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Russia: The Return To Great Power Status?

Vladmir Putin 2nd and 4th President of Russia

Vladmir Putin
2nd and 4th President of Russia

The people of Russia admire two things in their political leaders, the projection of military power and the accumulation of national wealth. The calamity of the Russian economy over the last few years, has placed President Vladimir Putin under increasing pressure, to deliver on foreign policy successes.

The 2014 seizure of Crimea served two major purposes. The first was it demonstrated internationally, the return of Russia as a Great Power. The second function was that it shored up any possible doubts, citizens might of had in the ability of their president to project strength.

Putin had planned for his takeover of the Crimean peninsula to be swift and difficult to oppose by the Ukrainian government in Kiev. He correctly calculated that the Western powers would not intervene militarily, neither in the occupation or the annexation of the territory.

The incursion into eastern Ukraine in support of the Russian minority there achieved another foreign goal of the Putin administration. That was to halt further integration of Ukraine into the Western economic and military alliances.

Member nations of NATO

Member nations of NATO

Ukraine had applied to join the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Membership Action Plan MAP) in 2008. Further plans for full membership were only shelved in 2010, with the election of President Viktor Yanukovych. His preference was to keep the country non-aligned.

The admission of Ukraine into NATO, would have been a serious setback for Russian foreign policy. One only has to look at a map to see why. Contrary to what many in the West have feared, a full scale invasion by the Russian armed forces remains unlikely.

Unlike in the east where there are many sympathizers of Russia, as you travel towards the center and western parts of the country, the sentiment is decidedly against their much larger neighbor. Therefore, a conquest of these regions of Ukraine, would end up being an occupation.

The population of the Ukraine minus the two million inhabitants of Crimea, is between 42 and 43 million. Such a large number will be difficult to fully control and will tie down the Russian military for an indefinite period.

Ruins of Donetsk International Airport, December 2014. The control tower has since been completely destroyed.

Ruins of Donetsk International Airport, December 2014. The control tower has since been completely destroyed.

Putin would far rather keep the country destabilized and economically weak. This has been somewhat achieved through the Russian sponsored rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk. Their self proclaimed independence after hastily held referendums, are not recognized by either Ukraine or most other nations.

The military conflict in this region of Ukraine has become frozen. The insurrectionists lack the military strength, to further consolidate gains to the west and south. At the same time, the Ukrainian national forces are unable to reestablish control over the separatist regions.

Leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine at Minsk II summit, 2015.

Leaders of Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine at Minsk II summit, 2015.

The civil war has devastated the economy of the area, since the rebellion began in April of 2014. A reincorporation of the territory into Ukraine proper would not be easy and will be expensive. It will put a strain on the economy, that the country can ill afford at this time.

The same can be said for Russia. There is no real push for annexation of the two areas that are now within its military sphere of influence. Despite the ongoing negotiations known as the Minsk Agreements, the Russian government is quite content to let things remain as they now stand. Putin will only allow a reintegration of this part of Ukraine, if the country at large remains decentralized and non-aligned.

Location of Georgia (including Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Russian North Caucasus

Location of Georgia (including Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Russian North Caucasus

The situation is similar in Georgia. Regarded as the first European War in the 21st century. The two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and Ossetia became a flashpoint, due to worsening relations between Georgia and Russia. Actual fighting would break out in 2008, in the strategic important Transcaucasia region which borders the Middle East.

The conflict can be traced to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia had declared independence that year but, almost immediately was involved in a struggle with Russian backed separatists in South Ossetia.

Following a number of skirmishes, a joint peacekeeping force comprised from Georgian, Ossetian and Russian troops were based in the area.

A similar situation developed in Abkhazia. Separatists there had also waged a war for independence during 1992 and 1993. The situation remained tense, with Georgian troops attempting to maintain control in the ensuing years.

Putin taking presidential oath beside Boris Yeltsin, May 2000

Putin taking presidential oath beside Boris Yeltsin, May 2000

The situation in the entire region began to change with the election of Vladimir Putin to his first Russian presidency in 2000 succeeding Boris Yeltsin. This was followed by a change in power in Georgia, which installed a more Western oriented government. This changing political reality would put the two countries on a collision course.

Former Georgian President Saakashvili had made NATO membership a primary goal of his administration. In April of 2008, the United States favored offering MAP to both Georgia and the Ukraine. France and Germany opposed the initiative, fearing that it would needlessly antagonize Russia.

