Source: Dr. Jeremy W. Lamoreaux (Brigham Young University- Idaho)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the  position of the AALEP.

Of the various motivations driving Russia’s global activities and strategy, three of them are particularly important for understanding Russia’s general strategic aims: the desire shared by the Russian elite for Russia to be recognized as a great power, the desire to protect Russian identity and a broader Slavic identity, and the desire to see the US global power limited.

The first motivation shared among Russia’s elite, is for the country to be recognized as a great power with its own distinct sphere of influence.

Russia still sees the global system as a great power/balance of power system with distinct spheres of influence for each great power. However, one is hard pressed to label the current system a “great power” system particularly because any claims to a global balance of power is misleading. The US is currently the dominant global actor militarily, economically, and (arguably) even ideologically. While some actors can rival the US influence on one, or even two, of these measurements (for example, the EU on economic and ideological influence), no other actors can rival the US across all these measurements. Indeed, even if the EU is considered as a potential balancer to US economic dominance, the concept of liberal internationalism is still the predominant “global” political economic ideology, an ideology that both the US and the EU share. Even would-be rivals such as China are not blind to the liberal nature of the global economy. Nor is Russia. Russia certainly wants to be a great power, and are increasing their military spending accordingly, but in all three abovementioned metrics, they are still far behind the US.

The desire to be a great power stems not only from a perception of the world as a great power system, but also from a shared perception among Russian elite of a Russian sphere of influence. Historically, of course, Russia was not only a global great power, but the predominant power within Eurasia, with predominance even extending as far west as Poland, as far east as Japan, and as far south as Azerbaijan. As Russia’s elite sees things, most of this still should constitutes their sphere of influence. There are two self-serving justifications for the beliefs the elite hold. The first reason is the 300-year history of Russian political domination in these areas. Second, and even more important (and more difficult to counter), is the perception of a divine mandate to control any place where ethnic Slavs (historically, “Rus”) are a predominant ethnicity.

Granted, the Kremlin elite recognize that their influence in Eastern Europe is currently limited. And, they recognize that the Soviet Union no longer exists, de jure (though, its collapse was called one the greatest geopolitical disaster of the past century by Vladimir Putin). These inconveniences, however, do not change the fact that, according to the Kremlin, all these regions still ought to be their sphere of influence. Russian elite desires for control and order mean that for order to be restored, Russia must again be recognized in its rightful place as a great power and be allowed to control their own sphere of influence/

The second motivation driving Russia’s foreign policy is the Russian elite perception that Russia has a moral right to predominance within “its” sphere of influence.

This argument, that Russia has the right to regional dominance for divine and ethnic purposes, stems from more than 1000 years previous when Prince Vladimir was baptized in 988 . When he converted to Christianity, specifically Russian Orthodoxy, he brought with him his people, the ‘Rus’ who, more than 1000 years later, comprise Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and quite possibly Moldovans, Kazakhstanis, and other Slavic ethnicities . Throughout the following 1000 years, the political and religious elite in the region developed stronger ties to the extent that, at present, they lend each other legitimacy and support each other ideologically and monetarily. Importantly, the conversion happened in what is present-day Crimea, currently under Kremlin control. Consequently, for geopolitical and spiritual reasons, The Kremlin (in coordination with the Russian Orthodox Church) claims the right and duty of protecting the spiritual and temporal wellbeing of “Rus”, not all of whom live in Russia .

The third motivation driving Russian foreign policy (and, stemming from the first motivation for great-power recognition and a global balance of power) is the desire to see US global influence curbed and, if possible, scaled back. It makes sense that a globally dominant US does not portend well for a balance of great powers or for distinct spheres of influence. It is deviant from the acceptable norms in the great power system. This is reflected in US involvement in the Middle East, Asia and, most damning, the spread of NATO across eastern Europe and even the former Soviet Baltic States, all areas where Russia sees themselves as having a rightful claim to influence instead of the US.

