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Leaders, Structural Conditions, and Russia's Foreign Policy*

Author: Rajan Menon, Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations, Lehigh University; Fellow, New America Foundation
Fall 2001


Rajan Menon
Monroe J. Rathbone Professor of International Relations,
Department of International Relations, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, New York
Published by ORBIS, Vol. 45 No. 4 (Fall, 2001)

*This essay, posted here with the permission of Elsevier Publishers, is the final manuscript sent by the author to the editors of ORBIS. Single copies of the article can be downloaded and printed only for the reader's personal research and study.

Americans’ propensity to see politics as an extension of personality is evident in our thinking on Russia, which exalts the importance of leaders, one-to-one relationships, trust, and communication. The erosion of Soviet institutions under Gorbachev and the failure of effective governing structures to take root in Russia under Yeltsin reinforced this perspective by making leaders loom large. Yet the wiser course is to understand and anticipate the foreign policy of a state by focusing on “structural conditions,” the strategic, economic, and demographic forces that are visible now and can, with reasonable confidence, be expected to frame the context of leaders’ decisions in the future.

Putin and the Paucity of Power

Unfortunately Vladimir Putin, young, energetic, and sober, and in these respects a stark contrast to his predecessor, feeds the national habit of personalizing politics. Putin is expected to produce big results, although there is disagreement about what precisely they will be. Some fear that he will throttle Russia’s fledgling democracy, stoke nationalism, and launch an anti-Western, even neo-imperial foreign policy. Others hope that his youth and forcefulness will energize slothful, sclerotic Russia so that order is created, taxes collected, and corruption curbed.

Whatever Putin’s designs, they cannot be abstracted from the structural conditions created by the legacies of the past and the context of the present. Consider, to begin with, his economic constraints. Russia’s GNP is less than that of the Netherlands’ ($395 billion vs. $403 billion) and its revenues are smaller than Florida’s ($41 million vs. $40 million).11 Moscow’s economic resources will increase if the impressive growth that Russia has experienced since 1999 persists. But there are good reasons to doubt that it will. The plummeting in the ruble’s value since 1998 has spurred growth by raising the prices of imports and increasing demand for domestically produced goods, but there may not be enough effective demand to sustain the expansion in a country where a third of all people live below the poverty line. Robust investment is critical for long-term increases in growth and productivity; without it, what is in effect an upturn fired by import substitution will stall. Yet very little foreign investment is coming into Russia, and most of it goes to greater Moscow and a few other areas. In 1999 inflows amounted to a mere $4 billion; on a per capita basis that is a tenth of what Hungary, which has a population less than one-tenth of Russia’s attracted. Per capita foreign investment from 1992-1998 was $108; by contrast Estonia received $1,134, Latvia, $705, Azerbaijan, $408, and Kazakhstan $325. Russia’s share of global foreign direct investment in 1998 amounted to 0.3 percent; Brazil’s by contrast was 3.8 percent. Portfolio investment, another indicator of investors’ confidence, shrank from $681 million in 1997 to $31 billion in 1999, although, with inflows amounting to $59 million during the first nine months of 2000, there was a limited recovery2 .

Anemic foreign investment has not been offset by strong internal investment despite the $60 billion trade surplus amassed in 2000 thanks to the devaluation of the ruble and high oil prices.3 Investment is critical to Russia’s economic recovery, not least because its infrastructure and capital stock, both civilian and military, needs to be modernized or replaced.4 But investment in critical sectors such as power generation and telecommunications is sluggish. And the larger view is scarcely more encouraging. Russia’s capital investment as a percentage of GNP was 11percent in 1998, in contrast to 30 percent for Hungary and 25 percent for Mexico.5 Capital flight, which Russian officials estimate is $18 billion and $20 billion a year, is partly to blame.6

Human capital, the second structural constraint, presents an even bleaker picture.7 Diseases and social ills are pervasive in Russia, with rising rates of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and hepatitis C; substance and alcohol abuse; and poverty and homelessness among children (only 5 to 25 percent of whom are born healthy) among the signs. The demographic consequence is a rise in mortality rates and a fall in the fertility rates, an imbalance that that reduces Russia’s population by 750,000 a year. If it continues, Russia’s current population of 145 million in could fall to 100 million by 2050 and the proportion of citizens in economically productive age groups will shrink while the segment that is retired and depends on social services will increase.8 These economic and social problems will hobble Russia in the Darwinian age of globalization, particularly if its windfall from oil exports and high economic growth rates prove short-lived.

Military power, long Russia’s strong suit, is also atrophying and is the third constraint. Simply put, the quality and quantity of force available to support Russia’s foreign policy will decrease dramatically. Again, the numbers are revealing. Russia’s armed forces numbered 2.8 million in 1992; by 1999, they were cut to 1.2 million, and in 2000, officials announced a reduction to 850 million by 2003. The military budget, $100 billion in the last year of the Soviet Union, is now $ 7.3 billion, roughly 2 percent of American military spending.9

It is sensible to cut defense spending and the size of the military and to transforming an unwieldy conscript army into a smaller, well-trained, modern force given Russia’s economic problems. But what is occurring is not well-conceived military reform but a downsizing driven by economic exigencies that resembles a collapse.10 Because of the lack of money only seven percent of the 900,000 men released from the military were retrained for civilian jobs.11 Nor has a smaller military improved life for those remaining in the ranks, particularly since until 2000 the bulk of spending for military procurement went to the nuclear forces. Russia’s armed forces have been weakened by shopworn material and reduced training exercises and, beyond this, are afflicted by a spreading rot. Alcoholism and brutal hazing, rampant in the Soviet army, have been joined by poverty, rising rates of suicide, drug abuse, and AIDS and tuberculosis.12 Poorly trained, poorly housed, and poorly paid, and poorly equipped, Russia’s soldiers are thoroughly demoralized. Skills and morale are at a nadir, and the mismatch between the size of the conventional forces and the defense budget is still too large for a turnaround. In a change of policy, it was announced in 2000 that strategic nuclear forces would be cut and their favored budgetary treatment redirected to conventional units.13 But this plan could fizzle if the war in Chechnya continues to swallow resources, oil prices fall, and Russia’s growth spurt fizzles. All three are distinct possibilities.

