The Lost Bear: Russia’s search for a role on the world stage

11 Dec 2018


For much of the modern period, Russia has pursued a very idea-centric foreign policy. Yet, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has lacked a coherent vision of its global aims, other than simply seeking to flex its military muscle.


In his search for a leading role on the international stage, Putin is attempting to gain back the honour he feels his country lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union - an event he famously decried as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’.


Recent events in Ukraine are part of Russia’s exploration for a role on the world stage. On 25 November, Russian gunboats opened fire on a Ukrainian naval convoy in the Sea of Azov, seizing it along with two other Ukrainian ships. This was the culmination of months of Russian strangulation. Since May, Russia has carried out over 200 stop-and-searches of Ukrainian vessels, deliberately delaying Ukrainian merchant ships. Indeed, the November attack was as much an economic assault as a military statement – the Ukrainian economy is heavily reliant on trade through the nearby ports.


The attacks on Ukraine have served as an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its power and prove it must be taken seriously. This is part of a wider move restore Russia’s position as a great power.


Throughout history, Russia has rooted its identity in the idea of being an exceptional protector. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Russia prided itself on protecting Orthodox Christians. As its religious zeal declined, the country then became the protector of Slavs, and later of Communists and the global proletariat. These identities have acted a basis for foreign policy actions, often with a millenarian-like belief that Russia’s actions on the global stage are part of a grand fight against oppression, liberating its religious, ethnic or political kin.


Since the collapse of Communism, Russia has struggled to find a new identity as a protector. In the absence of an international identity, Russia has had to rely on displays of military power, mostly recently in Syria, to prove it is a great power worthy of deference.


Yeltsin and Gorbachev did explore the idea of Russia coming in from the cold and collaborating with the West, with Gorbachev even managing to cultivate close personal relationships with Reagan and Thatcher. Although this détente was welcomed abroad, it was met with a feeling of humiliation at home, made all the worse by the country’s economy shrinking by nearly 40% in the 1990s.


It is no surprise, then, that Putin has modelled himself as a strongman determined to stop the rot. Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has sought to rebuild Russia’s standing in the world and forge an active role on the international stage. Within months of assuming power, the President launched himself into foreign policy, making high-profile visits to several European countries, as well as to Japan, India, China and even North Korea.


It must be remembered Russia is a recovering, not emerging, power. For Putin, the recovery of Russian honour requires the rest of the world to respect Russia and offer it a seat at the table as an equal partner. The West’s failure to do so has led to resentful revisionism.


Putin has, however, made some overtures to the West. In the aftermath of 9/11, Putin was one of the first to contact President Bush, offering to help in the war on terror and share intelligence. Russia also supported the invasion of Afghanistan, largely because of Russian concern about Afghan-sponsored terrorism in the Chechnya region.


But in recent years, Russia’s isolation from the West has resulted in it looking elsewhere for partners, particularly in states who have isolated themselves from the international order, such as Iran. With an isolationist, Trumpian America, Russia has been able to fill the vacuum in Syria, forming a power troika with Iran and Turkey that has proved decisive in the Syrian civil war. Putin is determined to prove that Russia is not just a ‘regional power’, and forming alliances with Middle Eastern nations enables Putin to stretch his reach across the globe.

Caption: While many leaders have condemned the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Putin has become increasingly friendly with the Saudis.


As Russia explores its foreign policy options, it is imperative that the West and global organisations do not turn inwards. Where the West steps back from power vacuums, Russia and its new Middle Eastern allies will happily step in.


In the wake of the Salisbury attack, it is difficult to see how the West can rekindle its relations with Russia. But in the long-term there are two potential strategies countries can follow. One is to bolster the rules-based order by increasing international presence in the Sea of Azov and making use of NATO forces. But deterrence through military presence may not be enough on its own - it does not necessarily protect against cyber warfare or targeted assassinations of the like seen in Salisbury.


The second is to come to terms with Russia by recognising its great power status and affording it a seat at the table. This is the more difficult of the two options, for it needs a sense of trust to work. However, matters of common interest that are relatively apolitical can be identified, such as climate change and counter-terrorism. These global issues could serve as a basis for co-operation.


To understand why Russia acts with such unpredictability, the West must understand Russia is still searching for a post-Soviet role on the world stage. To forge an identity for itself, Putin beliefs Russian honour must be restored by proving the country is capable of actively shaping the international order, using Syria as an experimental playground. As things currently stand, relations with the West are abysmal, so it is near impossible that European powers will see an equal partner in Putin. In the meantime, Russia will carve out a role for itself in opposition to its European neighbours, instead aligning itself with its kindred spirits in the Middle East who have also found themselves on the periphery of the international order.



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