Canberra, 27 June 2014

There have been numerous analysis and opinion pieces written regarding the emergence of an assertive Russia—some that state that this rise of Russian power is bound to be short-lived and that the nation will once again lapse into economic and political strife and withdraw from the world stage, sooner rather than later; and some that imply and insinuate that Russia, and its very visible leader Vladimir Putin, are not playing by the ‘rules’. In both cases the verdict is negative—in other words, from a Western viewpoint, Russia should not be becoming powerful or flexing its muscles. What is noteworthy is that there have been very few attempts made to understand the reasons for Russia’s actions, and perhaps more importantly, to carry out an unbiased comparison of its actions in the past few years and those of the other ‘super power’, the USA. Just because the Russian leadership has opposed the unilateralism of the US and its allies, the nation has been accused of a conducting a number of activities that are inimical to regional and global stability. In a world that seems to have gone a bit awry, especially if one considers the platitudes that were put forward by the leaders and cheerleaders of the ‘coalition of the willing’ that invaded Iraq in 2003, it is a bit difficult to continue to support the argument that Russia stands for all that is wrong and that the US-led West does everything right. The world that has resulted from the West initiating the ‘right’ actions in the past 15 odd years are open for everyone to see.

What Does Russia Want?

It was Winston Churchill, with his exceptional skill in creating evocative statements, who said that Russia ‘… was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ To understand the current collective Russian ethos, one has to go back a few decades to the time when the erstwhile Soviet Union disintegrated. At that juncture Russia unhesitatingly took on the mantle of the Soviet Union with all its debts and responsibilities. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist system brought with it the loss of large tracts of territory to the new Russian entity, and a traumatic economic chaos. From a Russian viewpoint the most devastating blow in the immediate aftermath was not the loss of super power status, but the expansion of NATO—which was always a military alliance—that subsumed the former Soviet satellite states of Poland and the Baltic Republics. The subsequent NATO expansion eastwards, into territories that Russia considers its own backyard or ‘near abroad’, was seen as a direct threat to its sovereignty. Along with this alliance expansionism the US lost no time in consolidating its hold over Europe. This situation has created an underlying sense of grievance in the Russian thinking, a feeling that they were dealt with poorly and taken advantage off when at the nadir of their power.

Russia under Putin is determined to reverse these unilateral actions, which were initiated and perpetuated in the 1990s and seen as calculated slights to the struggling nation. It wants to restore its past status and take its place amongst the major powers in the world. This required a strong economy that could facilitate the build-up of a powerful military force, while continuing to have domestic stability. Although its economy was in the doldrums for a number of ears after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the surge in global oil prices in the past decade has made Russia rich. In sharp contrast, Europe and the US have been simultaneously weakened by the effects of the global economic crisis that started in 2008. The inflow of cash helped build the Russian economy to a position of strength and assisted the start of a modernisation process for a military that had been resource-starved for almost 20 years.

It was at this stage, in 2008, that Russia felt sufficiently strong to defy Western condemnation and take military action against the former Republic of Georgia, ostensibly to protect two Russian breakaway republics, but essentially to punish Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili for becoming too ‘friendly’ with the West. The writing on the wall was clear—Russia was not to be taken for granted any more, it was ready to defy the West if its national interests, as defined by Russia itself, were being threatened. From the actions in Georgia, it was not a big step to the annexation of Crimea and the adoption of a doctrine that proclaims Russia’s broad right to protect ‘compatriots and fellow Russians’ even outside the borders of Russia. Admittedly there is a certain amount of chauvinism in this attitude and it directly challenges the post-Cold War order that had been a stabilising factor in Europe for the past two decades. Equally it is a statement of intent on the part of Russia that it is no longer willing to remain isolated from its earlier territories and that it would now onwards take a keen, if not proprietorial, interest in the happenings in its ‘near abroad’. Importantly it now had the wherewithal to support its intent. The fact that most of the new republics have a sizeable proportion of ethnic Russians in their population only adds impetus to the implementation of this doctrine.

Russia suffered traumatic humiliation in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Putin particularly has not forgotten this and constantly and angrily rejects being treated by the US and its allies as the leader of a second-rate power. The wheel has now come full circle, the US needs the cooperation of Russia to further the nuclear talks with Iran, to find a solution to the Syrian civil war, and to fight Islamic terrorism on a broad front. The latest manifestation of Islamic terrorism is the brutal civil war that is waging in Iraq. The inability of the US to take any concrete action to contain it is a clear indicator of the changed circumstances. Russia, although it does not have any immediate solution to any of these problems, will be a key player in any lasting solution to the Middle East imbroglio. Russian nationalism is on the rise and it will be a short-sighted West that ignores its claims to re-establishing its former glory.

