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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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.
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, Russia 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.
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