Interview with Dr. Oleksandr Lytvynenko,
Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies
How would you describe Russia’s status and its grand strategy in current world politics?
The collapse of the Soviet Union, the hegemon of the Socialist bloc and the second global superpower, had become a shock for Russian elites. The Russian Federation went a long way to recover from that shock and learn a new role.
In the first half of the 1990s, Russia was willing to integrate with the West by adopting Western values and norms. That period coincided with the crisis in Russian economy and a huge need for Western economic assistance. The final rejection of those hopes and the desire to get rid of Western, mostly American, influence were marked by the appointment of Y. Primakov as the Russian minister of foreign affairs.
In 1998-2006, Russia attempted to create a foreign policy identity of its own, separated from the West and built upon succession to the USSR. Those attempts resulted in a period of efforts aimed at integration with the West but with a certain degree of autonomy in strategy and values. Putin’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 marked a general understanding by Russian leadership that those attempts failed. The emotions of that speech are real.
Ever since, the goals of Russia’s policy have remained steady and can be shortly described as enhancement of Russia’s security and position as one of the centres of the modern world.
Russia’s perception is built upon the doctrine of multipolarity, which is based on a traditional view of the world as being divided into spheres of influence of great powers, which make joint decisions about the future.
Russia insists on preserving the architecture of the world order that arose after World War II. In other words, the Yalta-Potsdam system should be adapted to current realities, while Russia must be one of the great powers.
Implementation of Russia’s grand strategy in the recent 15 years brought about mixed results. On the one hand, many international actors recognise Russia as a great power. The 2017 US National Security Strategy labels both Russia and China as US competitors, as well as indirectly recognises Russia as a great power.
On the other hand, Russia has ruined relations with the US and considerably worsened interaction with the EU and its member states. Russia’s aggressive policy has de facto undermined the post-Soviet space and shaped anti-Russian positioning of Ukraine’s foreign policy; it has also led to a growing repudiation of Russia in the world.
An important direction of Russia’s grand strategy is securing control over the territory of the former USSR. That control is perceived as a prerequisite of Russia’s security. Russia’s problem as an empire centre is that it cannot effectively manage the imperial space. During the 1990s and 2000s, Russia has been hesitating between a “pragmatic business” approach and attempts to buy the elites of the former Soviet republics. These hesitations only provoke rejection and thus reinforce resentment toward Russia. Generally speaking, Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet space is rather irrational and can be evaluated as losing.
Is Russia a Rising or a Declining Power?
Russia is considered by its leadership as a successor to the Russian Empire and the USSR. In general, political, expert, media, and academic circles in many countries share this view. In this dimension, Russia is seen as an imperial state in decline. Such a perception is well grounded.
One may just have a look at the map of Europe in 1989 and 2000. The comparison demonstrates a radical reduction of Russia’s zone of influence. In 1989, the Soviet Army was stationed in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, while today Russian troops are occupying Crimea and certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, and are present in the Transnistrian region of Moldova, as well as in Belarus and Armenia.
Russia’s military potential in 2020, first and foremost in land forces, is considerably smaller than that of the Soviet Union in 1988. At the same time, Russia still keeps parity with the US in strategic nuclear weapons. After 2014, Russia has in a way re-established its power projection capabilities, however, on a limited scale.
Russia’s share in the world’s economy is also telling. In 1970, Soviet GDP accounted for over 9% of world economy, while in 1988 it was just about 7.5%. To put it more precisely, in 1988 the GDP of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was 2.91% of the world’s GDP. By 2020, Russia’s share declined to about 2%; however, in 2013, it was about 2.97%. All figures are in nominal dollars according to the World Bank data.
Technological lag between Russia and Western countries, as well as China and other countries of East Asia, has increased. At the same time, in the past decade, the Russian leadership has been putting considerable efforts into renewing the country’s technological potential, no matter how controversial that process is.
A rather unexpected effect of the Western sanctions since 2014 is also worth mentioning. Along with damaging Russian economy, the sanctions enhanced replacement of imports and partial repatriation of elites, and consolidated Russian society against the West.
The fall of communism has not been compensated by the ideology of the “Russian World”. It is not appealing enough, even in the core space of the former Russian Empire/Soviet Union. There is no point to even mention the potential of the “Russian World” to enrol supporters from other countries, like the United Kingdom, France, or the US.
In the late 2010s, Russia was attempting to re-establish its influence in traditional zones of the Soviet presence, namely in the Middle East, Balkans, Central America, territory of the former Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe. The results have been controversial. Compared to the influence and capabilities of the USSR in the 1980s, Russia’s current positions are in a long-term decline.
On the other hand, if Russia is compared to the RSFSR and to itself in the past, but internally, one may say that the situation has not worsened significantly. In some regards, such as living standards, economic and political freedoms, it even improved significantly. Thus, it may be concluded that the current stance in Russia is defined by a number of mixed trends. That may mean that Russia finds itself in a period of post-imperial transformation.
Historical examples of Western European countries (1950-1980s) and Turkey (1920-1990s) illustrate that such a period is always difficult and controversial. It is marked by a recurrence of imperial policies. In two generations’ lifetime, one may expect considerable changes in Russia, both toward liberalisation and strengthening of authoritarian regime.
The possibility of Russia’s losing several regions should not be ruled out completely, although the Chechen experience proves such a possibility to be rather low. For a certain period, Russia will keep the potential for both self-protection and power projection. Periods of temporary weakening of Russia, or even catastrophic scenarios with unpredictable outcomes for the world and, most of all, neighbouring states, are not to be excluded either.
