Russian Global Expansion

A general consensus has formed among the leaders of Western nations and among western-oriented international organizations like NATO and the European Union (EU). “Not only have spheres of influence returned in the twenty-first century, but they have come back because of Russia’s desire to disrupt the post-Cold War peace.”. Russia’s current policies have two distinct goals. First Russian seeks to reclaim its control over the post-Soviet space. Secondly its larger goal which has become increasingly evident in the period since the annexation of Crimea is Russia’s desire to extend the Kremlin’s influence deep into liberal democracies, so as to divide and destabilize the Western alliance. The threat Russia poses is an attempt to displace the American hegemony that has ruled since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A U.S. lead hegemony has provided unprecedented prosperity which has been made possible by free and open markets and international trade; the spread of democracy; and the avoidance of major conflicts among great powers. Each of these things is vital to the U.S. economic growth and prosperity, and dependent on sustained U.S. engagement around the world. By reclaiming control over post-Soviet space and extending the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, Russia’s global expansion directly threatens the current US lead global order and the current prosperity America enjoys today.

For much of the post-Cold War era, the United States and Europe have paid little attention to Russia’s efforts to expand its economic, political and military influence abroad. The West has viewed these efforts as relics of the Cold War, primarily confined to Russia’s immediate neighbors but largely absent anywhere else. The consequences of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, internal challenges, and Moscow’s once stated desire for cooperation with the West distinctly constrained Russia’s interests and ability to project influence on a global scale. This nature notably diminished the West’s interest in Russian foreign policy and global activity. However this quickly changed when Vladimir Putin returned to office in 2012. Since his return Russia, surprising to many observers has engaged in sophisticated, broad and well-resourced campaigns to expand its global reach. To advance Putin’s objectives, he has relied on a wide variety of military, diplomatic, intelligence, cyber, trade and financial tools to influence political systems and elite decision makers across the globe. These objectives include, undermining the U.S. led liberal global order and cohesion of the West; enhancing Russia’s domestic legitimacy by demonstrating its status as a global superpower; promoting specific military, commercial and energy interests; and upheaving the United States grasp in areas of traditional U.S. influence.

Russia’s threat to American can be measured by the course of action it has chosen to take. Some current actions Russia has taken in terms of global influence include cultivating an impressive mercantile relationship with India, increased involvement with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salam and drawing him towards Moscow’s corner, forging tighter relations with China and within the United Nations Russia has successfully obstructed U.S. policy interests in Venezuela, Ukraine and Syria.  Russia is not taking actions such as these strictly to spite U.S. control. Steven Pifer, previous ambassador to Ukraine suggests Russia has three key desires to expand globally and inadvertently contend U.S. control. First “Russia wants to develop its own political and economic model, free of criticism from the West”. In the 1990s Russia welcomed democratic assistance from the West. But, for many Russians today the 1990s experience with democracy evokes memories of chaos, corruption, economic uncertainty and economic collapse. Though many other factors played a role into the instability Russia faced post-Soviet Union collapse, many today have a poor image of democracy do to events going on at the time. Thus when Putin proposed a roll back on democratic advances he found little push back from his country who values economic stability first and foremost.

In addition “Russian wants a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Space”. In order to restore its world image as a great power, Putin plans to first regain control over the former Soviet territories. In an effort to regain influence in the region the Kremlin has “established a number of regional structures including, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the most recent (and most importantly) the 2015 inauguration of the Eurasian Economic Union”. These efforts in the former Soviet space “serve as a means of demonstrating Russia as the hegemonic leader of the reginal bloc, a position that validates the Kremlin’s claim to be a great power”.

Lastly Pifer states “Russia wants a seat when major European or global issues are being decided and to have its views accommodated”. Similar to the reason for increased influence in the former Soviet space, Russia wants greater involvement when it comes to world issues because it validates its role as a global power. To Russia’s defense, the Kremlin does play a key role in many world issues today. Most notably Russia stands as the most important player in the effort to persuade Iran away from the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Though Russia itself doesn’t want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, it also finds itself on the other side of the spectrum. For instance with its broad geopolitical and economic interests with the Iranians, it means that Russia has to try to play both sides of the coin. On one side stay friendly with Iranian officials and on the other try to play the part of carrying out decisions made by world leaders, such as inhibiting Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Though these all play a part in Russia’s desire for global expansion, the underlying tone of the message seems clear, Russia wants the respect and reputation it once had as a world superpower.

Russian Scholar Dimitri Trenin most notably stated “The Kremlin has been de facto operating in a war mode” observing how “Putin has been behaving like a wartime leader”. To this new resurrection of Russian interest Washington and the Wests response come with equal strength. The first response the West can make is to maintain transatlantic unity. Division between the U.S. and Europe weaken NATO’s ability to address Russian expansion and inadvertently opens opportunity for Moscow to extend its influence. The West currently has responded to Russian expansion by strengthening its presence in post-Soviet states and the Baltics. So far Russia has not threated any of these advancements, or the territorial integrity of these States. Though Russia hasn’t responded yet, Putin has stated in the past that NATO expansion directly contends with the interests and sovereignty of his country.

Though these advancements made by NATO are a good step, they have not proven to be successful in curbing Russia’s interests in challenging the current world order. NATO needs to send a clear message to Putin that it will not tolerate any more expansionism or aggression. This will need to be done by having stronger responses to acts such as the annexation of Crimea. Though a stronger approach is necessary it is also vital that the U.S. done not put itself on a war footing as the Russians have. Doing so will only evoke Russia more and threaten a global conflict neither side wants. In the end the most important response the U.S. and the West can make is through open channels of communication and dialogue. Both remain essential in avoiding a misunderstanding or miscalculation that could be the cause of a new World War.

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