Russian Gaming

Russia’s frustrated response to the signing of the Czech-American missile defense agreement is indicative of just how desperate that country has become in its decline. After news of the signature of the preliminary dealings, the Russian foreign ministry released a fiery statement claiming that “we will be forced to react not with diplomatic, but with military-technical methods”.

Putin attempted, last year, to reach a compromise that would have been favorable to Russia in that it would have decreased the effectiveness of the proposed American program. It is difficult to say if Russia would move militarily over the construction of the radar system, which it sees as being directed not merely against Iran, whose missiles it is purports to eventually guard against, but towards Russia. The Foreign Ministry statement bellows that “[T]here is no doubt that bringing elements of the US strategic arsenal close to Russian territory could be used to weaken our deterrent potential.” Russia sees the system, based in its old western stronghold, as a barrier to its freedom of action, cutting deeply into its perceived sphere of influence and consequently as a swipe at its hopes of recovering its Great Power status.

Its population is declining rapidly (it faces the most severe demographic challenge in the world), and its strategic and resource rich regions are finding themselves increasingly party to Chinese business and demographic influence. Its renewed geopolitical thrust over the last decade is more the result of rising gas prices than a real revival of Russian grandeur. In Central Asia, it is a member (increasingly a partner) of the Chinese dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the former Soviet republics there are increasingly wedded to Chinese interests, often actively and deliberately moving against Russian interests there. It watches as the regions regimes bounce between American, Chinese and Russian patronage and support, with America and China holding the most cards. In the Caucus its influence is mostly derived from its ability to subvert Western allied regimes and resource poor Armenia. On the Eastern European front, it sees the often gloating advance of the EU and NATO. Its former satellites have found a place within the Western security framework and have worked hard or are working hard to become independent of Russia’s Gazprom diplomacy and attempted great power revival.

In coming decades, it will be a high priority of Western powers and China to manage the fall out from Russia’s long degeneration; the Chinese gobbling up the pieces in the east and in Central Asia, and the Americans and Europeans on its Western borders. They will connive between themselves in Central Asia and Siberia, the Americans likely attempting to keep Russia’s territory intact as China encroaches and Sino-Russian national interests clash in the SCO, because China’s rise in Eurasia is dependent on Russia’s decline there.

Russia well on the way to second-rate power status. It remains an arms, but not military, powerhouse while lacking any of the ideological or modal selling points that its rivals to the West and the East possess. It is a nation whose ambitions have yet to be crystallized into a coherent vision. It is neither clearly a status quo nor revisionist power. Surely Putin is aware, as all Russians must be, of Russia’s geopolitical demotion. They have played their hand so as play up their relevance. They have exploited minor revisionist actors in order to irritate the West, and has at times adopted the rhetoric of a state that commands great power status and at other times one which pines for it. Their threats have usually been realized, especially when it comes to using energy as a weapon. But increasingly, they have threatened to take action of some form or another but settled for bitter grumbling or media badmouthing. The Russians did not recognize Abkhazia when Kosovo declared independence (for a host of practical and political reasons), and they did nothing to Algeria after being humiliated when the long-time customer attempted to return MiGs it had recently purchased citing their “sub-standard” quality, a grave insult to a country that sees itself as an arms institution. Living down the aftermath of failing to follow through on a military threat is difficult for a rusting hulk is not easy.

Power transition theory would have us watching Russia more closely, as a country potentially assuming aggressor status against status quo powers such as the US and Europe. But Russia is too weak to do this now. It will continue to challenge subtly until it is actually powerful enough to offer a more credible military threat. But given that the Russians are riding high on rising gas prices, arms sales, corruption, and nationalism they may see themselves as being in a more favorable position than they really are.

But the Americans do not seem to be especially alarmed by Russian communique, indicating that they see it as a bluff. I do not believe that the Russians intend to move on the Czech Republic, either by land, sea, or sky. The communique has come rather early, before the treaty has been approved by the Czech parliament and signed by their president and whilst the negotiations between the Americans the Poles over the placement of the system’s rocket interceptors have stalled (Lithuania is being eyed as a possible alternative). Indeed, it is a mere warning, most likely aimed at discouraging the Czechs, Lithuanians, Poles, and any other participants from signing on to or ratifying the treaties leading to the missile shield’s establishment. The fact that the Russians would do this is at once not out of character and a sign of weakness, as only the desperate and insecure flaunt their capacity for destruction so brazenly.