The war in Chechnya has exposed the plight of the Russian army. Contrary to official bravado, the “bandit formations,” Moscow’s dismissive term for Chechen fighters, remain strong. A small, but dispersed, battle-hardened, and motivated array, they continue to kill Russian soldiers (and officials of the pro-Russian Chechen government) using snipers, small-group ambushes, and concealed bombs. The innocuous, weary civilian by day becomes a lethal foe by night.14 By leveling Grozny, driving some 250,000 Chechens into neighboring Ingushetia (and turning others into internal refugees) Russia has assured Chechen fighters a steady supply of volunteers.

The Chechen government loyal to Moscow is seen as a collection of quislings and will collapse once Russia withdraws.15 But without a legitimate government that can govern Russia must wage an open-ended war, something it cannot afford to do. Already, contract soldiers (kontraktniki) lured by (relatively) high salaries are playing a much smaller role because there is no money to pay them, and Russia will have to rely even more on young, inexperienced, summarily trained conscripts. Moscow announced in 2000 that its forces would be reduced by 50 percent to 50,000, but only 5,000 had been withdrawn by May. Further reductions were suspended in the face of increased Chechen attacks.16 Even a smaller deployment will prove taxing if Chechnya has to be garrisoned for the long haul; pay, construction, and supplies for the war already consumed a sixth of the 2000 defense budget.17

Neither victory nor a negotiated settlement are in the offing. Withdrawal under these circumstances would bring disaster, and Russia’s leaders have staked too much on victory. The anti-Chechen wave that swept Russia after the mysterious bombings that preceded and facilitated the war helped Putin’s political ascent. A fiasco in Chechnya could be his undoing. Moreover, it could risk Russia hold over the entire North Caucasus, a fragile southern borderland rife with demographic pressures, poverty, unemployment, and conflicts among the bewildering array of nationalities over economic and political power, historiography, and the legitimacy of borders.18 The dogged anti-Russian nationalism evident in Chechnya does not exist elsewhere in the North Caucasus (their neighbors view the Chechens with more than a little ambivalence), but the region is explosive for these other reasons— and too important to abandon. It is a passageway for oil pipelines; through Dagestan, it gives Russia control over 70 percent of the Caspian Sea coast; and it is Russia’s gateway to the South Caucasus. The end of Russian control could have larger ramifications. Chechnya’s instability could infect Stavropol and Krasnodar to the north and even reshape politics in Bashkortostan and Tatarstan, two republics that sit astride the communication routes to Siberia and have Turkic Muslim titular nationalities. Although there are no strong secessionist movements in either place now, that could change if chaos in the North Caucasus casts doubt on the Russian Federation’s longevity.

To overcome the structural problems that encumber it Russia needs an effective state, one able to keep order, collect taxes, curb corruption, and implement reforms. But state building has historically been a protracted affair and will certainly not be completed in Russia over the next decade. Despite this, Russia will command attention because of its nuclear weapons; it will sit on the Security Council, attend the G-8 summits, and make diplomatic forays into the Middle East. Were it not for its nuclear arsenal, however, Russia would not receive the attention it does. With few other assets, it has a great power’s trappings, but few of its substantive attributes. Putin’s proclamations about reviving Russia’s greatness will merely highlight the gulf between aspirations and abilities in what is now a virtual power. The divorce between self-image and efficacy will produce an embittered nationalism marked by finger pointing, victimhood, conspiracy theories, and resentment. The harbingers are visible in Russians’ disillusionment and their government’s drive to bolster patriotism and reverence for the military and its “information security doctrine.”19

In Defense of State Interests

The intellectual fashion of stripping the state of purpose and reducing it to a farrago of contending cliques and cabals has made won followers among experts on Russia who, thanks to democratization, can dwell on the domestic sources of Russian foreign policy. Whether the results have been helpful is another matter give that statecraft in Russia is reduced to a directionless war among special interests. But however weak Russia state, it not a mere arena for competition. Nor are its interests either transitory or reflections of deeper power struggles. An obsession with the rivalries among institutions and groups must not obscure the strategic considerations that flow from history, geography, and the nature and extent of national power and set the context for means and ends. These will be Russia’s most important strategic goals over the next ten years:

  • Russia will maintain a strategic nuclear arsenal (land-, air-, and sea-based) that, while reduced drastically (to fewer than a thousand warheads by 2020) to lighten the economic burden, will suffice to allow retaliation against attacks and thus to deter them. Besides preventing nuclear attacks against Russia (a very unlikely eventuality), such forces will also serve to increase the risks that any state must assume in attacking the Russian homeland with non-nuclear forces. If Russia’s conventional military forces remain weak because of its economic problems, nuclear weapons will be relied on to thwart non-nuclear threats. Moscow’s renunciation of “no first use,” and explorations within the Russian strategic community exploration of ways in which nuclear weapons can, through selective, limited use, compensate for weak conventional forces is a bellwether. And it is a worrisome one: given Russia’s aging and poorly maintained nuclear arsenal. Beyond such operational tasks, nuclear weapons will be Russia’s ticket to major powers conclaves, thus serving a symbolic-political function.

