Beware the Russian Bear
When is a bear at its most dangerous, most aggressive, most willing to risk injury? Simple. When the bear is desperate. When the bear is starving and hasn’t had a meal in weeks, it will go to any measure in order to secure itself a meal to survive. At times, it will act irrationally and risk its own life for a chance at food, making reckless decisions or attacking a human with a gun. While dangerous to the bear, this is also incredibly dangerous to outsiders. Any deer or other animal unlucky enough to be seen by the bear will be eaten. Ask anyone well versed enough on bears, and they will tell you to avoid a bear that looks malnourished.
The Russian Federation is at its smallest size in centuries. Gone are the days of the Russian Empire when Russia stretched from Ukraine, Belarus and Poland all the way to Alaska, uninterrupted. Gone are the days of the USSR, when a single, centralized political entity ruled over what is now 15 countries and had puppet states in most of Eastern Europe, as well as various puppets in Africa and Latin America. The Russia of today, while large, is in an awkward geographic situation. 75% of its territory holds 25% of Russia’s population in SIberia, which largely serves as a buffer zone between Russia and outside powers. Meanwhile, the border between NATO and Russia, which used to be roughly a thousand miles away due to the Warsaw Pact, is now only a few hundred miles away from NATO and its allies.
It isn’t just geography where Russia is starving. Russia is one of the few countries on Earth which faces a shrinking population, which will pose serious problems to Russia in the future. Russia’s remaining population, meanwhile, will continue to age, leaving a smaller and smaller working class to pay for the expenses of a growing group of Russian elderly. This, along with other things, has led to the weakening of the Russian economy. Russia’s economy is only the 12th largest on Earth, behind South Korea and Canada (both much smaller nations by population). Russia’s economy is also over dependent on oil, with the economy rising and falling with the price of oil. This is not good news for Russia, since A) Russian oil reserves will eventually run out and B) The price of oil has been gradually been falling, due to the tapping of new reserves in the US and Africa. Russia’s innovation levels are also falling, due to both the aforementioned demographic crisis as well as the collapse of the Ruble in early 2016.
Russia has been cornered and starved. It finds itself smaller than it was in the past, poorer than it once was, and with a shrinking population. This is a killer combination of threats to the Russian Federation. All of these point towards Russia’s status as a declining power, ceding ground as China becomes the new superpower. When Mitt Romney called Russia “without question, our greatest geopolitical foe” during the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama quipped that “The 80’s called. They want their foreign policy back”. Yet, it appears Mitt Romney was right all along. A starving bear is a dangerous one.
Russia and its people became desperate for a stronger Russia. This is explained by Russian nostalgia for the USSR, as during the time of the USSR, Russia was either the strongest or second strongest country on Earth, depending on perspective. This is also despite the food shortages and rationing that plagued the USSR as a result of inefficient central planning. Thus, military aggression provides Russia the illusion of strength, and that Russia is returning to its former glory. This also explains why Vladimir Putin’s approval rating soared after the annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s first true act of aggression was in 2008, when it invaded Georgia in support of two separatist movements - Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This was the first time since the fall of the USSR that the Russian military was used against a sovereign, recognized country. This invasion also served another purpose. For months, Georgia was attempting to join NATO. With Russia’s use of military force, two goals were achieved. First, any chance of Georgia joining NATO was eliminated, for fear of total war breaking out due to Article V. Secondly, Russia sent a clear message to its neighbors that any attempt to draw closer to the west and out of Russia’s sphere of influence would be met with military force.
Despite this, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton infamously hit the “reset button” in 2009, in an attempt to improve ties between the US and Russia. For some time, this reset appeared to have a chance of success. For the first time, Russia allowed for US military flights to Afghanistan to fly in Russian airspace. President Obama scrapped a plan to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. In 2010, Russia and the US signed the New START treaty to reduce nuclear arms. Russia, China and the US also agreed to place sanctions on Iran in response to the Iranian nuclear program.
