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.