The Elephant in the Room—Ukraine

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote a few prophetic words way back in 1981, much before even the first inkling of the Soviet break-up was visible. He stated, ‘The Ukrainian question is one of the most dangerous questions facing us in the future’. Ever since it broke out of the totalitarian Soviet control, Ukraine has been the epitome of what Samuel Huntington called a ‘cleft country’, split between a European-oriented and nationalistic western part and a Russian-dominated region in the east. No Ukrainian politician has been able to bridge this cultural, political, and ethnic divide successfully. The peace and relative harmony in which the newly created states of Russia and Ukraine co-existed for nearly 20 years collapsed in a matter of a few months in early 2014 and brought in an extremely virulent brand of hostility and mutual mistrust. In March, Russia annexed Crimea in a unilateral move that ought not to have come as a surprise to the West, but did. Subsequently, Russia has provided moral, and is alleged to have provided materiel, support to an on-going separatist insurgency in the South-East of Ukraine that threatens the stability not only of the country, but of the entire Eastern Europe at the very minimum. The confrontation has affected the economy of both the nations, Ukraine’s more palpably than Russia. It has also divided the Russian and Ukrainian societies within Ukraine with visible and damaging effect to domestic stability.

Presidential elections that were held in Ukraine on 25 May 2014 (postponed from the originally scheduled date of 29 March because of internal disturbances) gave Petro Poroshenko a clear victory. Putin has indicated that he is willing to work with the newly elected President to iron out the differences between their two countries. However, this initiative—if carried forward to a logical conclusion—would only lead to short term solutions for immediate issues such as curtailing support for the separatists from the Russian side and Ukraine clearing its debts to Russia. In the long term, the issue of Ukraine’s close ties to the EU and NATO will have to be addressed and cleared if lasting stability is to be achieved. In the current state of distrust, any progress in this area is unlikely in the near term. The Russia-Ukraine relationship, at a low-point now, will invariably be influenced by European politics and US foreign policy initiatives. Promoting institutional reform in Ukraine and pushing for reconciliation between the two countries would seem to be the safest bet for European countries at the moment, rather than their assuming a bellicose stance and demanding the return of Crimea—an event highly unlikely to happen. In fact such a demand would only further alienate Russia and make matters worse.

The political developments in Ukraine over the past twenty odd years reflect the dual identity of the nation—no segment of the population has been able to impose its political will or cultural identity on the entire nation. Poroshenko has won the elections with 54.7 percent of the votes, but this could only be an indication that both sides of the divide fear a destructive civil war and he was seen as the last chance for an acceptable reconciliation. However, reconciliation is unlikely if he takes the cue from the Western governments who continue to view the Ukraine chaos as a pristine moralistic issue where the supporters of the West are good and the Russian-speaking people of the East are the bad guys. The new President has his work cut out for him—the economy needs to be fixed urgently, endemic corruption that has corroded the nation for years has to be curtailed, and the legitimacy of his government has to be established within the bounds of the aspirations of both the Western and the Eastern supporters. This is not a list to be scoffed at even in times of peace—it becomes onerous in the current situation.

Ukraine has been part of the greater Russian/Soviet strategic sphere of influence for the past 350 years, even though it was ‘independent’ for the past 20 years. No Ukrainian politician will be able to take the nation out of this circle of influence and Russia will meet any attempt to do so with all its might. No regional power will permit its influence to fade without a murmur—in this instance Russia is bound to roar. Contrary to some wishful thinking in analysis that have emerged after the elections, it will be impossible for Ukraine to be part of the West while coexisting peacefully with Russia. This is a fact of life that Poroshenko should keep in mind—irrespective of the path that he plans to walk in the future.

Russia’s New Security Policy

In the recent past Russia has started to be vocal regarding its fears that the US and its allies are in the process of moulding the international geo-political structure to suit their own long-term expansionist objectives. It has also announced the formulation of a new security and foreign policy to counter this activity. Even before these statements were made by senior officials, Russia has been articulating the need to create a ‘Eurasian’ entity in which Moscow would become an alternative centre of power that counter-balances the influence of the West. The formation of a new Eurasian Union that consists of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, joined as a political and economic bloc has been the centrepiece of Russian foreign policy for some time now. At the fundamental level Russia is now all set to counter what it terms the US initiatives. Russia believes that these initiatives use all kinds of means to gain geopolitical advantage over it and achieve the sort of global hegemony that would once again push Russia into a secondary position and status. In extremis, there is an underlying fear that the US intends to further dismantle Russian statehood if it becomes necessary to achieve the kind of hegemony that the US craves to achieve. This paranoia has not been helped by the actions of the US in continually expanding NATO influence ever closer to the core territory of Russia.

Russia sees itself as a ‘Great Civilisation’ in its own right and in no way inferior to the ‘Western Civilisation’ represented by US and its European allies. It has been busy attempting to gather support from countries that have been in its periphery, both physically and in terms of influence and alliances, to counter US moves. Its actions in regard to Syria, Iran and Iraq must be viewed in this light. The US support for the enforcement of the concept of ‘democracy’ in selected foreign states, which has so far only led to chaos wherever it has been tried, only adds to Russia’s discomfiture. It views US support for the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East and in other places like Ukraine and Venezuela as subversion and aggression under the guise of support for democracy. The fracturing of West Africa and the commencement of a strong global jihadist movement as a result of these initiatives are seen as excuses for further intervention by the West.