  • Russia will continue resisting American plans to deploy national missile defenses (NMD) based on the assumption that NMD will degrade its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent and as a source of political leverage, the more so because economic pressures will require that it be cut drastically. Moreover, deploying an equivalent will entail heavy and prolonged economic burdens that Russia cannot sustain, and the costs will mount if American technological leaps render inexpensive Russian countermeasures infeasible or unreliable. Preoccupied by their country’s economic and technological decline, Russian leaders will resist what they see as an American gambit to start a military competition on a new, and to Russia unfavorable, front. Moscow’s opposition to NMD will also stem from the calculation that United States will intervene more freely in civil conflicts, including in areas of historic interest to Russia, if it worries less about nuclear escalation. The struggle against NMD and for an unmodified ABM Treaty will be waged in concert with China and by appealing to European and Japanese anxieties about “decoupling.” But Russia’s weakness and the continuing centrality of NATO for European security will frustrate Moscow’s efforts to use the NMD controversy between America and Europe. China, which does not depend on the US for its security and shares all of Russia’s concerns about NMD, will be the more reliable partner. Yet the fate of NMD— a possibility that has been elevated to the status of a practicable program— will be decided by its technological and economic feasibility and the composition of Congress, not by the resistance of a coalition orchestrated by Russia.

  • Russia’s conventional forces will be reduced below million because of economic pressures and restructured for post-Cold War missions. Their main responsibility will obviously be to deter, or failing that to repel, attacks on Russian territory, but they will be made smaller and lighter and trained and equipped for broader missions. These will include countering internal secessionist movements, peacekeeping, and coercive diplomacy and deployment abroad, particularly in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. Russia will make a virtue of necessity and reorient itself as a regional power; doctrines and forces related to the projection of power afar will be scrapped. Creating a new force to replace what is a pared-down version of the Red Army, which was trained and equipped for armored and aerial war in Europe, will require a reallocation of resources from nuclear to conventional forces, but even then a revamped military will be slow to emerge given Russia’s economic constraints. There will, in short, be a sizeable difference between the planned and the possible.

  • Russia will try to ensure that, at minimum, it remains a major power in the “near abroad.”20 This will involve efforts to prevent Turkey, Iran, China, the West, or Western multilateral organizations such as NATO from displacing it or acting in the face of its opposition in the other ex-Soviet republics. Russia will use various means to dissuade states in the near abroad from joining alignments or alliances that it deems unfriendly. It will sign bilateral security treaties (the one with Armenia is an example) and train, equip, and defend regimes against radical religious movements, a growing problem for the Central Asian states. A limited number of bases or installations in Central Asia and the South Caucasus will be maintained, principally to signal Russian interests and commitments to others states (such as Turkey). Russia will also forge multifaceted, though not multilateral, ties with the other states of the former Soviet Union. The political rationale of these will be to increase their stake in avoiding strategic choices that challenge Russian interests. To this end, Moscow will use their debts to Russia, their dependence on Russian energy, and their reliance on remittances from citizens working in Russia as coercive instruments.

  • Russia will gradually abandon a multilateral, CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States)-based strategy in favor of a nuanced bilateralism. The CIS has failed as Russia-led forum for interdependence in economic and security affairs; it is a talk shop— long on summits, banquets, and proclamation, short on implementation. The division between those members who oppose economic integration and collective defense will (Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan) and those who favor it (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) will only grow. Rivalries and disputes (between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) will doom efforts to move it from cacophony toward cohesion. That will spell the end of Russia’s grand but hollow multilateralism. It will be replaced by a bilateral strategy tailored to the circumstances of particular countries and supplemented by agreements with smaller groups of states that become feasible because they are more manageable and less alarming.

  • Russia will pursue a selective foreign policy outside the near abroad to align means and ends, focusing on the United States, Western Europe (and within it Britain and France, but particularly Germany), Iran, India, China, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea. Some countries— the United States and Germany are examples— will receive attention by virtue of their overall strategic weight, others (Iran, India, China, and Vietnam) because Russia has convergent interests with them against actual or potential adversaries and because they are major markets for Russian arms, and still others because they offer economic opportunities and assistance (Western Europe, South Korea).

  • Russian policy toward particular countries and regions— particularly the United States, Europe, China, and Japan— will be shaped by diverse motives, some incommensurable. This, rather than institutional rivalries, will be the main source of the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and contradictions. While Russia’s foreign policy will not be immune from domestic pressures, its cardinal features will emerge from the encounter between the Russian state, its available power, the nature of that power, and the wider strategic environment or, stated differently, by structural conditions.

The “Near Abroad”: History’s Legacies, Geography’s Realities

Russia will consistently oppose the “intrusion” of western— or what it views as western- dominated— security organizations into the former Soviet Union. Large countries regard contiguous zones in a near-proprietorial manner and seek empire or hegemony, and Russia will be no different. Although it will lack the intent, will, and means to resurrect empire— which is historically passé anyway— it will quite naturally resist what it sees as harmful trends in neighboring areas to which it is linked by geography, history, and culture. The character of Russia’s state will not alter this disposition. Russian elites, regardless of political inclination, believe that Russia should at least be primus inter pares in the near abroad.21 This consensus will mean continued opposition to NATO’s expansion, particularly its efforts to include Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states. The OSCE will be handled differently. It is not an alliance, and as a full-fledged member Russia can limit what it does and where it does it. Moscow will not welcome OSCE ventures in the post-Soviet space, but it will assent to them when it can shape the terms of engagement by withholding consent or through direct participation.

NATO will not admit Georgia and Ukraine (despite enthusiasm for admission in the former), and controversies over the alliance’s enlargement will center on the Baltic republics. Russia will intermittently raise the political temperature to hinder the incorporation of all, or at least some, of the Baltic states within NATO. Should that happen nevertheless, the effects will prove more atmospheric than substantive— angry words but no serious damage to the substance of Russia’s relations with the West. The first round of NATO expansion did not have the political consequences within Russia that many feared; Russians overwhelmingly opposed NATO enlargement, the event had little traction in Russian politics. This pattern will recur in the second round. Russia needs economic cooperation with the West and continuing progress in arms control. It will not risk these important transactions, though it will make the decisions on expansion as divisive within the alliance as possible.

