#18 - JRL 2006-38 - JRL Home
Date: Mon, 06 Feb 2006
From: Andrei Tsygankov <andrei@sfsu.edu>
Subject: Projecting Confidence, Not Fear: Russia Asserts Itself

http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/2006-38-18.cfm

Western pundits and media are alarmed. Russia is gaining strength and becoming more assertive in its foreign policy. Unable to influence outcomes of the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Russia did not disengage from the region, as some had hoped. As Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova moved to challenge the Russia-controlled CIS, the Kremlin was determined to preserve its influence by refusing to subsidize their economies and moving to raise prices for its energy. Russia’s state-controlled company Gazprom negotiated a sharp increase in prices for natural gas for Ukraine, as well as other ex-republics. Russia’s leaders also pursued aggressive policies of acquiring control over the ex-republics’ strategic property and energy transportation. A recent example is Gazprom’s agreement to invest the amount of $1.5 billion in Uzbekistan in exchange for monopoly status for producing and exporting gas in the region.

In addition, Russia has been working to revive regional groupings under its leadership, such as Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty, and to do away with American military presence in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has already evicted the U.S. military base from Khanabad, and Kyrgyzstan is demanding $200 million per year from the United States­a tens of times higher increase­for using the Manas base. It is quite possible that with Americans being pressured out, Russians will be moving in.

The most common explanation for the Russia’s assertive behavior points to Moscow’s revenge against the colored revolutionaries and politically “disloyal” states in the former Soviet world. Although there is no evidence of Russia’s involvement in the recent pipeline blasts in Georgia, many have rushed to implicate the Kremlin. President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili charged that the blasts were a deliberate retaliation for Georgia's efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and political influence. Russia’s new strategy is supposedly to use the “energy imperialism” for reviving the lost empire and challenging the West in a new global competition. Back in circulation are phobias of Russia’s “centuries-old” expansionism accompanied by fear of democracy at home.

This interpretation attributes wrong motives to the Russian behavior. By presenting Moscow as increasingly paranoid and disrespectful of existing international rules, it projects the image of an irrational erratic power that continues to cling to its die-hard habits. Nothing can be farther from truth. The world is faced with an increasingly confident and stable Russia that is rapidly recovering from the economic depression of the 1990s. While taking precautions against encroachment on its sovereignty, Russia is far from isolating itself or launching revenge against those vulnerable to its pressures. Fear and lack of imagination is not what drives Moscow’s new behavior. Rather, this behavior demonstrates a forward-looking vision and an impressive grasp of new international opportunities. After years of searching, Russia has found a firm ground from which to proceed­a successful economic modernization.

Having resisted the eastern enlargement of NATO without much success during the 1990s, Russia has found a positive national idea. Vladimir Putin formulated it in his programmatic election speech warning of the danger of Russia turning into a third-world country. Ridiculing overly noisy great power rhetoric­“let us not recollect our national interests on those occasions when we have to make some loud statements”­he compared Russia to Portugal, the EU’s poorest member, concluding that “it would take us fifteen years and an eight percent annual growth of our GDP to reach the per capita GDP level of present-day Portugal.” Since then, Russia entered the stage of foreign policy concentration, with priorities of national economic recovery and secure borders. This policy was not unlike that of Prince Alexander Gorchakov’s concentration after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean war in 1856. Like Putin, Gorchakov was brutally honest in his characterization of the weakened Russia as a “great, powerless country.”

Today’s Russia, however, is no longer “powerless.” Although much remains to be done in the areas of economy and security, particularly in the North Caucasus, one must register a considerable progress and act on it. Thanks to the high energy prices and pragmatic leadership, Russia has moved from a primitive accumulation of capital to the stage of generating a stable flow of investments in the economy. Internally, it is now in a position to develop more comprehensive social policies and address its status of a “third-world” country. Externally, it is about time that a nation armed with a forward-looking vision and growing resources develop a more aggressive foreign policy. The era of economic stagnation and moral decline is behind Russia, and it is logical to shift from concentration to projection of the accumulated national confidence.

This is the context in which one should make sense of the Russia’s foreign policy assertion. Its recent effort to correct a heavily-distorted price structure for energy in relations with Ukraine and other nations is a projection of confidence, not fear or revenge. The reduction of subsidies, particularly for those who chose to orient their policies away from Russia, is a rational response of a growing and energy-rich nation in a world of skyrocketing energy prices. The key priority here is still internal modernization, but in a context of considerably enlarged international opportunities. Contra to characterizations of Russia as a paranoid and isolationist power, there is a full understanding on part of the Kremlin that staying engaged with Western and other nations is not one option among many, but rather a foreign policy imperative.

There is still a danger that Russia’s old school Cold Warriors may push the leadership away from its modernization program and that Russia’s economic recovery may translate into a foreign policy adventurism. One should not forget, for example, how the economic take-off of 1890s nurtured by Sergei Witte encouraged the tsar’s risky behavior in the Far East, which resulted in a crushing defeat of Russia by Japan. There are still the likes of Pleve and Bezobrazov around Putin looking to divert his promising foreign policy agenda to a “little victorious war.” The key difference is, however, that today Witte’s philosophy of a state-driven modernization and commercial expansion is also Putin’s philosophy.