NATO announced that both Georgia and Ukraine would indeed become members and pledged to review their MAP applications in December of 2008. President Putin viewed the expansion of NATO to the southern borders of Russia as a military threat.

Putin with Dmitry Medvedev, March 2008

Putin with Dmitry Medvedev, March 2008

The decision to attack Georgia was planned before Putin left office and was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev as president in May 2008. The goal was to stop the Georgian accession to NATO and to hopefully bring about a regime change there.

In the beginning of August of 2008, Ossetian separatists began shelling Georgian villages with peacekeepers attempting to maintain order. A week later the Georgian army was sent into the territory to quell the violence. The Georgians claimed they were also responding to the arrival of non-peacekeeping troops sent in by Russia.

Russia in response, launched a full invasion of Georgia. Russian and Ossetian forces battled the Georgian army, until the latter retreated. Russian and Abkhaz troops opened a second front in the Black Sea region.

South Ossetian refugees in a camp in Alagir, North Ossetia

South Ossetian refugees in a camp in Alagir, North Ossetia

Russian forces soon occupied a number of Georgian cities before a cease fire was declared. The ending of the war resulted in a victory for South Ossetia, Abkhazia as well as Russia. The two former republics that had been under control of Georgia, were now recognized as independent states by the Russian government. Russian military bases were established in both territories.

Other developments were the expulsion of ethnic Georgians from both South Ossetia and the Kordi Gorge in Abkhazia. The stationing of Russian troops and the military buildup since then, is a violation of the cease fire agreement. Abkhazia has basically remained under Russian control since the war.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili at a Tbilisi press conference, August 2008

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili at a Tbilisi press conference, August 2008

As in the case with Ukraine, the previous developments in Georgia clearly demonstrate the willingness Russia has, in using military force to achieve overall objectives.

The lack of a coordinated and unified Western response to the invasion of Georgia revealed the general weakness in the Western position in the face of aggression. It is true that the Russian operation there occurred as the Bush Administration in the United States was winding down, and it was occurring as the Financial Crisis of 2008 was unfolding.

Former republics of the Soviet Union have now witnessed twice, what happens when they attempt to strengthen ties with the West. Any move towards a military alliance or proposing to become part of NATO for example, can well lead to invasion and a loss of territory.

Baltic Republics

Baltic Republics

The Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania remain the exception. They fortuitously joined NATO in 2004, when seven additional members were added. They all joined the European Union as well, which has totally integrated their economies with Western Europe.

Including the former three Soviet Republics, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were all admitted to NATO in 2004. With the exception of the latter state which had been part of Yugoslavia, all the other territories had once been part of the Warsaw Pact. This was the former eastern military alliance headed by the Soviet Union, that became defunct in 1991.

BTC pipeline (green) and planned Nabucco gas pipeline (tangerine)

BTC pipeline (green) and planned Nabucco gas pipeline (tangerine)

In Russia, the successful war against Georgia and the tensions with Ukraine, has played well with the political establishment and the populace. It reversed the notional string of diplomatic defeats, which saw the Western military alliance and economic integration move ever closer to Russian borders.

The Georgian experience accomplished a number of goals in itself. The construction of the European Union sponsored Nabucco pipeline, which was to connect Central Asian energy reserves to Europe through Georgia, was derailed. This project would of bypassed Russia and made their own pipeline from Azerbaijan obsolete.

It also made the admission of Georgia into NATO highly unlikely. The country no longer has clearly defined borders, which is also the case with Ukraine.

Crimea, which is under Russian control, is shown in pink. Pink in the Donbass area represents areas held by the DPR/LPR separatists in September 2014 (cities in red)

Crimea, which is under Russian control, is shown in pink. Pink in the Donbass area represents areas held by the DPR/LPR separatists in September 2014 (cities in red)

President Medvedev a close ally of Putin, promulgated a doctrine shortly after the incursion into Georgia. It justified Russian military action at two major points. They involved when vital national interests were at stake or Russian citizens living in foreign countries were threatened.

The aforementioned policy has been strengthened even further, since the the beginning of the second Putin presidency. His return to the post in 2012, has coincided with increasing aggressive behavior in the realm of Russian foreign policy.

Former republics of the Soviet Union known as the near abroad in Russia, all contain Russian minorities especially in the Baltics. This reality provides the basis for claims that the government of Russia has a duty in protecting its citizens as a prelude to intervention.

It has been estimated for example, that all three of the Baltic Republics would be overthrown by Russian forces within sixty hours, if a concerted effort was made to acquire them.