Russia has also embarked on a series of information dissemination initiatives aimed at creating a better international understanding of its concerns and also to provide a more transparent explanation of its own efforts to enhance national security. This has resulted in opinion regarding Russian activities being split in most European nations. It is also a fact that there are clear limits to the political will in a large number of European Union member States to go all the way to counter Russian moves in Eastern Europe. The Ukraine situation would be a litmus test for the new found confidence on display in Russian foreign policy and security doctrine. The situation could lead to a unilateral Russian intervention in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, at the opportune moment. Further, a subsequent spread towards Odessa to control the entire northern and western coastline of the Black Sea is not difficult to envisage. The fear of miscalculation leading to unwanted escalation will in all probabilities keep the western response to these actions muted.

Russia is also actively increasing its presence and improving its influence in the Middle East and North Africa. On its sights to make significant inroads are countries like Algeria, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. While providing training and hardware to the countries, Saudi Arabia being an exception even today, Russian intent is to make the traditional allies of the US question their bilateral relationship and bring to bear the advantages that a tilt towards a Russian-led Eurasian alliance would entail. Emphasising the US role in ‘breaking’ the states of Iraq, Syria and Egypt sits well with this broader objective. Russia definitely believes that a new world order—where there is an alternative to the US-led Western hegemony centred on Moscow and its friends—must emerge. In order to achieve this state of affairs Russia needs to wean its erstwhile satellite states and republics away from the Western system and influence. The new policy is aimed at achieving this effect.

Military Modernisation

For the past eight years, rearmament has been the focus of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the military. However, new equipment that is reaching front-line units are still insufficient in numbers to convert the entire force into an ultra-modern fighting force—the ultimate aim of the Government. The State Armament Program (SAP) 2011-2020, reputed to have been allocated USD 760 billion in funding for its duration, is the roadmap that has been drawn up to achieve this aim. This is significant because it is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that the military has been directly provided resources for arms procurement. This bonanza has only started to show its effect. For example, in 2013, the Russian Air Force completed the induction of 32 Su-34 ‘Fullback’ fighter-bombers and is on track to accept a further 92 by 2020. These extremely capable aircraft will form the backbone of Russian military aviation till more capable fifth generation aircraft, now in testing, become operational.

The SAP is scheduled to deliver: 400 intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (ICBMS/SLBMS); 8 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines; 20 multi-purpose submarines (SSBNs); 50 major surface ships; 100 military satellites; 600 fixed-wing aircraft; 1000 helicopters; 2300 tanks; 2000 self-propelled artillery systems; 17,000 military vehicles; 56 S-400 air defence system battalions; and 10 Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile brigades. (information from Jane’s Defence Weekly, 4 June 2014, pp 28-30). By any standards this is a huge shopping list and it is reported that the acquisition process is only slightly behind schedule. However, major arms procurement, even with a captive indigenous industry, is a difficult process and further slippage can be expected by the end of the SAP period. The trajectory is ambitious, to say the least.

Although the allocation of money for procurement has not been falling short by any significant amount, the allocations have been degraded by inflation and corruption. While the impact of inflation can be easily calculated, the effect of corruption cannot be quantified with any certainty. This is bound to plague the SAP well into its completion. There are also other issues that would detract from a successful completion of this ambitious Program. Russia’s Military Industrial Complex is far from being state-of-art facilities, which is a precondition for the production of sophisticated military equipment. The facilities that are functioning well and have the desired technological sophistication are the aerospace industries that already have international export orders to complete. This could compete with the domestic requirements and slow the induction rate of vitally important equipment into the Russian Air Force. The overall effect would be a slower than desired enhancement of the holistic capability of the force.

The other side of the coin is that in true Russian form the SAP 2011-2020 will get overrun by another more advance or improved SAP at some point before 2020, say with an SAP 2018-2028. This is a mechanism that has been often used to cover up the shortfalls of the previous SAP and would mean that it is business as usual in the Russian Government—an indeterminate movement forward and back and lack of transparency from the outside world. Russia seems to like its status as an enigma.


Russia is on the move—to reclaiming its ‘legitimate’ place in the sun—there is no doubts about it. How this will be achieved and what effect the moves will have on the overall security situation in Europe and the Middle East remains to be seen. What is certain is the under its current leadership, from now on Russia will oppose any kind of hegemonic move by US and the West. It has gone through the pain of being sidelined for more than 20 years and believes that it now has the capacity and credibility to assert itself once more on the world stage. In modern times Russia has never been a sleeping giant, it was more an externally sedated giant who has now decided to ensure that such sedation will not take place again. What the future holds is difficult to predict. However, if one is to hazard a guess, the emergence of Russia is more likely to stabilise an emerging multi-polar world in the long term rather than further destabilise a fading uni-polar one led by a reluctant and diminishing super power.

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)


  1. I think the crew operating the foreign policy infrastructure in Washington remains staffed primarily by NeoConservatives hired under Bush. Understanding things in realist terms is typically not part of their game plan, their core competency is lobbying Washington to follow their advice as with their great successes in Iraq and throughout the middle east. The costs to the countries caught up in their style of policy and planning are sky-high. Ukraine is looks like another of their victims.

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