What is the main instrument of Russia’s foreign policy?
The choice of foreign policy instruments is determined by Russia’s strengths and weaknesses. Thus, its most important instruments are energy resources, in particular natural gas supplies, as well as the technological potential of Rosatom, though to a considerably lesser extent. These instruments are mentioned in Russia’s Energy Strategy until 2035. Strategic energy projects are telling, first of all natural gas flows.
According to the IMF estimates, Russian economy is currently placed 11th in the world by the GDP rate. At the same time, commodities dominate Russian export, while the technological level of the economy remains low. By the size of the economy, Russia is behind not only the US, the EU, and China but also Japan, India, Canada, and Brazil. Russia’s huge resources are not only used inefficiently; they also limit incentives for intensive economic development. That significantly narrows Russia’s capabilities and prioritises military instruments in the country’s grand strategy.
Therefore, a considerable role is played by military force. Military reform in the late 2000s, launched after the Russian-Georgian War of 2008, largely increased the potential of Russian military forces. Large-scale rearmament started. The nuclear triad was modernised. Capabilities of ground forces and the air force are gradually increasing. Renovation of naval forces is underway. Military training has been intensified, and the doctrinal framework of using Russian military forces has been reformulated. Russia regained capabilities to project its power outside own territory. Strengths and weaknesses of this instrument have been revealed during military operations against Ukraine (since 2014), in Syria, and in Libya.
Russia inherited foreign policy service and special service from the USSR, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Main Directorate of the General Staff (formerly the Main Intelligence Directorate, GRU). Educational and scientific infrastructure for foreign policy support created in the USSR has also been preserved, although in a smaller volume.
Russia kept the USSR’s seat on the UN Security Council. After 1991, Moscow has been attempting in one way or another to re-establish the system of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance/Warsaw Pact in the form of CIS/CSTO, as well as the Single Economic Space, Customs Union, and Eurasian Economic Union.
Activities of the special service, restarted in the 2000s, are currently aimed not only at gathering sensitive information but also at generating influence, inter alia through shaping lobby groups loyal to Russia, for instance through corrupting political and intellectual elites.
In the past 10-15 years, Russia has made large investments in modern informational instruments, both hard and soft – in other words, informational-psychological, propaganda, and cyber instruments. The Soviet system of “inoveschaniye” has been reinstalled on a new technological level and includes the TV channel RT and news network Sputnik, information agency RIA Novosti,and alike. A system of satellite and internet broadcasting has been created.
Media under state control, first of all television, that are aimed at the Russian audience are also used to influence Russian-speaking groups abroad. A system of propaganda in social networks and cyber space in general is operational. It encompasses special service units as well as private structures.
Capabilities of Russia’s technical intelligence service, created during the Soviet times, have been in the recent 30 years converted into a system of cyber war. Publications of recent years witness a special role of the Main Directorate of the General Staff in the process. No less important is the participation of private and even criminal structures in Russia’s activities in cyber space. According to information in the media, Russian special services enrol hacker groups in their operations.
A broad use of partnerships between state and private structures in security and military areas has become an important innovation of the recent decades. Many tasks traditionally attributed to the special service and military are transferred to private structures. In particular, an active use of private military companies can be mentioned. The activity of PMC Wagner, broadly reported in the media, is an example. The company’s units took part in military operations in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and other African states, as well as in Venezuela.
It is impossible to omit the role of Russian oligarchs in both financing and arranging important foreign policy initiatives. The special role of the Russian businessman Malofeev in the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014, as well as the role of Prigozhin in establishing structures for promoting Russia’s propaganda in social networks, should be mentioned. Prigozhin is also linked to PMC Wagner.
An important feature of how Russian instruments of foreign policy are used is their coordination and cohesion. Russia’s strategic operations in Syria, where efforts of expeditionary forces are supported with active foreign policy and informational activity, are highly illustrative. That includes the establishment of Astana format, intensive mediation efforts in Syria, as well as contacts with major external actors, such as the US and Western coalition, Israel, Iran, and Turkey.
The Russian doctrine inherits Soviet traditions of coordinated use of different instruments for the same goal. On the other hand, this doctrine takes into account modern American approaches identified with the smart power concept. Sometimes such activity is called ‘hybrid warfare’.
At the same time, that is a model. In practice, Russia’s actions may be marked by lack of coordination and controversy.
What are three main threats from Russia to Ukraine’s security?
Russia’s biggest threat to Ukraine is the ongoing aggression. The temporary occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol as well as large-scale military, political, economic, and information support of militants in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine are key manifestations of that aggression.
These actions not only violate state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine; they also provoke instability, limit opportunities for Ukraine’s development, and create a negative perception. Along with that, Russia reserves control over escalation and may resume military actions in Donbas up to a full-force attack against Ukraine.
Another threat, even more dangerous strategically, is Russia’s attempt to secure Ukraine’s continued residing in the grey zone of security between Russia and the EU/NATO. Confrontation with Russia, triggered by the Russian aggression, turns Ukraine into a dead end and Europe’s backyard. In this way, Russia limits opportunities for Ukraine’s progress and enhances dangerous trends in Ukrainian society. Authoritarian radical movements are among them. Support of Russian-speaking population helps turn issues of culture and language into a weapon of radicalisation of internal conflicts in Ukraine.
One more threat is the ongoing economic war against Ukraine, which destroys transit capabilities and blocks Ukraine’s access to markets.