Can Putin Resurrect Russia and Reassert it as a Global Power?

By William Houstoun
posted on March 16, 2014 in Grand Strategy, Politics and Society

Following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union under Russia’s control was considered the major power in Europe and Asia, rivaled in economic and military strength by only the U.S. However, since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia has fallen considerably from the global stage and, though still retaining a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, has slowly been eclipsed by other regional powers. The U.S. has clearly surpassed it in terms of military strength, while China, Germany, and other country’s economies have risen above it. Despite these setbacks, Russian President Putin seems determined to reassert Russia as a global force. Hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics was a first step in regaining that lost prominence but it will certainly not be the last.

Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Thomas E. Graham, Managing Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc., outlined the major challenges that Russia faces in its quest to reemerge as a global power. Among them: almost all the assets from which Soviet Russia drew its strength have drastically diminished in value, nuclear warheads are being replaced with cyber and precision strike weaponry, the value of the country’s oil reserves is shrinking as shale gas becomes more widely consumed, and the country’s education institutes have fallen from international prominence. Though President Putin has had some recent success in reestablishing Russia as a country of influence – Russia successfully brokered a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, has been influential in dictating the UN Security Council, and has recently has exerted its economic might over Ukraine – Graham and other experts doubt that Russia can enjoy prolonged global influence if it does not reform its domestic, foreign, and economic policies.

In order to reemerge as the premier power in Eurasia, Graham believes that reform to the country’s domestic and political institutions is essential. But he was clear to state that he does not advocate for a transformation to a Western-style democracy; rather, he believes that the country needs to abandon its authoritarian rule and modernize the country’s public institutions. Currently, there is a clear generational divide between the country’s political leaders and the educated youths who turned out in mass to protest the 2011 presidential elections. These young protesters didn’t grow up in Soviet Russia, are better educated than their predecessors, and possess the global communication capabilities well suited for an interconnected world. On the whole, their outlooks and aspirations are vastly different than those of the country’s current leaders, who largely grew up indoctrinated in the Soviet worldview. For Russia to progress and compete in the modern world it will need to begin coopting young leaders and provide them with opportunities to affect policy decisions. For Russia to succeed, he argued, it can’t rely on its historic euro-centric views.

Embracing new views is much needed in Russian domestic policy, but it is absolutely essential that the country embrace new foreign policy strategies if it hopes to compete economically, Graham continued. Situated between Europe and East Asia, Russia could be entrenched in a variety of developing and growing markets. However, due to what he identified as Russia’s history of heavy Europe integration, the country has almost no economic footprint in East Asia. As it stands now, approximately 50% of Russian trade is conducted with Europe, while only 20% goes to East Asian countries. 75% of the foreign direct investment Russia receives is from European sources, and over 80% of Russia’s oil and gas exports are sent to Europe. In short, Graham said he views Russia as far too dependent on the European market: if it wants to achieve strong and lasting growth the country needs to develop commercial ties with East Asian markets, not just focus on its large EU and Chinese partners, and invest in businesses and new initiatives. He sees the Russian lead proposal for the Eurasian Union as a step in the right direction but too narrow in its scope, as it largely focused on ex-Soviet countries and fails to promote any strong economic ties.

If Russia is to succeed in regaining the power and influence it once had, it will need to restructure and refocus its domestic and international policies. The current demonstrations going on in Kiev, along with those seen during Russia’s last presidential elections, demonstrate the vast difference in opinions that exists between the region’s leaders and the youth who grew up after the USSR’s collapse. Russian elites must be willing to look beyond their historical European partners and begin reaching out to developing countries and invest in new markets. This includes working closer with the U.S. to promote economic growth and strengthen its institutions. Graham noted that there are currently more Russian students and business leaders traveling and working in the U.S. than at any previous time in history. This exchange of people and business can benefit both countries. All that is needed in Russia is the political will to begin enacting the necessary policy reforms.