The status of ethnic Russians in the near abroad will remain part of Russia’s political discourse given nationalism’s universal tribalistic allure and its usefulness to demagogues. This issue will discussed when Russia’s leaders meet their counterparts from the other ex-Soviet states, but it will not reach a boiling point. Ukraine and Kazakhstan have long borders with Russia and the largest Russian populations outside the Russian Federation. They have handled what could have been an explosive problem with wisdom and finesse precisely because of these geographical and demographic realities. There have no civil wars in either country, and Russia has not fostered separatist and irredentist movements. Nor are such dangers likely. The position of ethnic Russians has not been a dominant, let alone incendiary, element in Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s dealings with Russia. Part of the explanation lies in the cultural similarities between Russians and Ukrainians, the Russification of Kazakh elites, and the mellow nationalism that prevails in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The power of pragmatism accounts for the rest. From the outset, Ukraine and Kazakhstan understood that clashes with Russia over the treatment of their ethnic Russian populations would spell disaster. And Russia realized that it would pay a price in the West for brazen intervention; given the size of Ukraine and Kazakhstan that is a recipe for strategic indigestion in any event. These restraining conditions will remain resilient.

Controversies centering on the Russian diaspora have created more friction between Russia and the Baltic states (principally Latvia and Estonia) and will continue to do so. But the problem has been confined to the political sphere and has not assumed military proportions for several reasons. Russia’s leaders know that attempts to intimidate the Baltic states would mobilize anti-Russian sentiments in the West and strengthen support for bringing them into NATO. Conversely, the leaders of Estonia and Latvia realize that this delicate issue must be handled in ways that reconcile their projects for nation building with Russia’s interests. Russians in the Baltics countries have adjusted to irksome circumstances even when, as in the case of language and citizenship laws, they resent them. They know that they live better than their ethnic kin in the Russian Federation. This, to use Albert Hirshman’s formulation, inclines them to voice and, ultimately loyalty, not exit.22

The framework governing interactions between Russia and individual states in the near abroad is already in place and will not change over the next decade. Ukraine’s desultory economic reforms, limited economic ties with the West, fruitless quest for NATO membership, energy debt to Moscow (estimated at between $1.4 and $2 billion), and location will assure its continued and considerable dependence on Russia. Indeed, Russia will increase its economic presence in Ukraine by exchanging Ukraine’s energy debt for shares in its industries.23 Moscow’s planned natural gas pipeline from the Yamal peninsula to Germany via Belarus will diminish Ukraine’s bargaining power further by reducing both its significance as a corridor for Russian gas exports and the transit fees it receives.24 So will Ukraine’s failure to enter NATO. These asymmetries ensure that Russia will hold the upper hand on other issues, such as the terms of Ukraine’s lease of Sevastopol to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Georgia, too, will find that Russia is not a spent force, particularly because Tbilisi’s hopes for major economic and security ties with the West, let alone admission to NATO, will not be realized. Russia will continue to exert leverage over Georgia by fostering a no-war-no-peace environment in Abkhazia and North Ossetia, regions with which it has what amounts to a direct relationship. Moreover, though Russia agreed (at the November 1999 Istanbul OSCE summit) to relinquish the military bases at Vaziani and Gudauta, it retains two others in Akhalkalaki and Batumi.25 Georgian leaders worry about the loyalty of these areas, not least because Russian officers have established independent ties with local elites. Concern that a wholesale Russian departure from these regions would aggravate their tensions with Tbililsi is a major reason why Georgia did not press Russia to vacate all bases. Russia also holds economic cards. Georgia depends on Russia for natural gas and owes it $179 million for unpaid deliveries. To illustrate the political significance of this dependence Russia stopped supplies several times in late 1999. And this step was preceded by an imposition of temporary restrictions on Georgians— but tellingly not Abkhazians and North Ossetians— who had hitherto traveled to Russia to work under a CIS visa-free agreement.26

Oil revenues will provide Azerbaijan greater leeway. Yet, it too, must deal with Russia’s alliance with Armenia (symbolized by a defense treaty, arms sales, and military bases), which gives Moscow a decisive role in the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, one that goes far beyond its membership in the OSCE Minsk Group that is working for a solution. As in Abkhazia and North Ossetia a neither-peace-nor-war stalemate affords Russia leverage over both Azerbaijan and Armenia.27 Furthermore, Azerbaijan remains economically dependent on Russia despite its energy wealth. Half a million Azerbaijanis work in Russia, and their remittances are critical to a country plagued by high unemployment and widespread poverty; the significance of Russian warnings in 2000 that it would no longer automatically apply the visa-free regime to all states within the CIS was not been lost on Baku.28 Whether or not it follows through, Moscow made its point.

Russia’s record in the South Caucasus and Central Asia is often portrayed as a failure. In fact, it has done rather well— and with a weak hand. Russia’s alliance with Armenia defines and limits Azerbaijan’s strategic choices. No Georgian official takes seriously the proposition, which appears frequently in Western analysis, that Russia is a bumbling behemoth. Russian companies were included in the Caspian production sharing agreements (PSAs) not because of their technical expertise or wealth, but because Western oil executives appreciated Russia’s capacity to act as a spoiler. The government that rules Tajikistan survives because of Russian aid and military backing, and Moscow (along with Iran) was also the moving force behind the precarious peace accord of 1997. The fear of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, and of radical Islam in general, makes Central Asian states look to Russia as a necessary counterweight.29 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are particularly inclined to do so, but Uzbekistan, the Central Asian state most eager to reduce Russia’s influence, may be forced to rethink its choices, particularly if Islamist movements supported by Afghanistan become stronger and Washington’s unwillingness and Turkey’s inability to lend on-the-ground support against them become evident. In 2001 Uzbekistan agreed to trade natural gas for Russian weapons and its president, Islam Karimov, described Russia as “not only the guarantor of our security, but also a reliable strategic partner.”30 While Karimov has responded to the Islamist challenge by forging military ties with Turkey, these are revealing words from a leader prone to warn about the danger of Russian domination31.

