Russia's Intent

Russia's Intent

by Amit K. Chhabra and Brent Robinson

Russian foreign policy appears to be driven by offensive realism. Offensive realists believe that power maximization is central to ensuring security. Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a clear example of offensive realism. The pretenses—including alleged threats against ethnic Russians—belied Russia’s true intents: the projection of naval power; access to warm-water ports in Sevastopol, Crimea, and Syria; and pushing back against NATO.

Russian desperation for a warm-water port is borne of its geographic vulnerabilities. To the west, the North European Plain has served as the stage for many European invasions of Russia and remains Russia’s primary Achilles heel. The majority of Russians reside on the plains west of the Ural Mountains, so in order to limit NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its border (given NATO’s strategic depth, strong economies, institutions and military might), Russia desires a buffer zone to protect its exposed western flank. To the east, Vladivostok, Russia’s largest port, freezes during the winter and is encircled by Japan (a notable U.S. ally and member of the Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue). Also, with NATO’s domination of the Mediterranean Sea and Bosporus Strait, Russia’s ability to maneuver in the Black Sea and from ports in Syria is severely limited. The “GIUK gap,” traditionally used by NATO to hinder Russian access to the Atlantic Ocean, is currently being refurbished with the U.S. allocating USD 14.4 million to modernize Keflavik Air Station in Iceland. Thus, maritime access is a major strategic concern for Russia.

In the same vein, Russia’s latest national security strategy describes NATO as its primary—and most lethal—adversary. NATO, with a defense budget of USD 900 billion, dwarfs Russia’s USD 66.3 billion defense budget. To manage this imbalance, Russia is building 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles, eight Borei-class nuclear submarines, updating its Tupolev Tu-160 bombers, and is developing low-yield nuclear weapons while also attempting to update 70 percent of its military equipment by 2020. However, these expenditures may also cause long-term significant economic strain on ordinary Russians. Having faced Western sanctions, an aging population, and low oil prices over the past few years, Russia’s future economic power appears grim. The World Bank predicts that oil prices will increase to USD 66 per barrel for 2019, but it also predicts a nominal growth rate of 1.8 percent for Russia in the same year. Additionally, incomes have fallen since 2014 and the poverty rate remains at 14.4 percent. With FDI inflows currently at 1.5 percent of GDP, the global community appears skeptical of Russia’s prospects.

These challenges have created consternation in the Kremlin. Feeling encircled by a Western-led international order—which they see as inherently anti-Russian—Russian leaders appear determined to expand their sphere of influence and enhance their national security by adopting a policy of aggression on the international stage. The goal is to achieve a long-sought strategic aim: the ability to maintain its naval forces and to access global trade routes without concern for the seasonal freezing and thawing of ports in Russia proper.

Defensive realists, by contrast, assert that a power-maximizing hegemonic policy upsets fellow states’ security—and thus one’s own security—insofar as it generates power competitions that disturb the balance-of-power equilibrium. This perspective explains why Russia soft balances Western influence by remaining diplomatically active but keeps its hard balancing external adventures limited and selective.

Russia’s soft balancing efforts are aimed, in part, at providing it legitimacy as a great power. Indeed, Russia appears to prefer involvement through the United Nations except where it cannot achieve consensus. It regularly exercises its veto power at the UN Security Council on behalf of itself and allies and participates in economic development initiatives at the UN Development Program. Moreover, it leads mediation engagements, including with former Soviet satellite rival states Armenia and Azerbaijan as part of the Minsk Group’s efforts to resolve the status of Nagorno-Karabakh. To improve its reputation for goodwill—and, thus, legitimacy—Russia also hosted the 2018 World Cup and the recent 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

