To a certain demographic – those aged enough to have experienced Cold War tensions, Russia is never thought of without a sense of unease.
Stories of the gulag and the KGB; the GRU and NKVD – names of agencies upon which many stories of intrigue are built, generally send shivers down the spines of those exposed to such tales.
And with good reason! Narratives detailing such experiences paint a terrible assault on humanity for all to see.
But do they accurately describe the Russia of today? That is a difficult call to make.
Recent tales of social unrest in Russia clash with the Kremlin’s unforeseen diplomatic outreach in the Middle East and Latin America.
Hosting the World Cup last year and the Winter Olympics four years before were designed to show that Russia intends to become a front-and-centre player on the world stage.
Such ambitions contrast vividly with the Russian annexation of Crimea, which took place at the very time that world unity was on display in Sochi, during the Winter Olympics.
One might find it difficult to divine Russian machinations and motivations, especially when constantly assailed with its positive and negative political aspects; often at the same time.
To understand them, we have to dive deep into the history of Mother Russia, review past diplomacy and calculate the rationale that drives the politics of the one individual leading that vast country.
The Politics of Imperial Russia
At one time, the Russian Empire was the third-largest in history, commanding vast parcels of land that stretched across three continents – Europe, Asia and North America, and a massive population exceeded only by India and China.
These statistics are deceptive because Russia rose as a world power only as its neighbouring rival powers waned.
To the south, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, as was the Qajar dynasty in Persia. The Swedish Empire, northwest of Russia, saw a reversal of its fortunes after the Napoleonic Wars.
To the west, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed after the third partitioning of Poland.
Through all of these turmoils, Russia emerged intact, even helping to defeat French expansionist aspirations during the 1814-18 war.
Unfortunately, while cultural elements sufficed, Russia did not have the economic or technological wherewithal to maintain the illusion of power gained from her neighbours’ downfall.
While other European nations had prospered during the First Industrial Revolution and were getting ready for the second one, Russia remained a largely agrarian society with the bulk of its population bound in serfdom.
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Towards the end of the 19th Century, Russia finally started to modernise and industrialise, but only through the help of other nations. Foreign capital largely paid for the railways that grid Russia still today, and foreign enterprises built factories which provided jobs for the recently-freed serfs.
One might say that releasing people from their obligations to – and protection of their landholders was the first step towards the civil unrest that precipitated the fall of the Russian Empire.
With nowhere else to turn, imploring the Tsar for help became the way to improve one’s lot in life. Tsar Nicholas II, with seeming negligence, failed to do anything for his starving people; not even appeasement efforts were made.
Essentially, his series of political missteps, at home and abroad, brought the Russian Empire to its end.
In this brief history, we see that Russia, vast in her land holdings and full of people, nevertheless was never really powerful in her own right. Much of her might was illusory.
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What Resources Does Russia Have?
Foreign entities did not help Russia build its railroads and kickstart its industry out of the goodness of their hearts; they expected to share in the bounty of this vast land.
What did Russia have to share? What resources does this country have today?
When people think about oil, the Middle East generally springs first to mind but Russia also has vast reserves of black gold. By some estimates, Russia holds six per cent of the world’s oil deposits.
Natural gas is another valuable, plentiful resource in Russia.
Controversy erupted in 2018 when Germany’s intent to buy natural gas from Russia became public knowledge. That agreement prompted the US president to threaten to withdraw the majority of peacekeeping troops from Germany.
The bee in the US president’s bonnet notwithstanding, Germany buys most of its natural gas from countries other than Russia because its own deposits have long been exhausted.
European countries buying natural gas from Russia makes sense. The infrastructure is in place to deliver it and Russia, with wholly one-third of the world’s natural gas deposits, is not likely to run out any time soon.
Besides, like most of western Russia, European countries have virtually depleted their natural resources. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline that pushes gas from Siberia into Europe is the most economical way to keep western European countries supplied for years into the future.
Besides oil and gas, Russia is rich in minerals and metals.
Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich are two of Russia’s aluminium magnates; between them, they control around two-thirds of the aluminium industry in Russia.
Another key player, Anatoly Bykov controls a portion of the market but his criminal ties and subsequent legal actions against him have cut into his profits and standings in the market.
Besides being one of the top three producers of aluminium in the world, Russia ranks high in iron ore production and, as though that were not enough riches, under the Siberian permafrost lie vast reserves of titanium, platinum and chromium, nickel, copper and lead, tin, tungsten and phosphates.
And gold. Mining difficulties notwithstanding, Russia mines a record amount of gold, third behind China and Australia.
Diamonds are another of Russia’s treasure trove.
Few are familiar with the Popigai Crater left when a large asteroid struck Siberia several million years ago. However, many probably know about the cache of diamonds recently discovered under that crater. It is said to be bountiful enough to sustain the diamond market for 3,000 years.
Finally, there is timber. Russia is estimated to have more than one-fifth of the world’s wood supply, mostly of the conifer group – pine, larch, spruce and cedar.
Much of the concern for Russia’s expansive resources revolves around access.
With the southern and western terrains extensively mined (and mostly depleted), much of the high-yield, high-value minerals such as coal and cobalt, metals and gas reserves lie in the more inhospitable regions of the country.
