Russia’s Aggressive Foreign Policy
Winston Churchill famously said that “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” While the quote may be well worn, it is still surprisingly appropriate when discussing Russia today. Just a few years ago, old Cold War rivals Russia and the United States seemed to finally bond over their shared struggles against terrorism and to be on the path to real cooperation. But then, Russia changed course. Instead of trying to ingratiate itself into the international community, Russia took some steps that can be labeled as aggressive. Aside from a long-brewing conflict with Chechnya, it fought a war against the Republic of Georgia and is now slowly devouring Ukrainian territory. Those moves left many wondering: why did Russia feel the need to make such a drastic change in its global political relations. Read on to learn about Russia’s origins, historical political relationships, and foreign policy.
Rise and Imperial History
While the area today known as Russia had been populated by steppe nomads for thousands of years, eastern European Slavs moved into the area only about 3,500 years ago. The Vikings also sailed into modern day Russia and founded the city of Kiev in the late ninth century. Early Russians adopted many of the practices of the Byzantine Empire, including the Orthodox religion. Following the fall of Constantinople, Russian leaders declared Moscow as its successor. Russia’s leaders adopted the title of tsar, similar to that of Caesar.
Russia continued to grow, but this growth was nearly undone when the Mongols conquered Russia in the thirteenth century, burning Kiev and sacking Moscow along the way. The Mongols then held sway over Russia for the next 200 years until the end of the fifteenth century when Russian rulers finally were strong enough to throw off the Mongol yoke.
Following this emancipation, the new rulers of Russia–the Romanovs–continued expanding, reaching the shores of the Pacific in 1649. Russia also attempted to gain further footholds in Europe, mainly by acquiring seaports in the Baltic to the north and Mediterranean to the south. As it did so, Russia came into greater contact with Europe and participated in a number of wars, including the defeat of Napoleon. Contact with Europe also forced Russia to confront its many backward policies. In the early twentieth century, reactionaries inspired by communism began to gain traction. During World War I, the Romanov family was overthrown and the Soviet Union was established.
The Soviet Union was the successor to Romanov rule in Russia, but not without a fight. It was established after the victory of the Bolshevik Red Army in the Russian Civil War. Following their ascent to power, the Soviets enacted a series of purges and five-year plans that left the country weak and starving heading into WWII. The Soviets initially allied with the Nazis in exchange for several eastern European countries and a partition of Poland; however, the truce was broken in 1941, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the Soviets were able to withstand the attack, push back the Nazis, and establish themselves as one of two superpowers along with the United States after the war ended.
Following the war, the USSR and U.S. engaged in a protracted Cold War. Both sides competed against the other in arms and space races. While they never engaged directly in wars, several times during this period their proxies faced off against one another. Following the Cuban Missile crisis, cooler heads began to prevail, the rhetoric surrounding nuclear war was reduced, and several arms control treaties were signed. Beginning in the 1980s, the USSR started to liberalize as its economy and empire began to crumble. Finally, in 1991 the USSR dissolved into a number of independent countries with Russia as its leading member.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in disarray. Struggling to deal with the shift from communism to free market capitalism, inflation soared. The Russian economy, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, was barely able to avoid total collapse and reached the point of needing to import food to stave off starvation. Following the resignation of Yeltsin and the rise of Putin, the country began to stabilize and the course of foreign policy began to take its present shape. The following video gives a brief summary of modern Russian history.
Current Foreign Policy
Russia’s current foreign policy can be summed up in one word: aggressive. The reason for this shift toward conquest, oppression, and authoritarianism can be linked to two things. First is the desire of many Russians to return to the prestige of the Soviet Union. Second is the man leading that change and the nation itself, Vladimir Putin. The video below looks at Russia’s current foreign policy.
The man who holds responsibility for many of Russia’s decisions since the fall of the USSR is its longtime leader, President Vladimir Putin. Putin was born in Stalingrad during the height of the Soviet Union’s glory; however, he was coming of age professionally just as the empire was disintegrating. Even after the USSR collapsed around him, Putin was determined to restore Russia to its status as a global power. Below is an excerpt from a speech Putin gave when he was a candidate for Prime Minister in 1999:
Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest abroad in both the former Soviet lands and elsewhere. We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.
Since Putin was elected prime minister and subsequently president following Yeltsin’s resignation, he has done everything in his power to live up to these words. His first order of business was finally crushing the independent state of Chechnya. Chechnya, a small area in the southwest Caucasus region of Russia, had actually defeated the Russian army in the 1990s and formed a short-lived nation of its own.