At the same time, Russia eschews most opportunities for unilateral involvement unless and until it can tilt a regional power balance to advance a core national security interest. It only acts where a “low-hanging fruit” can be gathered, i.e., where resistance is minimal as in Crimea. Moreover, the offensive realist/hegemonic view of Russian activity is confined to the former Soviet Union’s constituent states and vicinity (i.e., its own neighborhood). Throughout Russia’s history prior to as well as during the Cold War, the Soviets largely avoided acting directly outside of this zone except to encourage communism abroad, particularly in China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. An argument can be made—and Putin makes it—that Russia’s actions in its zone today merely reflect its diminished control over, and thereby less geostrategic access to resources in, its own former western frontier which broke away to find democracy and left behind a smaller buffer zone with Europe. Consistent with this perspective, we should expect to see Russia behaving in an isolationist fashion except in situations of vital strategic concern, which tend to be in its own neighborhood.

Is Russia indeed isolationist in its foreign policy? Freedom House seems to think so, continuing to list it as a Nation in Transit and ranking it as one of the world’s least-democratic countries with progressively lower annual scores on corruption, democratic governance, electoral process, civil society, an independent media, and judicial framework. It certainly feels “closed” in the sense that it reserves the option to exclude or pre-select its visitors by forbidding landing visas to U.S. passport-holders and other nationals. When attempting to spontaneously visit Moscow on a flight layover last year, the author found that Russia required advance visas; only China remains this restrictive. The next visit—including an expedition to the majestic Mount Elbrus—would need to be pre-booked and organized by a local travel agency that registers all activities with the government. This sounds a bit draconian, in contrast to Argentina’s relatively lax controls for prospects of Aconcagua.

Though the Russian Federation’s actions in Ukraine and Syria appear outrageous, if we see them through the lens of a former great power that is enamored with its own history and longs to return to greatness, we find ourselves faced with an irredentist.

To achieve a return to glory, Russia will try anything. It is thus undertaking the aforementioned initiatives to increase and project its power. However, it is carrying out these initiatives with the confidence of a former superpower, and attempting to select low-resource, high-impact actions to heighten its threat perception to Western powers.

At the same time, Russia is internally balancing to maximize its own resource-extraction potential. As discussed above, annexing Crimea represents Russia’s efforts to safeguard its energy security by accessing Sevastopol to access oil reserves in the Black Sea. Historically, the Soviets had such access when Ukraine was a constituent socialist republic. If Russia can successfully regain access, it will reap the benefits of full occupation without the obligations of governance and administration. Similarly, Russia desires to gain access to Mediterranean trade routes via its Syrian intervention without a direct or lasting investment in the continued administration of the Syrian state. Russia has also attempted to internally balance by opening its financial markets to capitalism, hoping that the open market will lead to a more-robust economy. Its limited success is perhaps due to the effectiveness of Western sanctions.

These acts are consistent with defensive realist tenets to avoid power hegemonies that threaten the balance of power. Thus, Russia is staying in its own neighborhood, not attempting to annex former Soviet republics or spread its influence abroad in a hegemonic campaign for influence in the West. As it already has plenty of territory that it has not yet sought to fully exploit, it is not aiming to maximize territorial gain. Rather, Russia is attempting to selectively obtain access to energy resources and weaken its competitors, such as through a low-cost cyberwar against Western governments, including the United States. It is playing the same game, but slightly smarter in lieu of its limited resources.

From this perspective, the U.S. and Western allies should see Russia as a stabilizing influence that wants to reinvigorate its buffer zone with Europe.

Image: Russian Honor Guard at Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Courtesy of United States Navy / Wikimedia Commons


Amit K. Chhabra has lectured on International Law and Security subjects since 2012, including geopolitics, sanctions, national security and international law. His articles have appeared in the Fordham Law Review, University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law, Boston University International Law Journal, Foreign Policy Journal and The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. He obtained his law degree from the University of Notre Dame and his bachelor’s degree in History from Cornell University. He lives and practices law in New York City.

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Brent Robinson is an international risk analyst at a major financial institution. He holds a master of international policy and practice from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, a master of laws degree from New York Law School and a bachelor of laws degree from the University of Kent in England. Brent resides in New York City and writes about international politics and business on his website

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