RUSSIAN REALISM

RUSSIAN REALISM

EDITED BY:  Dr. Graeme P. Herd

PUBLISHED BY:  George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

REVIEWED BY:  Patrick Swan, per Concordiam contributor

To the West, Russia at times seems to be the goddess of discord. Uninvited to the democratic nations’ security councils, Russia uses its global reach to create mischief in reprisal. Notice Mother Russia. Respect Mother Russia. Kneel to Mother Russia?

Mitigating Russia’s malign influence was the challenge for a respected group of foreign-policy scholars. Marshall Center Professor Dr. Graeme P. Herd solicited their assessments for “Russia’s Global Reach: A Security and Statecraft Assessment.” This recent Marshall Center publication leverages the wide-ranging expertise of its faculty to examine Russia’s statecraft, strategic goals and activities across the globe. Although United States policy considerations take a prominent place, Herd and his contributors make clear that a revanchist Russia undermining Western values, institutions and security can neither be ignored nor encouraged. More nations than the U.S. must engage Russia. To do that, one must determine: In a given country or region, does Russia have actionable influence?

Herd opens and closes the collection with essays that calculate the stakes and then assess Russia’s statecraft based on its influence operations. Case studies examine Russian-U.S. relations, as well as those of Russia and the European great powers. These are a given. But also of concern is the Arctic because of its transport opportunities and the opportunities for Russia to block non-Russian ships. Russia appears flexible and pragmatic in Latin America, which makes Americans especially uneasy. Closer to home for Russia, one expects it to engage with China and with former Soviet satellites in Asia. In the Middle East, its meddling presents opportunities to fill a void while not getting sucked into a costly quagmire. This section of the book closes with Russia’s expanding influence in Africa.

The authors ask: What are Russia’s regional goals and how does it achieve those ends? What are the opportunities — but also the limits and challenges — that structure Russia’s regional engagement? These essays convey the important consideration that although Russia has global reach, the regional power it wields is uneven. Its aging nuclear weapons retain the utility of protecting and, in some cases, advancing its strategic goals. The security instrument has evolved over the past two decades — the era of Vladimir Putin and Putinism.

Russia’s energy-based economy leaves its financial coffers vulnerable to global price fluctuations. Its diplomacy sometimes encourages conflict, which it then offers to help manage. Russia covertly influences nations’ conduct through an active-measures program of spying to undermine governments. It then uses propaganda, misinformation and disinformation to influence those countries’ conduct toward Russia.

Herd stresses at the outset that, like other nations, Russia has distinct objectives in each region and uses different approaches — each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Comprehending why could help Western nations to engage more effectively with Russia. Interactions do not necessarily have to be hostile; in some regions, they may be complementary. Herd notes, “We should be careful to distinguish between what Russia says, and what Russia does, between words and deeds, rhetoric and reality. This volume assists with that.”

Russia is an intractable problem because, as Herd writes, it is an unevenly developed great power, thus far incapable of structural economic reform. “Russia aspires to attain more influence internationally than the size its economy suggests is merited.”

Although Russia can seem intransigent, its foreign policy adopts a more transactional, nonideological approach. It must be so. Herd explains: “Russia maintains its great power strategic relevance through global hotspot engagement. It cultivates the role of neutral mediator and honest power broker, one able to provide a constructive stabilizing presence. It projects itself as alternative partner to the West, the upholder of principles of respect for international law, equality, and noninterference in the internal affairs of states, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and a commitment to multilateral actions. It is a sovereignty and security provider. Russia advances its economic interests to secure political influence.” Western-oriented nations must incorporate the knowledge of this approach to shape Russian strategic behavior while avoiding miscalculation that can escalate into conflict. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that, ultimately, Russian foreign policy serves to ensure the continuity of Putin and Putinism.

One takeaway: Russia’s official foreign-policy narratives twist reality, but they all contain some element of truth. From this core, Russian officials create narratives that tend to highlight Russophobia and traditional values to domestic audiences. They may take U.S. interventions and paint them as destabilizing. They use “whataboutism” to highlight instances in which Western actors fall short of their stated principles, making the argument that Western leaders have no standing to criticize Russian actions. The message is that while the world is chaotic, Russia is a stabilizing agent. In practice, Russia uses its powers for mediation and arbitration to exercise a de facto veto on attempts at conflict resolution on terms that do not meet its interest. It then offers security to uphold a “new normal” and advance its economic security interests.

Activism is no panacea. These essays make clear that Russia faces the challenge of translating short-term tactical military successes into longer-term strategic engagements while avoiding costly entanglements. The Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela are considered test cases. Russia’s position for nonoutside interference in domestic affairs means it usually supports status-quo incumbents more than opposition leaders and groups proposing regime change. Russia presents itself as a reliable “bulwark against revolutions” and “champion of counter-revolution.” The reality is that Russia’s regional approaches lack the capacity and economic influence to ensure that its political and diplomatic initiatives in Africa, Latin America and Asia develop into more lasting influence. As one essayist noted, short of offering to extend its nuclear umbrella, it is extremely difficult for Russia to accrue political dividends in terms of extending its authority and influence in the international system. It must also manage the “rising China” factor of its Asian neighbor.

Russia apparently would hail the return to a system where great powers decide major issues. A world without a leader, however, still secures and protects a Russia in relative power decline; without a collective action, Russia can avoid the consequences for its actions that rankle Western nations.

Russia’s Global Reach is available online, including as a PDF available for a curriculum in support of regional programs and defense-institution courses of friends and allies. This is the second volume in a series on adversarial global reach and activism and the first Marshall Center-led effort. The Marshall Center collaborated with the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies for the first volume on China. If one wants an overall picture of Russia’s global reach, this volume presents it.

Russia’s Global Reach does not contend that Russia is an unstoppable force bent on world domination. It offers a sober assessment of where Russia is acting — everywhere — and how such efforts vary. War is not inevitable with Russia, nor is a cold peace. Russia may remain a goddess of discord, but it still can be acknowledged and respected, if not welcomed, as a trusted player in international concerns. This short book provides the blueprint.