Despite Russia’s weakness, it remains influential in Central Asia and the South Caucasus and will continue to do so. It no longer has an empire in these areas, but neither do competitors overshadow its opportunities and abilities. The United States will not guarantee the security of states in the South Caucasus and Central Asia that face insurgencies or lavish them with foreign aid: it lacks compelling reasons to assume such burdens. Neither Turkey (whose potential in these regions has been heralded) nor Iran has displaced Russia. There is no sign that China has set that as one of its priorities (although I argue below that it could eventually supplant Russia in Central Asia.).

The danger for Russia is not expulsion from Central Asia and the South Caucasus but entanglement. Over time, its strength will be sapped by conflicts that it is pulled into for fear that instability will spread if it desists. Yet the roots of upheaval there (particularly in Central Asia) will prove long and deep, and intervention will be fruitless— a fool’s errand that Russia’s citizenry resent because of the blood and treasure it consumes. But propinquity will make prudence difficult. Unlike the maritime empires that departed— voluntarily or under duress from nationalist movements— their empires and could do so, Russia is heir to the Romanov and Soviet continental empires and cannot follow their example. The lack of money and public support for a forward policy may force Russia to redraw its defense perimeter at the border with Kazakhstan and at the North Caucasus, if it retains that region, or in Stavropol and Krasnodar if it does not. But that retrenchment is not at hand.

Russia will find it progressively harder defend its interest in its southern environs at bearable cost. China, which has been willing to have Russia act as a stabilizer, will then reassess its strategy and assume commitments to maintain stability in Central Asia. Its economic stake there is growing, particularly in the energy sector, and it is increasingly concerned that Turkic nationalism emanating from Central Asia could strengthen Uighur separatism in Xinjiang. A Chinese advance will thus follow a Russian retreat from Central Asia. That will elicit countermoves by India, which now sees Central Asia as an extended economic and strategic sphere and also heighten competition between Iran and Turkey. Already weighed down by poverty, demographic pressures, and radical nationalist and religious movements, Central Asia will hardly benefit from becoming a venue for competition and conflict. The South Caucasus faces a similar future, although its mix of maladies and rivalries will be different. Russia is blamed for much that is bad in these regions. But its retreat will not improve their lot.

Asia: New Alignments, New Vulnerabilities

As the 21st century advances Russia will be on the wrong side of a major shift in the Eurasian balance of power, the acceleration of the already unfavorable trend in its standing with respect to China. This conclusion may appear incongruous given the much-vaunted “strategic partnership” that now binds Beijing and Moscow.32 Yet the hyperbole of Russia-China summits with their denunciation of unipolar (i.e., American-dominated ) world must not camouflage what is a marriage of convenience, one in which one partner increasingly holds the upper hand— something both realize.33 Russia needs hard currency (arms and energy account for most of its exports); China seeks modern weapons, which no state will give it in the quantity, and with the lethality, firepower, and range, that Russia will; both are multiethnic states battling separatism (Russia in Chechnya, China— to a far lesser degree— in Xinjiang); both oppose freewheeling humanitarian intervention (especially under American auspices) undertaken in the name of self-determination; both worry about the strategic and economic consequences of NMD; and both are ambivalent about globalization, which, despite its many attractions, is also seen as a species of Americanization.

No matter their current valence, these shared tactical interests will not produce durable strategic concord. A rising power, China already operates from a position of advantage against Russia. The margin will increase if its rate of economic growth proceeds apace. Modernization will increase amount and versatility of China’s power, including the capacity to make modern weapons. Its sense of vulnerability will diminish, and its confidence and ambitions will grow. Russia will have little of value to offer it— not capital, not technology, not strategic heft— apart from oil and gas from Siberia and the Russian Far East and it will become a weak northern neighbor. Russia’s vast Far East— rich in resources, poor in people, thinly defended, remote from the centers of Russian power west of the Urals— will slowly become part of an extended Chinese economic system or, in the worst case, metamorphose into a gaggle of statelets under Chinese suzerainty. The direction and speed of China’s transformation, the country’s sheer size, the demographic imbalance between its northeastern provinces (Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang, whose combined population is 129 million) and the Russian Far East (7 million inhabitants) will inexorably work against Russia, with China resorting not to force, but to a multifaceted, velvet hegemony. Nor will the troubled legacy of Russo-Chinese relations, which includes the annexation from China in the 1850s and 1860s— recent by Chinese conceptions of time— of lands that are now part of the Russian Far East, help matters. Eurasia’s balance of power will feature a Russia under China’s shadow, not a Russia in alignment with China.34 Prominent strategists have been explicit about this scenario in their debates over China’s future trajectory and its implications for Russia.35

Fortunately for Russia, two other states, India and Japan, are perturbed by China’s rise.36 Even more fortunately, both states— one a major technological power with the capacity to muster far greater military force than it does at present; the other potentially a great power— are located on its flanks. A coalition with them (an outright alliance will be unnecessary and provocative) will force China to spread its resources over three widely separated fronts, thus subjecting it to the classic encirclement maneuver, particularly if Vietnam joins the lineup.

The corollary of this prognosis is that Russia will maintain the Soviet-era alignment with India. It is held together by many common interests established during Soviet times and is not threatened by any disputes.37 And in what is a combination of commercial and strategic acumen, India is already the largest destination for Russian arms after China (Vietnam is a major recipient as well). Moscow will also change its approach toward Japan, abandoning what is a relic of the Cold War, but the change will be slow in coming for several reasons. The territorial dispute over the Northern Territories/South Kurils is one. A history of rivalry and conflict and the suspicion and contempt that divides Japanese and Russians is a second. The prerequisite that there be governments in Moscow and Tokyo at the same time that have the strength and legitimacy to embrace and sell to their citizens a solution in which both countries make big compromises is a third. That said, larger strategic variables, not the territorial dispute, will shape the Russia-Japan relationship. The extent of China’s power, how it uses its might (as a revisionist state, or as one that largely works within the existing order), and America’s role in the Asian balance of power that forms once Korea is unified are foremost among them.

