The Obvious Question: What Does Russia Want?

Servicemen load air-to-ground missiles onto a Sukhoi Su-25 jet fighter during a drill at the Russian southern Stavropol region, March 12, 2015. Russia has started military exercises in the country's south, as well as in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine last year, news agency RIA reported on Thursday, citing Russia's Defence Ministry. REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko

Russia reserves the right to pursue its interests in the post–Soviet space without Western interference, in any way it sees fit.

With Vladimir Putin now safely back in the Kremlin for another six years, and with a number of crises involving Russian forces still smoldering in the world, the time is ripe to have another look at the vexing question of what exactly Russia might want from the next decade, and what it might be willing to do to achieve these ends.

Russia is one of history’s great survivors. In one form or another, it has existed for close to a thousand years; for a large part of that period, particularly in recent centuries, it has counted itself among the greatest land powers on the planet. It does, however, have difficulty with its national identity. Spanning eleven time zones, and with a landmass equal to the surface area of the moon, it is home to an ethnically diverse mixture of creeds and cultures. In many ways, its recent history has been one of self-colonization.

For the last four hundred years or so, elites, based in Moscow and later St. Petersburg, have dictated Russia’s outlook on the international stage. During this period, it has sought to be a part of Europe but also to remain separate, exhibiting a unique “Russian way” of balancing the state, society and the individual. Europe’s peoples are sufficiently near to Russians, and sufficiently similar to them, for their fate to be important. Russians read their literature and enjoy their music and art—and yet their societies are, in many ways, exceedingly different. The past still divides Russians as much as the present. In fact, most Russians would not identify the present Russian Federation as what they understand by “Russia.” Increasingly, they would rather use the term “Russian world”—a vaguely defined, nebulous entity that transcends the boundaries of the Russian Federation and sometimes even as far as those of the former Soviet Union. The majority of Russians seem to consider it morally justified to use force in pursuit of Russia’s interests within the “Russian world.” This has caused Moscow’s international dealings with others to be defined by an anxiety to prove itself, and to justify such actions. In so doing, the emphasis on this unique “Russian way” has taken on a life of its own.

All nations have interests. National interests are essentially a consensus, made among a nation’s political elites and their key constituents, about specific goals and ambitions in the international arena. Agreement about these goals guides a country’s relations with other countries and international organizations and, just as importantly, must include acceptable costs for these policies. Such things are usually relatively stable, being shaped and supported by the nation’s geopolitics, history and culture. However, since national interests are forward-looking statements that deal in a variety of possible future scenarios, their outcomes remain inherently uncertain. It is quite possible, therefore, that the pursuit of any one of them may not always yield the expected benefits. Moreover, the costs of this pursuit may be borne by one social group, while the benefits accrue to another. In other words, the pursuit of even seemingly obvious and “safe” national interests can carry some risk to political stability, both internally and externally.

In the 1990s, Russia’s national interests were not exactly a hot topic among scholars, analysts and opinion makers. The prevailing assumption was that post-Soviet elites would, almost by default, adopt something akin to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” as the underlying guiding principle of their policy formation. Political and economic liberalization was expected to obviate the sources of national competition in all spheres: diplomatic, economic, geopolitical and even cultural.

In this context, Putin’s Munich speech of 2007 came as a shock, because it essentially made clear that post-Soviet Russia still maintained a unique set of national interests. This should have come as no surprise. There had been signs all along that Russia was intent on developing a more assertive international stance, even under Yeltsin. Russia’s opposition to NATO’s activities in the Balkans and the West’s expansion into central Europe had taken shape during Yevgeny Primakov’s tenures as foreign minister and prime minister. The process culminated in the dramatic cancellation of Primakov’s visit to the United States in March of 1999, when, in response to NATO’s bombing in Serbia, he ordered his plane, then en route to Washington, to turn back in midair and head back to Moscow. In the course of the Kosovo conflict that followed, Russian forces came to the brink of confrontation with NATO troops at the Pristina airport that same year. Few at the time realized how galvanizing the Kosovo humiliation had been to post-Soviet Russia, although scholars such as George Friedman and Rama Kumar later correctly connected it to Russia’s logic for the Georgia intervention in 2008.