Almost a quarter of a century after the demise of the USSR, Russia is back on the world stage and in a familiar threatening manner. Some are describing the resurgence of Russia as a return to a new Cold War; others are predicting a coming war with Russia. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has described Russia as presenting ‘the greatest threat to our national security’; US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has accused Russia of endangering world order and making threatening statements about its potential use of nuclear weapons; Zbigniew Brzezinski proclaims that we’re already in a Cold War, but that an accommodation should be negotiated to assure Russia that Ukraine won’t become a member of NATO.
What are we to make off all these serious and disturbing allegations? There is no doubt that Putin’s Russia is now seeking to reassert itself as a major power. The outward symbols of this occurred as long ago as 2008, when Russia used military force against Georgia, although not very impressively. While Russian forces succeeded in their strategic aim of humiliating Georgia and reinforcing Russian control of Georgia’s separatist regions, there were many tactical and operational problems.
According to Gustav Gressel, the poor performance of the Russian armed forces in Georgia demonstrated the need for real defence reform. It isn’t generally understood in the West just how far-reaching Russian defence reforms have been, even though we have witnessed the results since March 2014 in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. It’s worth noting here Gressel’s conclusion that the Russian armed forces now have the ability to react quickly and strike without warning. Russia is now a military power that could overwhelm any of its neighbours if they were isolated from Western support.
However, it isn’t merely a matter of Russia’s improved military capabilities and training, as significant as they arguably are. The most important political factor is the role of President Vladimir Putin, who’s determined to reassert Russia’s major-power status and recover its standing in the Eurasian geopolitical space. As former British Ambassador to Russia Roderic Lyne explains, President Putin’s ‘new model Russia’ is that of an independent great power resuming its geopolitical position on its own terms. Lyne states that this reflects a deep sense of insecurity and a fear that Russia’s interests would be threatened if it were to lose control of its neighbourhood.
Putin speaks of Russia’s civilising mission on the Eurasian continent but he also paints a picture of Russia as a victim of the West: ‘They are constantly trying to sweep us into a corner’ and, when the USSR broke up, Russia ‘was not simply robbed, it was plundered’.
It’s not only Putin who regrets the demise of the USSR: many educated Russians today mourn the loss of Russia’s international status. The Soviet Union was a country to be respected and feared, if not liked. President Putin plays on this by appealing to their sense of nationalism and by beating up ultranationalist sentiment over issues such as the recovery of Crimea and the historical memories of ‘the gathering of the Russian lands’.
Great power revisionism has now returned, and two great authoritarian powers, China and Russia, are fundamentally challenging the established order. Both coercion and the use, or threatened use, of military power is back in vogue. Russia is seeking to carve out a sphere of influence in what it terms the ‘near abroad’ in Europe, and China is using coercion in the South and East China seas to assert its rising great power status. While Russia and China are very different actors, they are leagued together in their rejection of what they see as US hegemony and their view that the West has imposed on them the current international order, which must now be rewritten. We run the risk in the second decade of the 21st century of a confrontation between two new power blocs: the authoritarian continental powers of China and Russia and the Western democratic maritime states led by America.
The bottom line for the West is that the shape of the international order isn’t encouraging. The problems that bedevil present-day relations between the West and Russia aren’t simply the product of Cold War mindsets. Today’s Russian state has inherited a culture derived from both Soviet and tsarist times that bear the imprint of doctrines, disciplines and habits acquired over a considerable period of time in its relations with neighbouring states.
The re-emergence of Russia as an expansionist, revisionist actor on Europe’s eastern border has profound strategic consequences for Europe. Some Russians consider that the paths for Europe and Russia are seriously diverging and will remain so for a long time, ‘probably for decades to come’. Russia has neither the will nor the capacity to compete with the West on a global scale these days; however, even if it can’t shape the international order, it may be able to spoil it.
Given these strategic implications, it’s important for Australia to take the Russian threat more seriously and be better informed about developments in Russia. Our current security priorities focus on terrorism in the Middle East and the rise of China, as if nothing else is of national security concern. A Russia that’s willing to use military force around its periphery, especially in Europe, will further distract the US from its rebalance to the Asia–Pacific—to the serious detriment of Australia’s defence policy. For us in the West, a new era of confrontation with a heavily armed and belligerent Russia will introduce tensions into the international system that at the least will be extremely destabilising and, at worst, might well return us to the geopolitical brinkmanship and dangers of the Cold War.