The Russia-India-Japan-Vietnam coalition will be jell if China becomes both stronger and more alienated from the status quo and if the United States reduces its military presence in the North Pacific, whether by choice or out of necessity. In the division of labor, Japan and India will increase their naval forces, while Russia and Vietnam— in what will be an important but subordinate contribution— maintain forces on their border sufficient to necessitate a Chinese counter deployment that disperses its power across widely separate fronts. This military cooperation will be supplemented by a geoeconomics arrangement in which Russia supplies energy to India and Japan while they invest in Russia (and Vietnam) for pecuniary and strategic reasons. China and the quadripartite coalition will vie for the power and allegiance of a united Korea. Korea’s troubled history with Japan and the reality of its border with China— longer than the Russo-Korean border— will dispose it to lean toward China or attempt to squeeze benefits from its pivotal position.

The West: Attraction and Ambivalence

Russia’s future in the near abroad is one of eroding hegemony; in Asia it will face unfavorable balances of power. The outlook for its dealings with the West is unevenness and ambivalence. The unevenness will stem from converging and conflicting interests: Russia’s need for trade, investment, and arms control will necessitate cooperation, and the West will have economic and strategic reasons to reciprocate, but disputes over the size and actions of NATO, humanitarian intervention, globalization, “unipolarity,” and “rogue states” will limit, even imperil cooperation intermittently. And Russia’s failure to meet the West’s expectations and the West unwillingness to offer the degree of help Russians seek will make for disappointment and resentment on both sides.

The ambivalence arises from the pull of the past, Russia’s. In America enthusiasm abounds for a Russia that embraces democracy and markets and joins the Western community. And not a few Russians share this vision. But only by distorting Russia’s past and present can one assume Russia has chosen the West and that only the details remain to be handled. In fact, Russia has always been ambivalent about the values that typify the West. Consider some towering figures of its history (Miliukov, Chaadaev, Trubetskoi, Gumilev, the later Herzen, Karamzin, Solzhenitysn), and it is clear that there have been dramatically different visions of what Russia is and should become. Westernizers have been part of the Russian drama since Peter the Great. But others have offered a different plot entirely, rejecting the Western model in favor of a distinct and different path, among them Slavophiles, Eurasianists, and Marxists of various hues. Russians remain divided about Russia’s future— indeed about the nature of its present. A segment of Russian society will reject the view that Russia’s only viable path is to accept the end of history and to don Western garb. The view, common in America, that Russia will necessarily and ultimately cast its lot with the West is desire masquerading as thought.

This does not mean that Russia will not spurn the West; that is not a realistic choice given its problems at home and abroad. Many Russians will continue to want what the West has (freedom and prosperity); others will regard the West as a monument to shallowness, mindless individualism, and crass materialism— as the embodiment of what Russia must reject. The contention between these views will continue, ensuring that there is no linearity to Russia’s attitude and conduct toward the West. Which tendency will prevails? That depends on how long and bumpy Russia’s quest for democracy, civil society, and capitalism is— and whether it succeeds. Success, even if slow and punctuated by setbacks, will strengthen Westernizers. If Russia fails and turns into a dysfunctional society that is of marginal significance in the world, Russians who oppose Westernization and globalization (a varied lot, to be sure) will prevail in national politics.

Russia cannot be counted upon to become a partner— not because it is somehow untrustworthy (that adjective is better applied to people, not states), but because of its historical predicament. The Soviet empire collapsed, leaving an economic and social wasteland in most of its remnants. In Russia, the largest, too many protracted and profound changes must take place before something good rises from the rubble. In the West, the consolidation of the territorial state, national identities, markets, democracy emerged over generations and more or less sequentially, and the process was still wrenching, often violent. Russia is trying to accomplish these complex transformations rapidly, simultaneously, and with little experience with capitalism or democracy. It may succeed, but the voyage will be long and harsh, and the West cannot decide the outcome. By expecting rapid results and a process with no setbacks the West guarantees that its attitude toward Russia will oscillate between euphoria and despair. Neither emotion supports sound policy.

The West can help Russia create a market economy. But its capacity to do so is limited by what it can spend to this end, because the outcome depends overwhelmingly on what happens within Russia, and because we have proven to ourselves and to the Russians that we know little about what is a unique, revolutionary transformation, let alone how to accomplish it. The combination of grand advice (be it shock therapy, a third way, the magic of the marketplace) and limited material help can only breed disillusionment and resentment, now much in evidence in Russia. Assistance must be specific (aid to the educational system, cultural and scientific exchanges, programs that help build Russia’s human capital); it must be coordinated with key American allies to make the burden bearable; and it must focus on areas of mutual interest (safe nuclear installations) to garner political support at home. This approach must replace chiliastic notions creating democracy and capitalism.

A Russia that fails to create democracy and a market economy need not turn hostile and join the West’s adversaries. A failed Russia will be a weak Russia and its shifting balance of power with China will work to moderate its antagonism toward the West. Scenarios that have Russia leading a civilization revolt against the West by mobilizing Slavic identity and Orthodox Christianity are creative but fanciful. Ukraine, without which any such coalition will prove hollow, will resist integration, and most of East Central Europe will gravitate toward the West, toward Germany in particular. That leaves the Balkans, which Russia could lead, but to what end? The end of the Cold War has not ended Europe’s division, only the nature of the division. Two massive alliances and an Iron Curtain no longer exist, but the European Union’s expansion will make for a continents of haves and have nots. And Russia’s predicament, as represented by its interest in the Balkans, will be that its flock will consist of the latter and that the most important state spurned by the EU, Turkey, will remain linked to the United States.

