed his handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, he is nowhere near relinquishing his grip on power. Putin’s foreign policy is here to stay.

But there’s so much we can’t know about the direction Russia is heading. It is, at once, a regime that offers its citizens consumer rights but not political freedoms, state sovereignty but not individual autonomy, a market economy but not genuine democracy. It is both a rising global power and a weak state with corrupt and inefficient institutions. The Kremlin’s regime seems both rock solid and extremely vulnerable, simultaneously authoritarian and wildly popular. Although Russia’s economy has performed well in the past 10 years, it is more dependent on the production and export of natural resources today than it was during Soviet times. Its foreign policy is no less puzzling. Russia may be more democratic today, but it is less predictable and reliable as a world player than was the Soviet Union. The more capitalist and Westernized Russia becomes, the more anti-Western its policies seem. The more successful Russia’s foreign policy looks, the more unclear its goals appear.

Russia’s contradictory development has succeeded once again in capturing the world’s political imagination. Putin’s tenure has left most people confused about what role Russia now wants to play in the world. In recent years, for example, Moscow has orchestrated a noisy and confrontational return to the international scene. It decided not to cooperate with the West in taming Iran’s nuclear ambitions or in settling the final status of Kosovo. Last year, the Kremlin unilaterally suspended the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. It blocked the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Gazprom, Russia’s gas monopoly, aggressively tries to control the energy supply throughout the region. The country’s military budget has increased sixfold since 2000. Russian planes are patrolling the Atlantic. Moscow’s intelligence network is creeping into all corners of Europe. Not since the hottest days of the Cold War have so many wondered just what was going on behind the Kremlin’s closed doors.


Some look at Russia and see a wounded enemy readying itself for another round. They interpret Moscow’s new assertiveness as a simple overreaction to the humiliation of the 1990s. These realists are quick to blame NATO expansion and Western triumphalism after the Soviet collapse for the direction of Russia’s current foreign policy. What Moscow learned in its "decade of humiliation" is that the West respects strength, not shared values. On the other hand, the liberals who shaped the West’s policies toward Russia in the 1990s are not in a self-critical mood. They tend to believe that Putin’s foreign policy is simply a new incarnation of Moscow’s traditional imperial policies. Plus, though they may concede that the West has lost some of its ability to shape Russian politics, they insist that the West can still focus on the rule of law — if not full democracy. In their view, Russia’s gains in the international arena are temporary and the Putin miracle is a mirage. In short, even the experts are far from unanimous in divining the motives of Russia’s recent turn.

It would be easy to assume Russia is simply grasping power for power’s sake, or to conclude that just as "there are no ex-KGB officers," there are also no ex-imperial powers. But to understand why the Kremlin acts the way it does, one must first recognize how haunted it is by uncertainty and paranoia. How Russia thinks is closely linked to how Russia’s political elites feel. Moscow’s current strategy is not merely a reflection of its new economic power or a geopolitical change. It is the expression of the traumatic experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the omnipresent political vulnerability of the current regime.

In effect, Russian foreign policy is held hostage by the sense of fragility that marked the Russian experience of the 1990s. It explains Moscow’s preference for the pre-World War II international order based on unrestricted sovereignty and sphere-of-influence politics. It explains Russia’s open resistance to American hegemony and its opposition to the postmodern European order promoted by the European Union (EU). The EU, with its emphasis on human rights and openness, threatens the Kremlin’s monopoly on power. The West’s policy of democracy promotion awakens in Moscow the nightmare of ethnic and religious politics and the threat of the territorial disintegration of the Russian Federation. Russia feels threatened by the invasion of Western-funded nongovernmental organizations, and the Kremlin is tempted to re-create the police state to prevent foreign interference in its domestic politics. The recent "color" revolutions that shook the post-Soviet space embodied the ultimate threat for Russia: popular revolt orchestrated by remote control. Moscow is in an elusive quest for absolute stability.

Putin’s foreign policy — and, by extension, Medvedev’s — rests on two key assumptions and one strategic calculation. It assumes the United States is facing a collapse that is not much different from the collapse of Soviet power. It also assumes that the EU — despite being, in Russia’s view, a temporary phenomenon — is a threat to the Russian regime by its very existence as a postmodern empire. The calculation is that the next decade presents a strategic window of opportunity for Russia to position itself as a great power in the emerging multipolar world while also securing the legitimacy of the regime, even if that means following a more assertive and confrontational foreign policy.

Unlike China, where the consensus these days is that world order does not collapse over a weekend and that betting on America’s decline is a risky gamble, Russia demonstrates complete confidence in the end of American hegemony. Russian elites are tempted to view the crisis of America’s global power as a replay of the crisis of Soviet power in the 1980s. Moscow looks at the United States’ debacle in Iraq and sees its own failure in Afghanistan. It views the United States’ conflicts with the EU as proof of the dismantling of the informal American empire. In this sense, when Jacques Chirac openly questioned the wisdom of American leadership in the lead-up to the war in Iraq, Russians saw echoes of Lech Walesa’s defiance of the Soviet Union at Gdansk. Moscow’s policies, in other words, are informed by the assumption that great powers are less stable than they look and their positions are more vulnerable than classical balance-of-power analysis suggests.


Of course, none of these calculations is necessarily comforting to a United States that views itself as the world’s preeminent political, economic, and military power, or an EU that sees strength in unity and integration. Russia’s resurgence comes at a time when the global hegemony of the United States is in decline and the EU is suffering a profound crisis of self-confidence. Russia’s revisionism threatens the very nature of this existing international order. The paradox is that, faced with new Russian revisionism, the West is becoming nostalgic for the old Soviet Union. Even as a longing for a familiar foe has dramatically declined among the Russian public, it is on the rise in Western capitals. In the words of one senior French diplomat, "The Soviet Union was easier to deal with than Russia is today. Sometimes the Soviets were difficult, but you knew they were being obstructive in order to achieve an objective. Now, Russia seeks to block the West systematically on every subject, apparently without purpose." In other words, Russia is not simply a revisionist power — it is something potentially more dangerous: a spoiler at large. The Kremlin’s recent actions easily fit this threatening image. In reality, though, Russia is not a spoiler so much as it likes to be viewed as one. Where the West seeks to find aggressiveness and imperial tendencies, it will find uncertainty and vulnerability. Demonizing Russia won’t help — pitying it won’t help either.

In 10 years’ time, Russia will not be a failed state. But neither will it be a mature democracy. Russian foreign policy will remain independent — one that promotes Russia’s great-power status in a multipolar world. It will be selectively confrontational. Russia will remain more integrated in the world than it has ever been in its history, and it will remain as suspicious as ever. At base, the Kremlin’s strategic dilemma is how to remain integrated in the world while also making the country impervious to political influence from abroad. Russia is a rising global power but also a declining state. The key to understanding the Kremlin’s foreign-policy thinking is that simple — and that complicated.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.

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