As an almost life-long Russophile — despite not remotely having any roots or personal connections to the country or its people — I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, society, history, and politics. For better or worse, few nations have had so much presence and influence on the world stage, and while my love of all things Russia certainly does not include its government or foreign policy, I recognize the importance of better understanding this still relevant — some say resurgent — global power.
Over at Foreign Affairs (one of my favorite international relations journals), Stephen Kotkin explores Russia’s long history of trying to achieve greatness, defined “by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities”. It is equal parts tragedy and glory, with every victory coming at great cost (the defeat of Napoleon and Nazi Germany), and every instance of power and global status being tenuous (the perennial political and economic stagnation of the Soviet period throughout the Cold War).
Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power. It lost the Crimean War of 1853–56, a defeat that ended the post-Napoleonic glow and forced a belated emancipation of the serfs. It lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, the first defeat of a European country by an Asian one in the modern era. It lost World War I, a defeat that caused the collapse of the imperial regime. And it lost the Cold War, a defeat that helped cause the collapse of the imperial regime’s Soviet successor.
Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most analysts had assumed that this pattern had ended for good in the 1990s, with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the arrival of competitive elections and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But the impetus behind Russian grand strategy had not changed. And over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the trend of relying on the state to manage the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow lost some two million square miles of sovereign territory—more than the equivalent of the entire European Union (1.7 million square miles) or India (1.3 million). Russia forfeited the share of Germany it had conquered in World War II and its other satellites in Eastern Europe—all of which are now inside the Western military alliance, along with some advanced former regions of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic states. Other former Soviet possessions, such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine, cooperate closely with the West on security matters. Notwithstanding the forcible annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and the de facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has had to retreat from most of Catherine the Great’s so-called New Russia, in the southern steppes, and from Transcaucasia. And apart from a few military bases, Russia is out of Central Asia, too.
Russia is still the largest country in the world, but it is much smaller than it was, and the extent of a country’s territory matters less for great-power status these days than economic dynamism and human capital—spheres in which Russia has also declined. Russian dollar-denominated GDP peaked in 2013 at slightly more than $2 trillion and has now dropped to about $1.2 trillion thanks to cratering oil prices and ruble exchange rates. To be sure, the contraction measured in purchasing power parity has been far less dramatic. But in comparative dollar-denominated terms, Russia’s economy amounts to a mere 1.5 percent of global GDP and is just one-15th the size of the U.S. economy. Russia also suffers the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt developed country in the world, and its resource-extracting, rent-seeking economic system has reached a dead end.
Needless to say, this erratic history of soaring highs and punishing lows, combined with the country’s inability to settle for less in terms of global status, accounts for its increasingly robust and aggressive demonstration of military and diplomatic power. It is a nation that is at once powerful and weak, proud and wounded, cynical and idealistic. And like all great powers, including the United States, Russia believes it has an indelible destiny and purpose for humanity.
Russians have always had an abiding sense of living in a providential country with a special mission—an attitude often traced to Byzantium, which Russia claims as an inheritance. In truth, most great powers have exhibited similar feelings. Both China and the United States have claimed a heavenly mandated exceptionalism, as did England and France throughout much of their histories. Germany and Japan had their exceptionalism bombed out of them. Russia’s is remarkably resilient. It has been expressed differently over time—the Third Rome, the pan-Slavic kingdom, the world headquarters of the Communist International. Today’s version involves Eurasianism, a movement launched among Russian émigrés in 1921 that imagined Russia as neither European nor Asian but a sui generis fusion.
The sense of having a special mission has contributed to Russia’s paucity of formal alliances and reluctance to join international bodies except as an exceptional or dominant member. It furnishes Russia’s people and leaders with pride, but it also fuels resentment toward the West for supposedly underappreciating Russia’s uniqueness and importance. Thus is psychological alienation added to the institutional divergence driven by relative economic backwardness. As a result, Russian governments have generally oscillated between seeking closer ties with the West and recoiling in fury at perceived slights, with neither tendency able to prevail permanently.
It is little wonder that Russia and the U.S. remain rivals, seeing as they each purport to represent an exceptional and universalist mandate to influence the world on its own terms. Few great powers ever emerged without some sense of grand purpose guiding them, real or imagined.
I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety, especially since Russia will likely remain a major force in international relations for decades to come — for better or worse.