But the conclusion that Russia will not become an enemy of the West is but a segue to discussing a fundamental change in the nature of the Russian problem. During the Cold War Russia affected the West by virtue of clarity (and ideological alternative) and strength (the Warsaw Pact). Now, Russia’s weakness and ambivalence are the problem, and a number of new challenges flow from this change. The safety of Russia’s nuclear facilities will be a continuing problem. Its inability to maintain order in its immediate neighborhood and to balance China will make Eurasian unstable. Because of its penury it will sell arms and civilian nuclear technology widely and reject the West’s calls for restraint (especially if we do not limit our own sales). Globalization will be bring recurring shocks to the international order— balance of payments crises in and capital flight from major states; dislocations created by surging energy prices; and instability important countries— but Russia’s periodic economic crises and need for help, will strain the capacity of Western-dominated international financial institutions to manage these problems, particularly because it is too consequential to ignore.

Several policy-relevant conclusions follow from the preceding discussion. The West should communicate clearly to Russia what specific aspects of its relationship with China are troublesome and why. But pumping up this duet as far reaching realignment is sensationalism that verges on panic. The West should not be surprised by Russia’s efforts to retain influence in its immediate neighborhood; it should not consider them a prelude to domination, for which Russia is too weak. On decisions concerning NATO’s expansion or our diplomacy in the Caspian, we should take account of Russia’s interests, think of ways to alleviate its anxieties, and offer it incentives to cooperate; this is quite different from giving Russia a veto. NATO must not be enlarged merely because the consequences in Russia will be minimal, short-lived, and confinable. The decision must rest on compelling strategic reasons, and those adduced by champions of enlargement are unpersuasive, not least because the putative gains— security and prosperity for Central European and Baltic states— can be made in others ways. American policy toward the other ex-Soviet republics should not be based on Russia’s preferences, but neither should it move forward as if Russia does not exist or matter. Decisions on NMD should be taken in a similar spirit. Given the size and capabilities of the American nuclear arsenal it is not clear why rogue states would risk suicide by attacking the United States. Hostile states or groups can use weapons of mass destruction in many— and more surreptitious— ways that bypass NMD. As witness the attack on the USS Cole, they can also strike American personnel and installations without such weapons. Were the deployment of NMD essential, the argument that its wholly negative effect on Russia is an unfortunate but unavoidable tradeoff would be tenable. In fact, the necessity is questionable, the tradeoff certain and sizeable.

Personalities Versus Context

Russia’s challenge will be to remain whole and to retain the capacity to shape events in its rim lands. Its failure in even these basic endeavors will not be cause for celebration. Russia sprawls across Eurasia, and the effects of its reconfiguration or weakness will travel far and engulf key countries— Ukraine, China, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan most directly, but several others indirectly. Russia’s economic or political meltdown could generate refugee flows and illegal migration, cause the failure of nuclear reactors, and increase the chances of fissile material (perhaps even nuclear weapons) being stolen. Rivalries among states seeking primacy in the South Caucasus and Central Asia in the wake of a Russian exit could create new and long-lasting disruptions.

These are huge problems, but at least they are knowable and can be prepared for. Similarly, even if Putin quits the scene suddenly, the main themes of Russia’s strategy will be predictable because the factors that set the parameters in which Russian leaders think and act will change but slowly. By focusing on leaders, we observe the texture of the leaves, not the contours of the forest, conflate diplomacy toward a state and a relationship with a person, and look down at our feet, not out to the horizon. By contrast, structural conditions illuminate the big picture.


1 The New York Times 2000 Almanac (New York: Penguin, 1999), pp. 219, 524, and 657.

2 Richard Ericson, “The Russian Economy: A Turning Point?” paper presented at the Aspen Institute conference on “US-Russia Relations,” Prague, August 21-25, 2000; Russian Journal (Moscow), June 1-7, 2001, via the Intenet (

3 Russian Journal, June 1-7, 2001.

4 Putin’s top economic advisor, Andrei Ilarionov, notes that no more than 15% of the gains from rising oil prices and devaluation have been realized by the state and channeled into investment. The rest has been eaten up by imports and capital flight. The Economist, January 27, 2001, p. 73.

5 Richard Ericson notes that “over 2/3 of the equipment in use has been in place over 15 years, and almost 1/3 is over 20 years old,” and estimates that revamping it would require an investment “20% larger than GDP in 1997-8.” Ericson, “The Russian Economy.”

6 Roughly $7 billion a year in investment is needed to replace aging power generation plants, but a mere $1 billion was mustered in 1999. Likewise, to meet demands for telephones and to digitalize service and modernize long-distance networks, $22 billion in investment is required, but investment in 1999 amounted to $500 million. The Economist, September 2, 2000, p. 58; Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, “Sham Stabilization,” in Lawrence Klein, and Marshall Pomer, eds., The New Russia: Transition Gone Awry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 193;

7 The $18 billion estimate is by Mikhail Fradkov, head of the Russian Federal Tax Police; Putin mentioned the $20 billion figure in a speech to a joint session of the legislature in the spring of 2001. RFE/RL, Security Watch, Vol. 2, No. 22 (June 4, 2001); The Economist, April 7, 2001, p. 57.

8 The dismal statistics cited below appear, inter alia, in Mark G. Field and Judyth L. Twigg, Russia’s Torn Safety Nets (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000) and Murray Feshbach, “Russia’s Population Meltdown,” The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 1 (Winter 2001), pp. 15-21; Human Rights Watch, Abandoned to the State (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998).

9 Feshbach, “Russia’s Population Meltdown,” pp. 15,16.

10 Figures for Russian military manpower and defense spending draw on Russian military expert Alexander Pikhaev’s presentation (“Ten Years After: Is The Military Reformed?”) at the conference on “The Fall of Communism in Europe: Ten Years On,” The Marjorie Mayrock Center for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel, May 14-17, 2001.

11 Alexander Goltz, “Signals of Reforms But Under Soviet Principles,” Russia Journal, May 4-10, 200; Idem, “Full Circle for Military Reform,” in Ibid., September 16-22, 2000; Editorial in Iadernyi kontrol, January-February 2001, trans. in CDI Russia Weekly, No. 143 (March 5,2001), pp. 12-13.