But by 2012, the reset had already started to break down. Russia begun to ship arms to the Assad regime in Syria, in support of its Middle Eastern ally. Russia has another interest in Syria - its naval base in Tartus is Russia’s last naval base outside of former Soviet borders, and is a major symbol of power and prestige for Russia. Over the coming years, Russia would further escalate pressure in Syria. In 2015, Russia began to conduct airstrikes in Syria, which it claims were conducted against ISIS. However, taking a bit of a closer look reveals that Russia was in fact striking rebel held positions, and only attacking ISIS when it stood in Assad’s path.
Meanwhile, in 2014, Russia dramatically escalated tensions in Ukraine. On February 22nd of 2014, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was was dismissed by the Ukrainian parliament, and replaced by the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko. This occured after weeks of deadly clashing between government forces and “Euromaidan” protesters, who opposed Yanukovych’s attempt to strengthen ties with Russia.
Alarmed by the new developments in Ukraine, Putin sought to protect Russia’s vital black sea port of Sevastopol, which is situated in Crimea and serves as one of the few Russian ports that don’t freeze over in winter. On February 28th, 2014, Russian agents seized key facilities in Crimea, and by March 16th, had held a referendum to officially incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation. As previously mentioned, Putin’s approval rating spiked, despite the collapse of the Ruble due to western sanctions.
A secondary development in Ukraine was that of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is primarily Russian speaking and opposed the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, and protests in Eastern Ukraine eventually turned into a secessionist movement, leading to an armed conflict. Russia began to support these Eastern Ukrainian (AKA Donbass) rebels, with arms and money. In July of 2014, flight MH17 was downed by a Russian Buk Missile, killing 298 people and further straining relations between Russia and the west. As of today, the overall situation is a stalemate. The eastern rebels have mostly been able to consolidate territory but have not made any major gains. Still, with 10 attempted ceasefires having been broken since the conflict started, peace looks unlikely in the near future.
Russia isn’t just going after states near it or aggressively protecting its allies, however. Russia’s actions in the past year have demonstrated its willingness to go after the United States. There is, of course, the Russian intervention in the 2016 election, that has been discussed numerous times by virtually every news source and does not need to be explained again. However, other important geopolitical developments went virtually unmentioned.
These new developments include the arms deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia. This was a 3 billion dollar deal that included the S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems, which are some of the most advanced on Earth. This, in addition to King Salman’s visit to Russia (which corresponded with the signing of the arms deal) could signal a turning point in Russia-Saudi relations. Saudi Arabia, traditionally a close ally of the United States, now appears to be looking for a new role in the competition between Russia and the US. Even if Russia and Saudi Arabia back opposing sides in the Syrian Civil War and have been opposed since the start of the Cold War, this new development signals Russia’s desire to expand its sphere of influence, along with Saudi Arabia’s desire for a more independent role in the world.
An even scarier prospect for the United States is the loss of Turkey as an ally. Following the shootdown of a Russian jet by Turkish forces in Syria, Russia and Turkey appeared more distant than ever. However, the two countries reconciled soon after, with Turkey apologizing for the incident. It’s important to note at this point that Turkey and Russia have been enemies for centuries. Before the 20th century, the Ottomans and Russians frequently clashed over the Caucasus region. During the Cold War, Turkey was heavily aligned with the US and a part of NATO. This makes Turkey’s purchase of S-400 defense systems from Russia even more alarming.
Russia’s attempt to go after the US’s closest allies make one thing clear - the Kremlin is fixed on expanding and maintaining its sphere of influence, whether it be through fighting civil wars in Ukraine, and Syria, selling arms to US allies like it did in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or invading countries, as it did in Georgia. Russia wants its old identity as a dominant power that competes with the United States back. In short, Russia wants to be seen as a superpower - a country that can project its influence around the world.
Are they a superpower? The answer is, despite their demographic and economic struggles, a decided yes. In its quest to satiate its immense appetite, Russia has roared back onto the geopolitical scene in a major way. Once seen as a potential NATO ally after the fall of the USSR, Russia is now beating NATO and its allies back - whether it be militarily in Crimea and Syria, or altering the diplomatic tides in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Russia has great sway over most of the post-Soviet republics (save for the Baltic states), and has a powerful and expansionist ally in Iran. It still has a colossal nuclear arsaenal and a potent army. Russia still sits on huge reserves of natural gas and oil. After being left without its teeth at the end of the Cold War, the Russian bear roars again.