The question of Russian ambitions is never far removed from the minds of Western leaders. In the early months of the Second World War, Winston Churchill famously remarked, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” Yet, this key is remarkably easy to find upon analyzing Russian national interest through the lens of historical and geographical realities.
Historically, Russian insecurity and vulnerability is rooted in its near indefensible geography. There are two main invasion routes into Russia: the Eurasian Steppe, which stretches almost completely uninterrupted from Hungary to Manchuria, and the North European Plain, which stretches from the Pyrenees Mountains on the Franco-Spanish border to the Ural Mountains in the heart of Russia. In the 12th Century, the medieval kingdom of the Kievan Rus, centered around Kiev and occupying much of western Russia, was destroyed and occupied by Mongol invaders traversing the Eurasian Steppe. As Muscovy emerged as a new sovereign territory in the 15th Century, it sought to prevent a repeat of the Mongol nightmare through its subsequent invasion of Siberia and eventual domination of the Eurasian Steppe.
Although Russia achieved remarkable success in protecting itself from invasion to the east, it suffered multiple near-catastrophic invasions from the west through the North European Plain from Napoleon and Hitler. In both instances, the logistical challenge of invading and occupying Russia, particularly in the winter, proved to be the undoing of the invaders. These traumatic events impressed upon Russia the importance of dominating the North European Plain to protect itself from hostile powers and to provide strategic depth in the advent of another invasion.
Russia nearly succeeded in this objective following WWII. Sensing a major geostrategic threat from the communist Soviet Union, the democratic United States and its democratic allies in Western Europe formed NATO as a mechanism to thwart Russian ambitions. Ironically, the creation of NATO reinforced Russian fears of great powers amassing near its vulnerable invasion route to strike at the core of the Russian state.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian people witnessed economic and political calamity. Virtually overnight, the population and territory under Russian control decreased by 52 and 24 percent respectively. From 1991 to 1999, the Russian economy contracted by an estimated 35.6 percent. Furthermore, Russia witnessed Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic become NATO members. From the Russian perspective, this expansion of American power into Russia’s near abroad represented a potentially existential threat. It is little wonder, therefore, that Russian President Vladimir Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
But out of the ashes of this catastrophe reemerged the modern Russian state. After his rise to power in 1999, Vladimir Putin’s Russia experienced a dramatic resurgence in fortunes. By the end of the 20th Century, Russia was economically destitute, politically unstable, and facing political secession movements in the Caucuses. Fifteen years later, Russia’s economy had grown by 94 percent, political order was restored, and the Caucuses were under firm Russian control. Furthermore, under Putin’s most recent term beginning in 2012, Russia began a systematic attempt to regain control of its near abroad by undermining U.S. global influence. This desire to reestablish Russia as a global superpower helps explain Russia’s decision to broker a chemical weapons deal in Syria, illegally annex Crimea from Ukraine, initiate a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine, intervene militarily to save the murderous Assad regime, threaten NATO allies in the Baltics, and conduct clandestine operations to disrupt the American presidential election.
Based on these recent events, it appears that Russia’s geopolitical resurgence is a success. However, closer inspection reveals the unsettling reality that ruin may be in Russia’s future. Due to the North American energy revolution driven by horizontal fracking, oil prices declined by 58 percent from $111.87 a barrel in June 2014 to $46.89 in June 2017. This resulted in grave implications for the Russian economy.
In 2015, it was estimated that oil and natural gas accounted for 54 percent of Russian exports and 12.8 percent of total GDP. From January 2015 to December 2016, oil prices averaged $48.22 a barrel. During this time, it is calculated that the Russian economy contracted by approximately 3 percent. Additionally, Russia experienced inflation rates of 7.8, 15.5, and 7.1 percent in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively. These dual factors of low oil prices and high inflation caused marked declines in the standards of living for millions of Russians. It is reported that 82 percent of Russians are feelings the impacts of the recession and many are facing a dramatic decline in their standard of living. In 2013, the national poverty rate was 10.8 percent. At the end of 2015, it was 13.3 percent.
The severity of the recession is also forcing the Russian government to reduce its budget. In January of 2016, Russia’s financial minister noted that the government require oil prices of $82 a barrel to balance its budget. Since July 2015, the average monthly oil price has failed to surpass $60 a barrel. Consequently, the Russian government is forced to dip heavily into its reserve fund to remain solvent. However, this is a desperate, short-term solution, as it is possible that this source may be fully depleted by the end of 2017. Russia’s best hope is that oil prices will rebound.
Unfortunately for Russia, it is doubtful oil prices will ever rebound. Due to hydraulic fracking, the United States is poised to produce record amounts of oil, thus hindering the ability of Russia and OPEC to manipulate oil prices. It is forecasted that oil prices over the next five years will average approximately $54 a barrel. Furthermore, as nations begin to utilize more alternative sources of energy, most estimates indicate that the global demand for oil will peak in 2040 while some estimates assert demand will peak as soon as 2025. These factors make it unlikely that Russia’s main economic driver, oil, is viable in the long-run.
This new economic reality creates a potentially terrifying scenario for Russia due to the inherent paradox of the Russian state. The very geographic vastness which provides its security also undermines its stability. To overcome the geographic challenges of governing such an enormous territory, Russia historically relies heavily upon its security apparatus to maintain national unity. Putin himself rose to power through the Soviet KGB and Russian FSB. Thus, close attention must be paid to instances of political unrest within Russia.
On March 26, 2017, 70,000 Russians in 99 cities coordinated to protest the Russian government. Similar, yet smaller, anti-corruption protests occurred in June 2017. Due to the lack of political freedoms in Russia, these events reflect simmering public discontent with Putin’s administration. Furthermore, many of Russia’s youth do not remember the chaos of the post-Soviet era, the period in which Putin established his political legitimacy. Thus, it is possible that Russia’s next generation will be more likely to challenge the Russian government.
As Russia’s proxy war in Eastern Ukraine stagnates and its intervention in Syria morphs into a quagmire, it is evident that Russia is sorely lacking in the ability to decisively project power beyond its borders. And due to the combination of economic stagnation, internal unrest, and increased NATO operations, it appears Russia is maneuvering itself into an unenviable geopolitical position. In fact, some argue that, considering Russia’s geographic vulnerabilities and ongoing economic crisis, the Kremlin’s actions in Syria, Ukraine, the Baltics, and the American political system are born out of weakness and desperation, not strength.
The irony of Russia’s declining power is it makes the nation more dangerous in the short-term. As Russia continues to weaken and destabilize due to low oil prices and increased political unrest, Putin will be at risk of feeling backed into a corner. In his autobiography, Putin reflects on a childhood encounter with a rat:
“There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and I managed to slam the door shut in its nose.”
Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval ratings jumped nearly 30 points and show no signs of declining despite the economic malaise and political discord. Additionally, Putin sees himself as Russia’s contemporary savior. If his political fortunes reverse, it is possible Putin may risk additional military action in Europe to ensure his, and Russia’s, continued survival. Consequently, as U.S. policy makers attempt to curtail Russian aggression in the Baltics, Syria, and Ukraine as well as counter Russian hacking efforts, the U.S. must avoid backing Putin into a corner politically. To avoid a potentially catastrophic armed confrontation, the U.S. must understand the true weakness of Russia’s geopolitical position and thus provide Putin with a means to save face diplomatically. Indeed, a wounded bear that is cornered may be the most dangerous foe of all.