Furthermore, according to the Kremlin view, the US supports regime change in less-democratic countries through democratizing revolutions across the Middle East and in Ukraine and Georgia, and through supporting pro-democracy protests in Russia in 2011-2012. To make matters even worse, in Russia’s eyes, the very nature of democracy is unstable (it does nothing to further control and order within a society, but facilitates just the opposite), and irregular results over the past few years (Trump’s election, Brexit, rise of nationalist parties in Europe, and the spate of election-tampering allegations…ironically, many directly against Russia…) illustrate just how unstable, and even hypocritical, democracies can be .

The bottom line is that Russia wants global order, specifically in the form of a balance of power, which would leave them free to exercise, and enforce, control within “their” sphere of influence. For that to happen, the influence of the US must be curbed, at least, and scaled back if possible.

Contested Issues

The primary fundamental issue being contested is whether the global system is a balance-of-power system wherein nation-state are still the primary actors, or whether we’ve transitioned to a US-led international liberal order. The reality seems to be somewhere in between. If the international system is a liberal order, any state has a right to participate including those states that the Kremlin views as in their sphere of influence. This rankles Russian policy makers.

If, however, we are in a balance-of-power system, the question becomes who has preeminence in Eastern Europe. According to one perspective, there are three different potential great-powers for that area: the US (with NATO as an important tool), a non-NATO Western Europe in the form of the EU, and Russia. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer as all three “great powers” wield a certain level of influence. At a deeper level, however, are three sub-issues. First, who has the “right” to influence in Eastern Europe? Second, who has the right to dictate policy vis-à-vis ethnic Russians and ethnic Slavs more broadly? Third, what are appropriate tools for influence?

As regards the first sub-issue, all three actors claim a “right” to have influence in Eastern Europe. On Russia’s part, much of Eastern Europe belonged to them at some point in history and, according to historical precedent, they claim a historical prerogative to influence there. Furthermore, they share a common culture (in large part because of a shared history) with many of the ethnic and linguistic groups in Eastern Europe. This includes not only those groups who share a similar language or ethnicity, but also the large Russian diaspora spread across Eastern Europe. Additionally, as Eastern Orthodoxy is quite prevalent across much of Eastern Europe, Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) continue to claim a religious/moral right to influence in the region as a protectors of orthodox Christianity.

Western Europe claims a “right” to influence in Eastern Europe for some reasons similar to Russia’s: a shared history and a shared culture . They even claim something of a moral “right”, though somewhat more removed from openly religious-based moralism emanating from the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church . Rather, Western Europe’s moral claim to influence in Eastern Europe stems partly from a shared Christian history, but even more so from the guilt many in Western Europe feel for “abandoning” eastern Europe to Soviet control following World War II.

Importantly, though, this guilt does not unite European elites nearly to the extent Orthodoxy (even if not practiced) unites Russia’s elites. Furthermore, Western Europe’s moral inclination to help Eastern Europe also stems from the belief that the International Liberal Order (ILO: political and economic liberalization) really does benefit those it reaches.

The US “right” to influence in Eastern Europe mirrors the latter part of Western Europe’s justification: partial guilt for abandoning Eastern Europe, and partial belief in the moral benefits of liberalization. But, this last point about the moral benefits of liberalization also draw something of a distinction between the US and Western European approaches. The US tends to see things in black and white while Western Europe (and even Russia) sees a lot more gray. Specifically, Western Europe, while still quite skeptical of Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe, does not believe that Eastern Europe must side with Russia or the West: rather, there is room for cooperation, a view also held by Russia, as long as these countries do not leave Russia’s sphere of influence.

