Russia is Not a Threat Akin to the Soviet Union, but Still a Formidable Power

Although not the superpower of Soviet times, Russia still must be dealt with as a great power.

August 1, 2017

By Keith Weber

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It has become commonplace to compare modern Russia with the Soviet Union, invoking the old Cold War to describe the latest hostilities between Russia and the West. While the ideological battle between communism and capitalism no longer exists, the current foes do possess fundamentally different visions of geopolitics. Indeed, Russia and the United States are in serious contention over world views.  For the United States to flourish and weather the storm in this new century of international relations, it must forgo old stereotypes to better understand modern Russia and its 21st century strategy.

Return to Traditional Geopolitics

First, Russia and the Soviet Union differ in regards to international politics. The Kremlin possesses far fewer allies and sympathetic nations abroad than the Soviet Union enjoyed. The USSR had true global ambitions and a host of friendly states across the globe–from Latin America and the Caribbean, to Africa and Asia.  

In contrast, today’s Russia has few formal commitments and, besides assisting and maintaining good relations with smaller states like Armenia or Tajikistan or internationally unrecognized republics like Abkhazia or the Donetsk People’s Republic, its reach is incomparable to that of the Soviet Union.

Second, President Vladimir Putin pursues an extremely practical, non-ideological, realist based foreign policy. This is one of the main reasons why Russia seems to have gotten the better of the U.S. in recent years. When asked by a Western journalist whether he (Putin) was a “friend” or “foe,” he was quoted as saying, “Relations between states are not built in quite the same manner as they are between people. I’m not your friend, I’m not your wife, I’m not your husband, I’m the President of the Russian Federation…146 million people who have certain national interests and my job is to protect those interests.”

Russia is not offering a new global construct or value system such as Marxist-Leninism, but rather a conservative vision of the world. The bent in Russian rhetoric and actions is mostly a useful tool for Moscow to resist attempts it perceives as undermining the sacred principle of national sovereignty.

Unlike the Soviet Union, which maintained a commitment to its ideology, Russia has changed the narrative on numerous occasions. For example, initially the official Kremlin line portrayed President Donald Trump as an aggressor, then as a potential beacon of hope for improved relations, and now as merely another typical politician. These shifts can be explained not by an overarching worldview, but Moscow’s own perception of its interests.

Since Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have pushed closer to Russia’s border, the Kremlin possesses a home-field advantage. It can pursue policies with its neighbors that are deemed existentially important yet extremely efficient in cost and tactics. Countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia will always be more important to Russia than the West due to proximity and national interest. Russia is willing to do what is perceived to be necessary to secure these buffers.  Will American soldiers be sent to die in Eastern Europe to fight a war with Russia over the sovereign integrity of Estonia or Ukraine? It is a safe assumption to say, despite rhetoric to the contrary, likely not.  

The End of History Mirage

The USSR spent exorbitant amounts of money providing large scale assistance to ideologically sympathetic allies across the world and investing in foreign military adventures in places such as Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan bled the country significantly of men and resources, and the entire ordeal was demoralizing for the Soviet population.

There is no doubt that President Putin and the many former Soviet officials throughout the Kremlin have learned from Afghanistan. This is manifestly so in their cost-effective strategy in Syria, in which they have expended virtually nothing, only lending power and cover to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through the air and launching missiles from the Caspian Sea.

Still, Moscow’s intervention has proved surprisingly powerful as Russia has dramatically changed the landscape of the war. Unlike the Soviet Union, President Putin attempts to foster workable relationships with all countries in the Middle East and Asia, regardless of internal political structures or relations. While the Soviet Union retained contentious relationships with Israel, the Gulf monarchies, India, China, Japan, etc., President Putin has restored those relations to create a de facto alliance with Beijing, a new dialogue with Tokyo, strong defense partnerships with places like India, Vietnam and Iran, while seeking to persuade other countries of its aim of providing balance and consistency in an unstable world.  

Russia’s economic situation has radically shifted as well. Western media often portrays Russia’s economy as extremely weak and teetering on the edge of collapse. On one hand, this treatment ignores the fact that in terms of GDP per capita, Russians are richer now than at any time during the Soviet Union, and the average Russian citizen has lived better under Putin’s leadership than during the tumultuous period of the 1990s. Meanwhile, at a macro-economic level, Russia has one of the smallest debt-to-GDP ratios of any industrialized country.

On the other hand, Russia is ranked as one of the worst nations for pensioners and its long-term economic projections are less optimistic as slow growth, the effects of sanctions and an undiversified economy present major structural changes. Despite these hurdles, Russia has carved a unique niche in international geopolitics and will continue to do so in the short-term; one, in which ideology is considered trite, and the “end of history” is believed to have been a mirage at best. The U.S. foreign policy community should understand that the world and, indeed, Russia has changed.

American policy towards Russia is mired in a formula which is still geared towards the hopeless and hapless Russia of the late 20th and early 21st century. Although not the superpower of Soviet times, Russia still must be dealt with as a great power force, and which to our chagrin, has nimbly transformed its internal ethos towards foreign policy, forsaking ideological purity and thereby simultaneously forging a more practically oriented approach to geopolitics. 

 


Keith Weber is a member of the 2016-2017 CGI Rising Experts Program and a graduate student at Georgetown University where he is pursuing a Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS), with a concentration in Global Politics and Security, and a Certificate in Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies. 

The Center on Global Interests does not take institutional positions. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of the affiliated institutions.

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