Access to this underdeveloped area is difficult. There are few roads, nor are there many airports or railways, the most common means of travel across Siberia. There are also few settlements, if any, as most towns were set up along the Siberian Railway.
Finally, there debate over whether setting up a mining operation to break through the frozen tundra would be cost-effective in the long run.
Here, we can ‘thank’ global warming for making at least that aspect of the industry easier; the Siberian peat bogs have started to thaw. Whether any mining oligarch exploits it remains an open question, seeing as disturbing the bog may release millions of tons of methane gas into the atmosphere.
Russia During the Cold War and Beyond
After the Tsar was deposed, a provisional ‘Peoples Government’ was established, which was quickly overthrown by Vladimir Lenin.
Quickly, under his leadership, various government agents set about establishing a barrier between Russia and western European powers by unifying with countries that we know today as Belarus, Latvia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and others.
During the Second World War, any territories to the west that were overtaken by Russia’s army became satellite states, further serving as a buffer between powers.
Later, during the division of Europe into capitalist versus communist... there is just no nice way of saying it: the Soviet Union engaged in a land-grab.
Seizing control of half of Berlin, as well as the territory that called itself the German Democratic Republic is what caused the political and military tension between the Soviet Union and the U.S.
Those two powers, formerly allies but now bitter foes, with their respective allies, circled each other warily in a decades-long dance we know as the Cold War.
Significant elements of that era include:
- The ‘Long Telegram’, a magazine article by an American diplomat in Russia, advocating for containment to avert the spread of communism
- The Truman Doctrine: the American foreign policy to counter Soviet geopolitical expansion
- The Warsaw Pact: a collective defence treaty ratified by the Soviet Union and seven satellite states in the East Bloc
- COMECON: an economic assistance organisation designed to support the East Bloc and communist regimes throughout the world
- The Iron Curtain: a figurative (and later, literal) line of demarcation dividing Europe.
‘The West’, meaning western Europe and the United States, were treated only to sparse reports of torture and imprisonment, authoritarian rule and mass killings in the Soviet Union.
In the rare occasions that eyewitness accounts were made possible, either through news broadcasts or through networks of spies, the impression of power – through the police or the military, was strong.
And with the defection of athletes and artists, we were treated to first-hand accounts of what life was like... but what was really going on behind that Curtain?
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Tearing Down the Wall
It is important to understand that, although economics is considered separate from geopolitics, a regime’s economy plays a role in the extent it can engage in world affairs.
Once sequestered from global affairs, it was all the Soviet Union could do to manage their internal affairs.
As the region’s economy stagnated for so long, no expansive military dreams could be entertained, let alone could any large-scale lending be done to any other country, such as China or North Korea.
Soviet regions embellishing reports of grain output certainly did not help matters, and America’s grain embargo, in retaliation for the USSR meddling in Afghanistan brought them no benefit either.
On paper, everything looked great but the reality was that the people of the Soviet Union were hungry, frustrated and tired of being bound to a regime that no longer served them.
A series of revolts ultimately brought the end to this painful time in Russian history.
However, this period reveals why Russia has such an interest in Afghanistan; you can learn more about it in our geopolitics in the Middle East article.
What is Russia’s Geography Problem?
By any measure, Russia is huge.
It extends from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains in the south. Its easternmost border ends at the Pacific Ocean while, on the west, it borders no fewer than seven countries.
Russia adjoins a total of 16 countries, the most of any country in the world. Her longest borders are with China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. She sprawls across two continental shelves – European and Asian and, stretching across 11 time zones, is the largest country in the world by area.
With such massive proportions and so much contiguousness, who would believe that Russia has a geography problem, let alone two of them?
Historically, the most successful nations enjoyed access to major waterways. Think of France, Spain and the UK, with all of their seafaring explorers, snatching up territory and declaring colonies.
Contrast that with Russia who, for all of her expanse, is effectively landlocked.
All of her major cities – Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg are all inland, meaning all of the commercial centres and industries such mining and logging have a long way to transport their goods for global shipment.
That’s not to say that Russia has no seaports. Unfortunately, the only access point free of NATO oversight is on the Pacific Ocean, across the country from where industry and commerce take place.
Of course, Russia could appeal to Turkey and Denmark for access to southern and northern ports, but those waters are governed by NATO, an organisation that views Russia unfavourably since its annexation of Crimea.
A final factor that impacts Russia’s Baltic Sea ports: frigid temperatures.
For most of the year, Russia’s Baltic ports are ice-bound, making any travel on water particularly dangerous and the land all but inaccessible so, while some overseas transport of Russian goods does take place, the majority of this country’s exports travel over land, through neighbouring countries.
Another major geography problem is its relative defencelessness, especially her western regions.
Most countries rely on natural boundaries such as mountain ranges or bodies of water to secure their borders. Russia heartland has no such obstacles, making her vulnerable to any incursion from the west.
We must remember that every country west of Russia is at least affiliated with the European Union and, since Crimea’s annexation, that powerful Union has been particularly wary of their eastern neighbour.
