Russian geo-strategic planning is deeply rooted in raw self-interest and as such, its actions in recent years can only be described—at least by international relations theorists—as offensive realism. But what is offensive realism? Well, according to John Mearsheimer,[i] arguably America’s foremost offensive realist, offensive realism “maintains that the basic structure of the international system forces states concerned about their security to compete with each other for power.”[ii] Russia faces a variety of security challenges that feed into its aggressive foreign policy choices.
Geographic and economic challenges are some of the main issues that have left the Russians feeling vulnerable, causing them to take an antagonistic regional and global posture. Their behavior over the last decade tells the story, the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region; under a variety of pretenses, chief among them being that ethnic-Russians were under threat by the Ukrainian government, belied the true strategic purpose of the belligerent action, Sevastopol.
Putin’s unwavering support for Assad’s brutal and deadly rule in Syria is much of the same. Russian naval presence in Latakia and Tartus in Syria, and Sevastopol in Crimea give Russia access to both the Mediterranean and Black Seas. Allowing Russia to maintain naval force presence and access to global trade routes without having to be concerned about the seasonal freezing and thawing of ports in Russia proper. Let’s take a look at Russia’s geography to set the stage.
In his excellent book, Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall argues that one of Russia’s desperate goals is to obtain and maintain a warm water port.[iii] With Western Europe blocking access to the Atlantic; and Vladivostok—the country’s largest port on its Pacific coast–freezing in the winter months, and surrounded by the Japanese archipelago (U.S. ally)—open access to major trading routes and the projection of naval power has been an abiding concern for the Russians.[iv]
Traditionally, to enter the Atlantic the Russian’s had to contend with the GIUK gap,[v] in the North Atlantic, a naval choke-point manned by U.S. allied nations. Adding on to that, the U.S. is stepping up its monitoring efforts of the GIUK gap by allocating US$14.4 million to refurbish and modernize the American Air Base in Keflavik, Iceland.[vi] Russia is aware of being surrounded and contained.
As mentioned above, Russia is looking to Sevastopol in Crimea and, Latakia and Tartus in Syria to gain access to warm water ports.[vii] However, with Turkey (a NATO member) controlling the Bosporus, Russia’s ability to maneuver in and out of the Black Sea is limited.[viii] Not to mention, NATO’s naval domination of the Mediterranean keeping Russia penned in, and as such, containing its capacity to operate freely throughout the region despite access to these ports. Compounding this limitation is Russia’s westernmost geographic problem, the Northern European Plain.
The Northern European Plain, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Ural Mountains in the east,[ix] has been the stage of many European invasions of Russian.[x] Furthermore, with the majority of its 142.3 million people residing in the westernmost—European—1/5th of the country, between the Baltic and Caspian Seas, in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the vast majority of Russians would be swept up in a western-driven invasion.[xi] This is an unlikely event, nevertheless, history has taught the Russians that it must guard its western flank.
Today, when Russia looks west towards Europe, it sees a unified threat with strategic depth, booming economies, democratic institutions and the backing of American military might right at its border, the very border that has been the staging ground for invasion after invasion. So, Putin sees little option but to take an offensive posture to stave off disaster from the West.
The Western Alliance
NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded by the U.S., Canada and Western European countries in April 1949 to oppose and contain the then Soviet Union, it is now an alliance of 29 nations.[xii] NATO accounts for 45% (US$36 trillion) of gross world product and with a combined defense budget of US$900 billion it utterly dwarfs Russia,[xiii] with its US$66.3 billion defense budget and US$1.5 trillion GDP.[xiv] Russia sees the western alliance as an existential threat. The Russians list NATO as its primary and most lethal adversary, in its latest National Security Strategy.[xv] From the Russian perspective the alliance is seen as an expanding threat now on its border, and is “undermining the global order” whilst targeting Russia, who stands in opposition to NATO’s goals.[xvi]
The Russians see the western alliance as a destabilizing force in Eurasia, damaging what the Russians determine to be legitimate and sovereign governments. Additionally, they believe the alliance is fomenting violence and conflict abroad, and in Russia itself.[xvii] To counter these efforts Russia has an ambitious plan for modernizing its military. The Russians are modernizing their strategic nuclear triad, building 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles; developing eight Borei-class nuclear submarines; and updating their Tupolev Tu-160 supersonic bombers.[xviii]
Further, the Russian’s are also developing low-yield nuclear weapons and have set a goal of updating 70% of its military’s equipment by 2020.[xix] This is a difficult task given some of Russia’s economic limitations and priorities. Having said that, Russia seems to be able to stave off economic disaster despite the limitations it currently faces.