After reestablishing Russia’s military strength, Putin also moved to curb the power of the oligarchs who became fabulously wealthy when they took control of state-owned industries following the fall of the USSR. He arrested and silenced critics, such as the fallen oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. This policy has only continued as Putin’s strangle-hold on power has intensified. Along with leading the country since his ascent in 2000 as either president or prime minister, he has also engaged in further military actions including dispatching soldiers to crush Georgian troops and annexing Crimea. Recently Russian troops have also been implicated in separatists’ movements in Eastern Ukraine as well. The video below discusses Putin’s life.
Foray into Ukraine
While outsiders may view Russia’s recent foreign expansion into Ukrainian affairs as aggressive, the majority of its citizens hold the opposite opinion for several reasons. First, to many Russians, Ukraine is part of their historical empire and thus it is only natural that it be restored to Russia.
The conflict in Ukraine started when Russian-backed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych was ousted following his unpopular decision to remain aligned with Russia instead of integrating with the European Union. In response, Russian troops invaded an area called Crimea, occupied the area, and Crimea eventually voted in a referendum to become part of Russia. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia has continued supporting ethnic Russian Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, where they are the majority. This has aroused great controversy because despite several ceasefires, Russia has continued to provide separatists with weapons and possibly soldiers.
Many Russians also believe the entire uprising in Ukraine is the result of Western actions. A common argument is that Russia has actually intervened to protect Russian speakers the same as many western countries do for other minority groups. However, the opinions of everyday Russians are heavily influenced by the Russian media, which is indiscriminately run by the state and thus broadcasts the state’s message.
Russia’s next course of action remains up in the air. Economically it would seem obvious that Russia has to stop being so aggressive and work toward appeasing its Western creditors and consumers. Economic sanctions placed on Russia following its actions in Ukraine are beginning to be felt. The main effects of the sanctions have been in denying Russia credit and access to markets. Nonetheless, as yet another breached ceasefire implies, Russia doesn’t seem content to return Eastern Ukraine–and certainly not Crimea–back to the original status quo.
Other Foreign Policy Concerns for Russia
Along with sanctions, an even greater problem for Russia suggests it should curtail its recent aggressive maneuvering–falling oil prices. At the beginning of the year, the price of oil dropped below $50 a barrel. This is devastating to a Russian economy that is dependent on oil as its main export.
From an economic standpoint this has been disastrous to the ruble, which has dropped by 17.5 percent compared to the dollar in just the first two weeks of 2015. The economy in general is hurting, as well, as it’s projected to retract by three to five percent this year. What this means for people on the street is also troubling. Lower crude prices mean higher prices for other goods, in particular food stuffs.
All of these economic woes have negatively impacted another grand Putin endeavor, the Eurasian Union. As the name implies, it is an economic union made up of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan that is supposed to rival the EU. However, with falling prices in Russia and declining currencies at home, all of the members are already discovering the side effects of allying with a troubled Russia. The member countries are also wary of sovereignty violations by Russia as well, similar to the ones that have already occurred in Georgia, Crimea, and now Eastern Ukraine.
It seems unlikely that Russia will stop pursuing such an aggressive approach, however. As a de facto dictator, it is crucial for Putin that he keeps his people happy enough so that they will not revolt. In this regard Putin seems to have been very successful. In December 2014 he was elected Russia’s Man of the Year for the fifteenth time in a row. Putin’s popularity level in fact has hovered at around 70 percent his entire time in office, spiking even higher during the invasion of Georgia and following the annexation of Crimea. It actually seems to Putin’s benefit to maintain his strong appearance in the face of alleged western aggression. While people in the West may question the authenticity of these ratings, any western politician would love to have the same kind of popularity.
Putin has also increased spending on the military. Even with the economy in crisis, military spending actually increased for this year rising to $50 billion. The effect of this spending has been evident in increased navy patrols, air maneuvers, improved equipment and greater activity. It also included the purchase of dozens of new state-of-the-art nuclear weapons to replace obsolete models from the Cold War.
So, Russia’s policies are working, at least in part. While they have proven very costly to the average Russian and the economy overall, it has not dissuaded Putin from his desire to restore Russian prestige. Frankly it should not be surprising either, with his high approval ratings and the West’s resistance to anything more than soft power tactics. The real question going forward is how much further Russia will go down this path. Will it stop with Eastern Ukraine or go further and risk overstretching? At some point the West will likely draw a line in the sand and if Russia crosses it, what will be next for Russia and the international community it refuses to abide by?