In one of the most memorable works of Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the protagonist’s most satisfying conquest turns into his most heartbreaking mistake. But it is his inner feelings about the combination of victory and loss that fascinate, for he vacillates between self-satisfaction and often smugness to despair and despondency.
Pushkin leaves his readers spellbound by the power of raw emotions, expressed in beautifully curated phrases; yet, he also leaves us confused, because Onegin defies simple explanations. There are waves of feelings and thoughts inside him, by turn empowering and tormenting him. Perhaps Russia’s greatest poet can guide us as we reflect on Russia in the emerging new global order.
Russia revels in victories. It has resuscitated its influence in vast areas that decades ago were parts of the Soviet Union. In doing so, it has defied the entire West and demonstrated that almost all forms of economic and financial sanctions cannot stop it from acquiring what it deems its rightful inheritance.
Russia has reestablished itself as a decisive power in the Middle East, a region it was expelled from in the 1970s. It has also created a notable presence in the Gulf, a region the former Soviet Union never managed to establish a foothold in.
Russia has developed serious influence in several parts of Africa, especially where there are economic resources of significant potential. It has also returned as a major seller of advanced arms, including sought-after missile systems. Perhaps most importantly, Russia has shaken off the humiliation it suffered in the 1990s and demonstrated (most importantly to itself) that it is a great power, not only standing firm in its position, but leaning forward in its neighbourhood and seeking opportunities far beyond.
But alongside the victories there have been losses. Russia is absent in all the areas that will shape the future. It is neither a technological powerhouse, nor a research and development centre in any major industry. Its once admirable educational system is now a shadow of its former self. And save for oil and gas, Russia’s economy has retreated in size and scale. It is now compared to medium-sized European or Asian countries – vastly smaller than the US or Chinese economies.
Even in art and culture, Russia – the grande dame of old – is increasingly just another market for dominant Western pop culture.
Some blame such losses on Russia’s deep feeling of victimhood and, subsequently, over the past two decades, its focus on ridding itself of the causes of this victimhood. The shocking fall in the quality of life after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the shame that most Russians felt during the Yeltsin years, and the feeling that a once mighty superpower had become a Wild West where the plunder of resources and rape of dignity were all but prevalent left many Russians not only angry but also traumatised.
Some found solace in Dimitri Karamazov-style self-indulgence; others in Ivan’s rejection of all that is sacred. But many more were like the third of the Brothers Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Alyosha, who seeks a manifestation of faith – in this case, in the belief in the sacredness of Mother Russia. Such people wanted Russia’s apotheosis so as to rise above its humiliation. This is why the assertive nationalist narrative has trumped all others in Russia over the last two decades.
The problem, however, is that these victories, though they confer power and prestige, are momentary. Their returns, whether political or economic, are largely limited to the here and now. The losses, on the other hand, are in areas that will determine Russia’s strength, relative to others, in the future.
This fuels anxiety. Russia knows that save for its military capabilities it is at a major disadvantage relative to both the US and China.
The dynamic with the US is now familiar. Because of its defence obligations in Europe, the US wants Russia contained behind its borders. Russia believes that NATO’s (and so the US’s) advance in Eastern Europe and parts of the Caucasus is an infringement on its sphere of influence. Neither side is willing to go to war with the other over this dynamic. But both use indirect clashes and different forms of attrition to drain and deter the other.
In the Middle East and parts of Africa, Russia’s victories dilute US supremacy. But as discussed in the first article in this series, the US has for over a decade now been lessening or rearranging its presence in these regions. Russia’s victories there are effectively cards that it uses in its exchanges with the US, rather than serious threats to the US global position and interests.
This is why, strategically, the US has no qualms about a Russia that is reduced to being a medium-sized power and one using its sole strength – its military – to sustain its influence in its immediate neighbourhood. Actually in some US assessments, the costs of sustaining this influence exceed its returns. The fundamental concern of the US about Russia is whether Russia will ally herself with China.
Russia has incentives to strengthen China’s hand. The more China expands and projects its power, the busier and more focused on East Asia the US will be. In this scenario, the US will delegate to its allies in Europe the responsibility of standing up to Russia’s assertiveness in its neighbourhood. This is an addition for Russia and a subtraction from the West in the balance of power in this region.
Russia also needs China. China will soon become the most important buyer of Russia’s fossil fuels, especially as Europe actively diversifies away from Russian gas and in general moves towards green energy.
China is also increasingly a key investor in Russia, particularly as Russia expects Western economic sanctions to continue in some forms in the foreseeable future. And as Chinese investment and development arms become major forces and gate keepers in different markets, particularly in Asia, Russia will benefit from political closeness to China.
But too much closeness will have significant downsides. Russia is well aware that China has already surpassed it in almost all domains of power. So, in any long-term partnership with China, Russia will be a minor partner.
This is not a future that Russia relishes. It has not resuscitated its power, re-established its place in the Middle East, extended its presence to the Gulf and repeatedly challenged the West, in order to become a minor partner to another rising power.
This is why Russia’s calculus with regard to China is complicated. Several scenarios are on the cards, and we will certainly see several of these in the coming decade. In the medium term, however, the relationship will likely be transactional, not the alliance the US fears, nor the closeness China desires.
For Russia, time is valuable. Russia needs to secure for itself the region it considers to be its sphere of influence in the immediate future when China is courting it and when the US is focused on China. This is why we are currently seeing renewed Russian assertiveness across its Western borders.
This is a serious challenge for Europe, one among others that the European Union and its major member states must confront and make up their minds about. The next article in this series will look at the dilemmas facing Europe, its potential responses and at the future it imagines for itself amidst the unfolding US-China confrontation.