In an additional provocation to the EU and NATO, Russia has reinforced military assets in the region today known as Kalingrad. The area which had been annexed from Germany at the end of World War II, is totally surrounded by the nations of Lithuania and Poland.

Kalingrad Oblast

Kalingrad Oblast

The Russian Defense Ministry is discussing plans to install nuclear capable short range missiles in the Kalingrad enclave by 2019 and Crimea later. The SS-26 or Iskander is designed to defeat the air defense systems that are being implemented throughout NATO.

Countries that are in range of the SS-26 include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

Already in 2014, United States forces activated a portion of a new missile defense system in Romania. This was done despite protests from President Putin.

The Russian military has vastly stepped up activity in the Baltic Sea area overall. There are far more war exercises near the borders of the Baltic republics, in recent years. It was finally taken serious enough by NATO officials, to move additional equipment and men into this most vulnerable part of the alliance.download

Russian warplanes, naval ships and submarines are far more active in Northern Europe in the last couple of years. Since 2014, there have been incidences involving the nations of Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden.

Last year, Finland actually fired warning shots at a suspected Russian submarine which was encroaching into their territorial waters. It nearly sparked a major international incident.

At the end of 2015, the United Kingdom made public their displeasure over repeated violation of their airspace by Russian warplanes.

Former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, he pursued closer relations with Russia.

Former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, he pursued closer relations with Russia.

There has been increased activity in the North Atlantic as well. Both Canada and the United States have been forced to intercept Russian warplanes that were near or in their airspace.

Last year the nation of Turkey, downed a Russian military plane that had violated their airspace despite repeated warnings. The larger military presence of Russia in the border area with Turkey, is adding to the regional tension.

Russia has returned to the Middle East, were it had been largely absent since the 1970’s. Growing ties with Iran and overwhelming support for the faltering Assad government in Syria, is evidence of this effort. As the hegemony of the United States has been eclipsed in the region, Russia has moved to fill the vacuum.

Map of Central Asia (including Afghanistan)

Map of Central Asia (including Afghanistan)

The influence of Russia in Central Asia is growing as well. There has been a concerted effort on the part of Putin, to reassert power in the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Putin would like to increase Russian influence in former Soviet Republics in the Caucasus region. Unfortunately, Russian support for Armenia undermines better contacts with Azerbaijan as the two states are struggling over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, most of the dealings with the latter are about gas and oil dealings despite the rather large Russian minority. Georgia the other former republic in the area, is already totally alienated from Russia.

This is part of dilemma for Russia in its attempt in returning to Great Power status. A number of former Soviet Republics have disputes with each other. By favoring one country, the relationship with the other one becomes constrained.

Meeting of CIS leaders in Bishkek, 2008.

Meeting of CIS leaders in Bishkek, 2008.

Membership by these countries in the Russian dominated Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), does not really solve this issue. At present nine out of fifteen of the former Soviet Republics are members, with an additional two having associate status. The organization has provided a conduit, for increased Russian control over the near abroad.

One also has to consider that as Russia attacks and punishes former republics like Georgia and Ukraine, these nations now have enormous enmity towards their much larger neighbor. Having more hostile nations on the Russian border, limits the projection of power elsewhere, as military resources become further stretched.

Plus there will be a push back from NATO. There is already the beginning of the biggest military buildup on Russia’s borders by the Western Powers, since the end of the Cold War. The Russian pull out from a number of nuclear disarmament agreements over the past two months, has only increased the urgency being focused on European security.

Export structure of Russia

Export structure of Russia

This is an increasing problem, as economic constraints on Russian military expenditures grow. The Russian economy has been devastated by low crude prices and to a lesser extent Western sanctions. It is important to note, the latter is a direct result of Russian military aggression.

The cost to Russian taxpayers for this more activist role is tremendous in an economy already struggling. Over the past year alone, the average Russian has seen their monthly wages decline by 9.5%. It is now below $450 USD (United States Dollar). That is less per capita than in China.

The Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has gone from $2.23 trillion USD in 2013 to $1.33 trillion USD in 2015. That equates to a 40% drop. Output for this year, is forecast to dip an additional 1.8% with the poverty rate increasing from 13.4% to 14.2%.

Foreign investors have abandoned the country in droves, over the last couple of years.

There is no question, that Russia has elevated its influence on the international front. The military has played a role in this new push to a return to Great Power status. However, one can question is it sustainable, with the overall weakness of the Russian economy?

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