Oddly enough, Russia has made little effort to establish legitimate diplomatic relations with the Ukraine, Belarus and other countries that might provide a buffer between more powerful western nations. Instead, they launch constant provocations and occasional paramilitary strikes.
It would make much more sense for Russia to unite with potential protectors rather than antagonise them, especially as taking them by force would likely result in grave consequences the country could ill afford.
Russian Geopolitics Today
To truly understand how Russia operates on the world stage, we need only to look toward history.
In spite of her reputation as a mighty world power, Russia, historically and today, has merely cultivated and projected the illusion of power... and apparently engages in bluster to maintain that image.
While it is true that her space programme initially led the world, even those efforts could not be sustained in the long term.
What really hurt Russia is the loss of those ‘buffer lands’ - the countries that separate her from the rest of Europe.
What really did damage to Russia’s hopes for a strategic alliance with them was when they and the Balkan states became NATO members – essentially pledging themselves against Russia.
The lone exception was Ukraine... we’ll go a bit deeper into that situation in a mo.
Painfully aware of how quickly the political tide can turn in Europe as well as with their ally, the United States, Mr Putin knows that she is strategically vulnerable at this point.
Even worse: in the event of a crisis, not many nations would leap to help defend her.
Finally, the global lack of trust in Russia, of her motivations, actions and goals, leaves her diplomats and president constantly working to regain ground.
That is why we see Mr Putin reach out beyond his country’s nearest neighbours for diplomatic opportunities, overlooking former ally China and bypassing Europe altogether.
He is using soft power to build long-distance relations in Africa, the Middle East and in Latin America.
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Still, the Russian political machine does nothing to dissuade global powers that Russia is still to be feared and that her reach is long. In fact, they encourage it, notably during two brazen poisonings of former Soviet agents on British soil!
Most political analysts suspect that Mr Putin likes for the world to believe that he has influence over the United States and that the American president is working on his behalf.
The likelihood of that being true is minimal but, in continuing to portray Russia in as sinister a tone as possible, that country’s leader expends virtually no resources and loses little diplomatic goodwill, all while maintaining an image of power.
The proof of this analysis lies in the Ukraine.
That country’s 2004 presidential election results were met with widespread demonstrations and accusations of corruption and fraud: voters contended that the election was rigged in favour of the Russian-backed candidate.
Outrage over the alleged duplicity fanned the flames of public revolt and the outcry caused the election results to be scrapped and a new one held.
This time, the election was deemed impartial by a combined body of national and international observers.
The Orange Revolution played out on the world stage, forcing a high-profile reckoning between historical foes, Russia and the U.S. It took ten years for the situation to play itself out.
That democracy-friendly Ukrainian president served a six-year term, after which the Russian-friendly candidate took office. Four years later, in 2014, he was ousted in a bloody clash.
Sensing that Western allies had a foothold in Ukraine, one of the last bastions of Russian security, Russia promptly annexed Crimea – both as a show of force and to reestablish some buffer between themselves and western powers.
In spite of fierce sabre-rattling, neither side was willing to engage. Tensions were diffused through a non-aggression pact, leaving the Ukraine with democratic support from western countries but no military reinforcements.
Having taken Crimea as their security buffer, that was a deal the Russians could live with.
What Are Some Issues in Russia?
For all of her riches, Russia has suffered substantial economic strife, both historically and in modern times.
The government transitioned to a market economy fairly easily after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, the logistical challenges of exporting, coupled with having to rely as much on other nations’ goodwill as on commodity markets makes Russia’s gross national product (GNP) an unstable proposition.
More than a couple of times, Russia’s economy fell into recession. Their recent turn away from extraction industries – mining and drilling, and opening the country up to more imports are slowly turning the economy around.
Perhaps one of the biggest issues facing Russia is that most of her wealth is in the underdeveloped eastern part of the country while most everyone lives in the (developed) western part. That problem is made worse by the lack of transportation and roadways to where the riches are buried.
Family separation is common; the males head east to work in the mines while the women and children stay in the urban areas so the kids can go to school.
This situation causes only a part of the civil unrest in Russia; a great deal of discontent comes from repressive ideas about social issues, non-conformity – with the country's religious and political standards, and a lack of economic opportunity.
For these reasons, among others, illicit drugs abound in Russia. So pervasive is the drug problem that the government has formed an eradication unit that destroys drug crops and seeks out drug production facilities.
While most of the drugs grown or manufactured in Russia are meant for domestic consumption, some are exported to different countries, mainly in Europe but a portion of them to Latin America, where Russia has recently established ties.
Another criminal element of grave concern is organised crime, the shadow behind the major drug operations and betting/gambling industries and human trafficking. People are brought into Russia for forced labour in mines and agricultural concerns; they also work as menial labourers in the cities.
But by far the gravest issue concerning Russia is its standing on the world’s stage.
Academically, economically and through judicious bartering of its vast trove of resources, Russia could earn her place among the top nations but profound distrust and the government’s shady manoeuvring keep other countries from fully engaging politically, economically and culturally.
You might say that, even though the Iron Curtain tumbled down in 1991, through her own machinations, Russia has kept those boundaries intact.
Indeed, they are all the stronger for being invisible.
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