Only economic power can save Russia

Only economic power can save Russia

In some ways, Russia seems to be drifting further away from the rest of the world, especially after a 6-month extension of European Union sanctions. Russia will have to tread carefully and take significant action if it wants to find a peaceful place for itself in the world.

The EU recently decided to extend Russian sanctions for another six months in the wake of its actions in Ukraine.  The action is an admitted setback in Russia’s foreign policy strategy of proving its indispensability to Europe through several initiatives.

Most notably, these include combating ISIS in Syria (especially in the wake of the Paris bombings) and, as a result, hoping to have a positive impact on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.  Even though certain European countries such as Germany and Italy have questioned the utility of continued sanctions, there will be no headway until Russia and Europe’s security guarantor, the U.S., come to a new understanding.

Nobody’s Lackey

One possible way to improve Russo-American relations would be for the two powers to come to a modus vivendi whereby Russia agreed to help the U.S. contain and/or eliminate an existential threat to the world order.  This model has precedence in the U.S.’s leverage of the Former Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, China against the Former Soviet Union, and now India against China.

It would also be consistent with U.S. grand strategy of using one power to erode another power’s sphere of influence, thereby keeping the road and/or oceans clear for its own expanding power.

In general, the problem with this strategy is its risk of transparency as it follows John Mearsheimer’s “Bait and Bleed” offensive realism strategy.  From the U.S. perspective, the strategy may also backfire as certain states like India demand recognition of their own sphere of influence as the price for helping the U.S. fulfill its goals vis-a-vis China.  This is exactly what both China and Russia are doing in their respective quests to define new models of major power relationships with the U.S.

With respect to Russia specifically, the problem is threefold.  First and foremost, many U.S. officials, formally and informally, now consider Russia itself to be the existential threat to the U.S. China may be too, but Russia is considerably more vocal about it, causing the U.S. to unacceptably lose face on the world stage.

Additionally, Russia has already offered to cooperate in the fight against ISIS, which it considers an existential threat to itself.  However, the U.S. response has been noticeably cool as it still doesn’t consider ISIS enough of a threat to put aside differences with Russia and leverage one to defeat the other, despite calls from Russia to do so in the vein of their former alliance against Nazi Germany.

Lastly, in addition to realism, constructivism would have a part to play in Russian objections.  As noted by Andrei Tsygankov in several of his books, Russia is simply too old, large, and proud, with a unique sense of its own civilizational identity, to be anyone’s lackey.


Boil The Frog Slowly

A lot of this pride is going to have to be swallowed if Russia is not only to survive, but also prosper in the 21st century.  Hard power security geopolitics still play a major role in foreign affairs, but economic power will form the backbone of states’ true power in the future.

Post-WWII, it was other powers’ access to the growing U.S. consumer market along with its strong industrial and infrastructural capacity which enabled the U.S.’s rise to superpower status.

The only way to get respect and eventual recognition in the West is through economic power.  This point was driven home by the Chinese yuan’s recent accession to reserve currency status.  Russia is going to have to learn from its former ideological junior partner and implement hard, but necessary reforms to revive its economy.

Obviously, Russia has tremendous potential in its own natural resource base as well as that of the nearby Arctic which would enable it to become a true energy superpower.  Ironically, in order to fulfill this potential, Russia will have to simultaneously diversify its economy, just as China is doing, transitioning from a more production-oriented one to more consumer-oriented one. Additionally, Russia needs to tackle its immense corruption problem, as well as improve legal protection for foreign businesses.

It took China a little more than a generation to go from economic backwater to global economic power, but that was with U.S. support against a common foe and untold manpower resources.  The task ahead for Russia is considerably more difficult as it will be doing it with demographic challenges as well as a hostile U.S. – but it can be done.

Patience and long-term strategic planning is fundamental. As is commonly known, a frog will immediately jump out of a pot of boiling water, but if the frog is put in a pot of cool water where the temperature is gradually raised, the frog will stay still in the pot until it’s cooked to death.  Russia needs to develop its economy slowly and patiently over many years, so that by the time others realize what’s going on, it will be far too late, again as with China.

Categories: Economics, International

About Author

Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is a U.S. Foreign Policy Analyst & Project Manager with Bright Group Consulting, where he provides confidential geopolitical forecasting services regarding various aspects of U.S.-China foreign policy. Additionally, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Lastly, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Having previously consulted in Ukraine, his area of focus is U.S.-Russia relations. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.