The US, on the other hand, tends to see Russian influence in Eastern Europe as largely negative because it disrupts the spread of liberalism . Consequently, the US is not only willing to have influence in Eastern Europe, but also willing (and, arguably, eager) to inhibit Russia’s influence there. As the “protector” of political and economic liberalism globally, the US has the “right” to protect those liberalisms in Eastern Europe, especially in the face of perceived Russian opposition to those trends. In other words, the US sees the world through a lens similar to that of Russia, something of a sphere of influence. But, where Russia sees geographical/historical/moral spheres of influence, the US sees geopolitical and ideological spheres of influence.

The second sub-issue (who has a right to influence ethnic Russians and those who share a similar identity) is not much different from the first, though the focus narrows significantly from Eastern Europe in general, to Russians and those who share a common identity more specifically. In narrowing down, it makes the discussion all the more volatile. Russia not only claims the right to protect Russians on political and economic grounds, but also on religious grounds. And, this protection extends to others traditionally known as “Rus”, as well as other Eastern Orthodox believers. Russia’s claims to influence in Eastern Europe for historical, cultural and religious reasons is already a strong claim. Add ethnic Russians to the mix, and the claim becomes divine with a healthy dose of nationalism. Under this combination, it becomes virtually impossible to dissuade Russia from insisting on a significant say in Eastern Europe .

The third issue, tool appropriateness, is as much about effectiveness as about jus in bello (or, the justice of tactics within conflict). For much of Eastern Europe, they are already institutionally tied with the West both through the EU and NATO. From the perspective of the US and Western Europe, this is a very effective way both to spread liberalism and to alleviate the guilt associated with the Cold War. It answers both the “effective” question, and the “just” question. However, Russia’s tools are equally effective and, from their perspective, just. They have tried formal political and economic approaches (including inviting various eastern European states into formal institutions such as the CSTO and the EEA) but their official influence is still quite limited. However, their ability to influence countries through other methods is impressive. Their influence through trade policy, media (both social and traditional), election manipulation, saber rattling, and outright invasions and annexations have proved very effective in keeping many elites in the US, and Western and Eastern Europe, uneasy and unsure how to proceed .

Impact on US National Interests

The US benefits globally from the spread of liberalism. The ILO means that the US can maintain its global influence and, more importantly, its entire domestic political and economic system. Not only that, but there is a strong belief shared by political and societal elites within the US that the spread of liberalism truly does make for a better life for people, wherever they may be. So, when liberalism spreads and catches on, U.S. interests are met internationally and domestically. This, in theory, creates something of a panacea for the United States.

Western Europe represents the strongest allies the US has in protecting and promoting liberalism. Without Europe, the US is the arguably the last powerful protagonist of liberalism. The US needs a strong, liberal Western Europe. To that end, however, the U.S. need a stable Eastern Europe wherein is imbedded liberal ideals just like those in Western Europe. They provide something of a buffer, a front line, between Western European liberalism and Russian illiberalism. In short,  US interest in spreading liberalism butt up against Russia’s interest in promoting great power politics and spheres of influence, and Eastern Europe is caught in both cross-hairs.

The sources of friction between Russian and liberalist perspectives are that neither views the other as compatible. If the international liberal order is to succeed, states ought to be allowed to participate to the extent they wish. Russia’s dominance of a specific region prevents this. However, if powers are to be balanced, one powers ideologies (and, thus, influence) should be considerably limited. Consequently, the US sees Russia preventing the spread of international liberalism, and Russia sees the US as interfering outside of its rightful sphere of influence.

However, despite friction, these two perspectives do not, necessarily need to be mutually exclusive. As has been evidenced in across the Asian Tigers, in China, and even (at times) in Russia, international liberalism does not have to happen all at once. States do not need to embrace political, economic and societal liberalism all at once (in fact, the Washington Consensus failures seem to indicate that attempting all three at once does not work). Rather, the US pushing economic liberalism may be the best way forward, specifically without pushing political liberalism. In regions already somewhat liberal, the US is right to push societal liberalism and even more political liberalism. However, where neither societal nor political liberalism have roots, economic liberalism is a potentially consensus way forward.

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