Russia is the largest country in the world, with very low population density and an intricate interplay of neighbors. Its vast territory makes Russia a self-sufficient universe containing everything it might need for development. On the other hand, low population density and permeability of borders make it internally fragile and heavily exposed to the influence of its neighbors.
Since Russia’s key possibilities for development lie within the country, its main foreign policy goal is to block external negative influences and avoid being drawn into confrontation with opponents. Historically, the outside world and internal political stability, which are closely interrelated, have always been the principal condition for utilizing Russia’s advantages.
Russia has existed within its present borders (excluding the North Caucasus and Khabarovsk Territory) for more than three centuries since the time of Peter the Great. Creating and preserving the world’s largest state amid fierce competition is undoubtedly an achievement of the Russian people.
But the Russian state has a number of vulnerabilities. Historically, Russia has been known for large distances between towns, the absence of natural defenses against external invasions, exposed lines of communication, a harsh northern climate and a short growing season. Many regions of the country are not suitable for farming, and the main industrial centers are far away from energy sources. The government has to ensure security and maintain uniform health service and education standards across 11 time zones from Magadan to Kaliningrad.
All of the above makes the country fragile, value-added production complicated and social changes slow. Keeping the large Russian state running is a monumental and truly unprecedented task. That is why internal weakening and social implosion always were and remain the main threat for Russia. In most cases internal implosions threw countries back decades in their development and sometimes jeopardized their very survival.
Russian authorities try to address the country’s fragility and permeability by strengthening military security and stimulating steady population growth. By so doing, they try to increase the vitality of the state and make it more resilient to external and internal stresses.
Russia’s foreign policy is a direct continuation of the domestic one. Over the past three centuries, Moscow has been the dynamic core of Eurasia and a major attraction for its neighbors. Russia was among the first to have brought the fruits of European culture to the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Far East. But in the 21st century the future of Eurasia will not be shaped entirely by Russia, which will have to compete with China, the European Union, the United States, Turkey and Iran. Russia should secure its place among great powers at the negotiating table in order not to become an item on their menu.
Key external threats to Russia come from Islamic extremism in Syria and Iraq, drug trafficking from Afghanistan, a possible escalation of conflicts in post-Soviet countries around North Korea or Iran and the civil war in Ukraine. The imperative of maintaining strategic stability with the United States requires that Moscow modernize its armed forces, military-industrial complex and global navigation and space communication systems. Unresolved problems in Europe’s security and bloc-based approaches to it leave Russia no choice but view NATO as a potential military adversary.
Of all the post-Soviet states, it is Russia that benefited the most from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But Russia lost critical infrastructure facilities (pipelines, railroads, seaports, military bases, spaceports and production capacities) which remained in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. For 20 years, the main purpose of Russia’s policy was to remove major Soviet infrastructure facilities from under the influence of hostile neighbors, while building preferential relations and alliances with friendly states such as Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Russia also tried to reduce its dependence on Ukraine by laying alternative pipelines bypassing Ukraine, building a new base for the Black Sea Fleet in Novorossiysk and relocating defense contracts from Ukrainian enterprises to Russian ones. Following the reincorporation of Crimea, Russia has no more vital interests left outside its borders: neither the rocket launch site in Kazakhstan, nor cargo ports in the Baltic States, nor the railroads in Belarus can serve as a pretext for Moscow’s claims. Russia will have to interfere in the internal affairs of post-Soviet states only if ethnic Russians living there are subjected to repression. In all other instances, Russia will avoid getting involved in conflicts along its borders.
Russia seeks to become a leading world power along with the United States and China, but with no success so far. By waiting and building up its strength, Russia becomes a strategic balancer which should be interested in remaining independent in pursuing its own policy and assessing international events. A key international threat to Russia will stem from the need to stray from the role of balancer and join one of the centers of global competition in the 21st century — the U.S. or China.
• Andrei Sushentsov is program director at the Valdai International Discussion Club, Head of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group and Associate Professor at the MGIMO University of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
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