• Toby Irwin

Strategic Profile: Russia

Moscow currently perceives itself as a great power, and there is significant weight to this claim. A great GDP, currently 11th in the world, and a near-universally ranked second armed forces (behind the United States) stand as testament to this. Since the effective humiliation of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Russian Federation has made it a clear doctrinal ambition to reassert itself and recover. This primarily comes in two forms, the first being the recuperation of economic integrity following the shock waves of economic liberalisation and the second in military modernisation.

The manifestation of these goals does not come without significant barriers to their fruition. Internally, Russia is beset by problems. Economic growth has been problematic. Granted, GDP growth rates have been relatively high at times (2.3% in 2018), though have also proved volatile and have dipped as low as 1.2% in 2019. Inflation rate is also high relative to other European countries, at 2.4% compared to, for instance, Italy at 0.3% and Germany at 1.7%. Accompanying this is a slow in wage growth, with 2018 being the fifth consecutive year of decreasing disposable income. On a more broad basis Russia's economy is poorly diversified with an over-reliance on gas and oil for exports. Gas and oil sectors comprise around 35% of the economy as well as close to 65% of exports. Much like other developing countries, such as China, the legitimacy of leadership hinges on economic growth since it translates into other power forms. The fungibility of power, and therefore the importance of growth, is paramount to Moscow's ambitions. Luckily got the Kremlin, Putin has more-or-less stayed the same rating-wise since 2000 with an approval rating of about 70%. Real questions lie ahead though regarding internal stability. Key variables include the price of oil amidst surging rivals: both state producers and new forms of energy such as hydrocarbon and fracking. Another key thing to watch for is the upcoming Russian election in 2024. It is currently unclear whether Mr Putin will be running again. If not, then one inevitably must consider future policies of his successor. Are they likely to be more liberal, both domestically and internationally, or will they be more authoritarian in nature, with a more forceful foreign policy? For instance, one key contender for the presidency is Sergey Shoygu, a Russian army general. Such an appointment would surely have an impact on foreign policy formation and broader civil-military relations.

Military modernisation has been a key determinant in Russian great power reclamation, and has been necessitated by a seeming increase in threats to Russian national security. These include primarily the incorporation of former Soviet republics into NATO. As the 2014 Russian white paper notes:

"a) build-up of the power potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and vesting NATO with global functions carried out in violation of the rules of international law, bringing the military infrastructure of NATO member countries near the borders of the Russian Federation, including by further expansion of the alliance;"

Amongst other threats, the white paper emphasises the destabilising nature of regional states (presumably Syria), and how the deployment of foreign troops to these states represent a threat to Russia. Notable also are the prevailing issues of MD proliferation and global terrorism.

Interestingly, the paper also makes clear that a number of military risks exist within Russia itself, relating back to the idea of internal stability. For instance, it makes clear that there is still substantial ongoing activities that threaten to supplant the incumbent constitutional structure of the state:

"destabilizing domestic political and social situation in the country; disrupting the functioning of state administration bodies, important state and military facilities, and information infrastructure of the Russian Federation;".

Subversive activities aimed at undermining state integrity represent a fusion of internal and external threats, since the former can be provoked by external actors. When the aforementioned domestic issues are combined with traditional security threats one comes to note that the road to a stable great power status, and the extension of a sphere of influence, is not as smooth as it seems.






At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.