12 Vladimir Mukhin, “Soldiers Worry About Road to Civilian Life,” Russian Journal, May 11-17, 2001.

13 Deborah Yarsike Ball, “The Social Crisis of the Russian Military,” in Field and Twigg, eds., Russia’s Torn Safety Nets, pp.271-284. According to an Agence France Press report citing “servicemen’s support groups,” ‘[o]f the 3,000 non combatant deaths [in the armed forces] each year, 28 percent are suicides….” Reprinted in CDI Russia Weekly, No. 147 (April 2, 2001), p. 10. Other sources estimate that between 22.7 and 25 percent of annual military deaths accounted for by suicide. Rita Bolotskaya, “Military Leaders Vs. ‘Suicides’,” Podmoskovnye izvestiia, June 16, 2000, trans. in Defense and Security (Moscow), June 26, 2000 and Itar-Tass, April 20, 1999, both available at On the health of conscripts, see Ekho Moskvy Radio, in Russian, 1400 GMT, March 29, 2001, monitored and translated by the BBC, reprinted in CDI Russia Weekly, April 2, 2001, p. 10-11.

14 Fred Weir, “Putin Tries Big Shift in Military Policy,” The Christian Sceince Monitor, August 2, 2000.

15 Sixty-two Russian Interior Ministry troops were killed during the first five months of 2001 and since the beginning of Russia’s second campaign in Chechnya in 1998, 2,682 soldiers have been killed. See “Russian Troops Killed in Chechnya,”

On the melding in Chechnya of civilian and fighters, a Russian officer remarked: “Let’s say we are walking down the street and meet a Chechen. Is he a rebel who buried his gun somewhere and who will attack us tonight? Or is he a farmer who wants a peaceful and prosperous Chechnya? We have no way of knowing.” David Filipov, “Russia’s Hope for Swift Win Dims with Time,” Boston Globe, May 30, 2001. On the lack of equipment and poor morale, see Vladimir Filichkin, “Apes at War,” Delovoi Ural (Chelyabinsk), June 20, 2000, p. 6., trans. in Defense and Security (Moscow), No. 83 (July 19, 2000), via the Internet at http//

16 The best Russian analyst of the war in Chechnya is Pavel Felgenhauer. See, for example, “Chechnya: A Vicious Circle,” Moscow Times, September 21, 2001. Also see Anne Nivot, Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines In Chechnya (New York: Public Affairs, 2001).

17 RFE/RL, Security Watch, Vol. 2, No. 19 (May 14, 2001).

18 “At What Cost the War in Chechnya?” Russia Journal, March 6, 2000; Rajan Menon and Graham D. Fuller, “Russia’s Ruinous War in Chechnya,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 2 (March/April 2000), pp. 32-44.

19 Menon and Fuller,” Russia’s Ruinous Chechen War”; Anna Matveeva, The North Caucasus: Russia’s Fragile Borderland (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999); Yoav Karny, The Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000); Sebastian Smith, Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus (London: IB Tauris, 1998); “Krivoe zerkalo Ingushetii,” Nezavisimaia gazeta, September 5, 2000, pp. 1, 11; “Dagestan: zhizn’ vzaimy,” Ibid., March 13, 2001, pp. 1,11.

20 Fred Weir, “Moscow Pitches Patriot Games,” Christian Sceince Monitor, March 22, 2001; Jamestown Foundation Monitor, March 1, 2001.

21 I use this term purely for convenience to refer to the non-Russian republics of the former USSR and not to suggest, as do some Russian writers who use it, that Russia has natural entitlements with respect to its neighbors.

22 Rajan Menon, “After Empire: Russia and the Southern ‘Near Abroad’,” in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., The New Russian Foreign Policy (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998), pp. 100-166.

23 Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).

24 Anatol Lieven and Celeste Wallander, “Make Russia A Better Neighbor,” New York Times, March 14, 2001, p. 23.

25 The fees now amount to 30 billion cubic meters of the 70-80 billion cubic meters Ukraine needs annually.

26 The New York Times, November 24, 1999, p. 8.

27 Lieven and Wallander, “Make Russia a Better Neighbor”; The New York Times, January 6, 2001, p. 2

28 “The Caucasus: Is a Settlement Possible?” The Economist, June 24, 2000, p. 58.

29 Ibid.; and “Heidar Aliev, Maestro of the Caucasus,” Ibid., September 2, 2000, p. 48.

30 “Putin, Central Asia Leaders Agree to Boost Military Cooperation,”,…al/10/ii/centralasia.russia.ap/index/html.

31 “Michael Lelyveld, “Uzbekistan: Gas for Russian Arms May be Dangerous Precedent,” RFE/RL Magazine, May 9, 2001,

32 “A Turkish Move into Central Asia,” The Economist, November 25, 2000, p.56.

33 A ten-year treaty of friendship is to be signed when President Jiang Zemin visits Russia in July 2001. RFE/RL, Security Watch, Vol. 2. No. 14 (April 9, 2001), p. 1.

34 Rajan Menon, “The Strategic Convergence Between Russia and China,” Survival, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Summer 1997), pp. 101-125.

35 Rajan Menon and Charles E. Ziegler, “The Balance of Power and US Foreign Policy Interests in the Russian Far East,” NBR Analyses, Vol. 11, No. 5 (December 2000).

36 Dmitri Trenin, “The China Factor: Challenge and Chance for Russia,” in Sherman W. Garnett, ed., Rapprochement or Rivalry? (Washington, DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000), pp. pp. 39-70. For the debate, see “Alexei D. Voskressenski, “Russia’s Evolving Grand Strategy Toward China,” Ibid., pp. 117-145.

37 Rajan Menon and S. Enders Wimbush, “Asia in the 21st Century,” The National Interest, No. 59 (Spring 2000), pp. 78-86.

38 F.N. Iurlov, Rossia I Indiia v meniaiushchemsia mire (Moscow: Insitut vostokovedeniia RAN, 1998).

Reprinted from ORBIS, Vol 45, Menon, "Leaders, Structural Conditions, and Russia's Foreign Policy", pp 579-596, Copyright (2001), with permission from the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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