Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Is Russia's Bark Worse Than Its Bite?: A Concise Look at Russia's International Clout

Between the recent hosting of the Olympics in Sochi and Russian troops lining up on the Crimean border, Russia has been making the news. Even so, there is still the question of how much of a role Russia plays in the international sphere. Granted, Russia is not the power that was competing with the United States for world hegemony after World War II. Russia has at least enough resilience and power to not be sucked into the European Union (EU) and to not have foreign influences sway domestic policy, but is that enough? This is not a question of whether Russia has any sway in the international community, but rather determining just how much.

One of the largest factors that makes Russia a world player is its nuclear arsenal. Russia has the capability of taking out the United States within the blink of an eye. If there is any hope of making sure there is no nuclear war or if to proliferate nuclear disarmament (e.g., START), Russia is going to be a key player.

In addition to the Chechen Wars and the Russo-Georgian War, Russia recently decided to militarily intervene in Ukraine because of the civil strife going on there. The European Union (EU) is not thrilled with Russia's actions, which is why they imposed sanctions on Russia. It's nice to see the EU take some action, but I have skepticism as to the impact that economic sanctions will have. Russia also has permanent veto power on the United Nations Security Council, which it threatened to use for sanctions on Syria. Russia is even trying to strengthen its rapport with Latin America to expand its military influence, as well as buddy up with China. Nevertheless, there have generally been less international conflicts since the end of the Cold War, so it should not be a surprise that Russia is not exerting as excessive of military might as one would expect.

These days, it's more about soft power than flexing one's muscles by starting proxy wars throughout the world. Russia is the world's largest producer of petroleum and the second largest producer of natural gas. Russia likes to use the carrot-and-stick method on former Soviet bloc members to get them to behave properly (Congressional Research Service, p. 41). The United States could export natural gas in retaliation to loosen Russia's grip, but that will depend on how much Obama wants to play hardball with Putin.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) points out in its recently published Article IV Consultation that Russia's economic growth is stagnating (p. 4-5), the cost of doing business there is high (p. 6), and Russia's financial sector is inefficient (p. 14). In spite of these problems, Russia is experiencing declining inflation, more flexible exchange rates, and an expansion of retail lending. Let's also not forget that Russia is a member of both the G-20 and G-8, as well as its recent ascension to the World Trade Organization. Russia might be dealing with economic issues, but it's still an economic powerhouse.

Although this is very condensed and by no means a complete analysis, what does this mean in the context of international affairs? Although Putin is attempting to revive the vestigial prestige of Mother Russia during the Cold War, odds are that he won't succeed. That ship has sailed, and the probability of Russia becoming a world superpower on par with America is next to nil. I think China would have a better chance of doing so. Nevertheless, Russia has enough militaristic and economic clout that Russia cannot be ignored. The fact that Russia can roll into Ukraine without any significant, adverse consequences should say something right there. Russia is a regional hegemony that exerts supraregional influence. Russia might not be the powerful nation it once was, but Russia's role as a sizable international player is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

1 comment:

  1. I have always had an ambivalent attitude towards Russia and the Russians. They seem to me to be a country and people half civilized and half barbarous: their Christianity is Orthodox, which allied them more to the Greek Empire of the East than the Roman Catholic West: major social developments like the abolishment of serfdom or even the Black Death occurred generations later in Russia. They are a huge country, which has all that land stretching towards Siberia and Central Asia, and were a world power. To me, they are IN Europe, but they are not fully OF Europe in the way that the West is, and they never have been. Fine libraries and a fine empire produced a fine material culture, but with appalling treatment of peasants and religious/ethnic minorities- only to have that culture be shot to tatters by generations of materially destitute atheist Communism.

    On the other hand, I can't forget that Russian troops broke the power of both Napoleon and the Nazis, so I am grateful to the Russians for that.

    But to me, this seems to be Russia's last gasp of imperial ambition: In fact, I have heard it said that "Russia with Ukraine is an empire; Russia without it is a country." Many educated Ukrainians and those in the cities speak only Russian and have received their entire education in that language: Ukrainian is spoken by rural people and is considered, by the Russified elites anyway, to be merely an inferior form of Russian. (It's not, but welcome to colonialism!) So, many Ukrainians, even those not of Russian extraction, feel a close attachment to Russia, and many do not. For instance, Jews in Ukraine tended to learn Russian and despise Ukrainian. But this is no different from the decision of Jews to learn the power language of elites everywhere, in preference to the local language: In Hapsburg Prague, Jews learned German, not Czech: in British India they learned English: in Romania they learned Hungarian, etc.

    I am worried that Russia, despite its economic powerhouse status, is overextending itself and indulging in jingoistic militarism at a time of widespread cultural, political and demographic decline for its nation and people: the last saber rattle before the death rattle, if you will. And I am especially worried about the anarchic consequences of a Russian implosion at this time. Far better to have stayed at home and allowed Ukrainians to make their own decision.