11 thoughts on “Russian Gaming

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  2. “I do not believe that the Russians intend to move on the Czech Republic, either by land, sea, or sky”

    The Czech Republic having no border with Russia or any of his allies and being landlocked, I don’t think that Russia can make it good on its threats, even if it wanted to. Unless the Russian Army intends to attack through the air space of other members of the European Union (Slovakia or Poland), which would be a most painful experience for it as well as an obvious trigger for the other (non-neutral) members of the EU via the Common Defense and Foreign Policy mechanisms.

  3. I very much agree. I’m wonder what kind of energy leverage Russia has in the country (they must be a big supplier to them). I know the Czechs use a lot of nuclear energy; I’m looking for figures as to where their gas/oil comes from. They will probably aim their own missiles towards the radar sites, as they’ve said.

  4. Russia is on route to second-rate power status. It remains a military powerhouse

    No, it does not. It is one of two major nuclear powers, and still possesses the capacity to annihilate the United States, but its conventional armed forces have deteriorated terribly, and the economy is not fit to keep them in warring form. The Russian army has been on a losing streak since the early 80s in Afghanistan, submarines are blurping under once a week or so, and the fleets are falling to pieces. This, incidentally, is precisely why the missile shield is such a mortal danger for their strategic position: it eliminates their last true strategic foothold, the MAD deadlock.

    I think Russia has by now firmly submitted (in practical strategy, if not in popular imagination) to the fact that it IS a second-rate military power — i.e. a distant second to the US, but still dominant in its own sphere and standing out from the rest by what was possible to retain from the Cold War (nukes & arms sales). That is precisely why it is fighting fiercely on two fronts to prevent itself from becoming a third-rate military power, like China: 1. by continuing to secure a special place in geopolitics through nuclear politics; and 2. by reasserting its role in the immediate neighborhood. Russia no longer entertains the thought that eg. Angola could be within its sphere of influence, but all hell be damned if Georgia should fall in NATO clutches.

  5. Btw, the statement on military methods does not refer to attacking/otherwise molesting the Czech Republic, but is rather directed at the US. If Washington does A, Russia says it can do B, whether by organizing a method to undermine (overwhelm?) the shield with some new missiles placement or whatever, or to put counter-pressure on some other front. At least that’s the threat in theory: it could still be just hot air. Anyway, with a new US president coming, Moscow must surely see it worth raising hell just to stall events for a time and see what happens next.

  6. By “power house” I was referring to its nuclear arsenal and its arms sales, not the ability of its conventional forces.

    whether by organizing a method to undermine (overwhelm?) the shield with some new missiles placement or whatever, or to put counter-pressure on some other front.

    Arms race? 😉

  7. Agreed with alle on Russia current options:
    1/ nuclear deals (mainly on the civilian side) with US ennemies.
    2/ military conventional intervention in neighboring lands (Georgia indeed, being a prime example).
    3/ Energy policy.

    As for the impact of the latest on the Czech Republic, it is probably high. I don’t know how they are faring now, but 12 years ago, most public heating in Prag was provided by several gas plants around the city… In winter, their constant supply was a life or death issue for the population, quite literally.

  8. This said, I would not bet on Russia staying a second rank power (militarily) very long. They are accumulating massive change reserves, through their gas and oil deals, and these reserves of cash are straight into the hands of the State (all oil and gas companies in Russia are either public or controlled by oligarchs friendly to Putin and Medvedev). And Russia is currently spending massively on rearming and more importantly modernizing its bloated and inefficient military. They are speaking about building new aircraft carriers, and the time of the Kursk disaster are far behind…

  9. A Russian friend, very into its politics, absolutely insists there is no way Moscow will be able to effectively wield the energy weapon anytime soon. He argues they are in such desperate need of bringing in cash and securing a stable income long term, that they can’t start to cut it off to their primary market, or they would irreparably damage their future prospects. I’m not sure he’s right, but he tends to be so on Russia stuff, so I keep it in mind.

    But perhaps that’s where the gas cartel talk comes in…

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