Compared to the NATO alliance countries as a collective, Russia has a relatively small economy of US$1.5 trillion. Faced with decreases in oil price over the last few years, western economic sanctions and an aging demographic, Russia has faced some structural challenges.[xx] According to World Bank estimates, Russia’s economy will have modest growth rates of 1.7% in 2018 and 1.8% in 2019.[xxi] Further, due to the geopolitical tumult caused by the annexation of Crimea in 2014—resulting in western economic sanctions—foreign direct investment (“FDI”) inflows had been slipping dramatically until 2016 when they began to rise again.
Nevertheless, FDI inflows remain relatively nominal at 1.5% as a share of Russia’s GDP.[xxii] Additionally, in response to western economic sanctions, Russian banks were forced to shed some foreign debt and the central bank took steps to reduce both inflation and consumer price growth. Even so, with slow rates of investment in the economy, less than stellar growth and old age dependency on the rise—especially compared to global trends—the country’s current retirement system is under immense strain.[xxiii] Additionally, household incomes have been slipping since 2014 and the rate of poverty in the country remains at 14.4%.[xxiv] However, given that over 50% of Russia’s exports are petroleum products, the country will benefit from the projected increases in oil prices US$65/bbl and US$66/bbl in 2018 and 2019, respectively.[xxv]
In contrast to many of the projections, Goldman Sachs, predicts that Russia will see 3.3% growth by the end of 2018 and 2.9% in 2019.[xxvi] Even though the Russians are facing these structural economic challenges, and more, they remain defiant against the West and economic sanctions. A joint survey by the Russian social research NGO, Levada Analytical Center,[xxvii] and American think tank, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, indicated that 68% of Russians were not concerned about the sanctions and 66% didn’t care about how the world perceived the country after the annexation of Crimea.[xxviii] In fact, Russians have hit back against the West by banning most food imports from those countries.[xxix] Not to mention the series of well-organized and preemptive cyber-attacks the Russians have perpetrated against the U.S., France, the U.K. and many others.[xxx]
The Russians face a myriad of challenges; from vulnerabilities related to geography, an economy that remains tenuously stable to an immense NATO alliance on its border, Russia has no choice but to look at the world from offensive realist eyes. These challenges have created great consternation and fear in the Kremlin. Feeling encircled and contained, we have seen the Russians take belligerent stances against the West to expand their sphere of influence to enhance their security. The Russians see the West and the international architecture as inherently anti-Russian; they take steps to undermine and oppose the Western alliance wherever possible. As such, Russia acts rationally, albeit aggressively, to achieve its security goals. That’s why the Russians are offensive realists.
[iii] Marshall, T. (2016). Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World. NY, NY: Scribner.
[iv] Freeze frames: Russia’s Far East hit by icy tempest (PHOTOS). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.rt.com/news/323666-vladivostok-tempest-epic-photos/
[v] This is an acronym for Greenland, Iceland and the United Kingdom
[vi] The 2018 Defense Budget, https://www.congress.gov/115/plaws/publ91/PLAW-115publ91.pdf
[vii] Delman, E. (2015, October 02). The Link Between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/navy-base-syria-crimea-putin/408694/
[viii] Turkey’s Black Sea Policy: Navigating between Russia and the West. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.fpri.org/article/2017/07/turkeys-black-sea-policy-navigating-russia-west/
[x] The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth crossed the Northern European Plain to invade Russia in 1605; Charles XII of the Swedish Empire used the same path to invade Russia in 1708; so did the French under Napoleon in 1812; and during both World Wars—in 1914 and 1941—the Germans invaded Russia over the Northern European Plain.
[xi] The World Factbook: RUSSIA. (2018, June 21). Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html
[xiii] Global military spending remains high at $1.7 trillion. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2018/global-military-spending-remains-high-17-trillion
[xvi] Oliker, O. (2018, June 14). Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.csis.org/analysis/unpacking-russias-new-national-security-strategy
[xviii] Pifer, S. (2016, July 28). Pay attention, America: Russia is upgrading its military. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/pay-attention-america-russia-is-upgrading-its-military/
[xx] Hille, K. (2018, February 28). Russia’s economy: Challenges facing Vladimir Putin. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/3aac3faa-1bb6-11e8-aaca-4574d7dabfb6
[xxiii] Hille (2018).
[xxv] Russia Economic Report. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/russia/publication/rer
[xxviii] Chicago Council on Global Affairs. (2018, January 24). American and Russian Opinion at a Standoff on Crimea Sanctions. Retrieved from https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/american-and-russian-opinion-standoff-crimea-sanctions?utm_source=media&utm_campaign=rpt18&utm_medium=article&utm_term=ccs-russian-sanctions&utm_content=mc-blog
[xxix] NDN. (2014, August 06). Russia hits back on sanctions; bans food from West. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/81026066-157.html
[xxx] A thorough look into Russian cyber-warfare will be discussed at greater length in a subsequent article.