The Coming Resurgence of Russia

The Coming Resurgence of Russia

Mini Teaser: Let us begin by recalling one of the most celebrated predictions in political literature.

by Author(s): Bruce D. Porter

Let us begin by recalling one of the most celebrated predictions in political literature.  In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of Democracy in America.  The book concluded with a short, persuasive analysis of why America was fated to become the greatest power in the world.  Among the factors Tocqueville cited were its immense geographical size, abundant natural resources, vibrant national character, and growing population.  The French nobleman then added, almost as a footnote, that one other nation was destined for similar greatness, and for many of the same reasons: Imperial Russia.  While conceding the stark political differences between America and Russia, Tocqueville closed with a sentence destined to become famous: "Their starting-point is different and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe."

At a time when many pundits have already relegated Russia to the rank of a second-class power and regard its decline as final and irreversible, Tocqueville's wise comments about the essential ingredients of state power over the long run provide a much needed corrective, for these ingredients ultimately matter more than economic fluctuations, political crises, or near-term shifts in the military balance.  When measured by such "objective factors," to purloin a Leninist phrase, the future of the Russian state--quite apart from its empire--does not appear nearly so bleak.  In fact, the most likely prognosis for Russia's future is not its retreat from the world scene, but its resurgence both as a global power and as a continuing obstacle to Western interests.

Tocqueville's prediction, made more than a decade before The Communist Manifesto was published and eighty-two years before the Bolsheviks seized power, does not hinge on the Soviet state.  He did not presuppose the existence of an ideological force that would fuel Russian expansionism, nor did his conclusion require the existence of a Soviet Union or a Warsaw Pact.  The USSR might evolve into a wholly new system, or even dissolve into its constituent parts, without affecting the validity of Tocqueville's observation.  For regardless of what happens to the Soviet Union, Russia will remain and--because it possesses those essential ingredients--will continue to carry great weight in world affairs.

This point was recently acknowledged by another Frenchman, then-Minister of Defense Jean-Pierre Chev[gra]enement, in a memorandum to senior military officers.  "Russia does not need to be an empire to be the strongest military power in Europe," he wrote.  "The Russian population itself is more than 150 million, which is easily the largest population on the continent.  Russia's territory is 30 times as large as the next largest country in Europe, which is France."  Though Chev[gra]enement's views go against the grain of strategic thinking elsewhere in Western Europe, where Soviet power is now largely discounted, they appropriately echo the thinking of his great fellow countryman.

One of Gorbachev's unheralded accomplishments has been a sharp rise in the casualty rate of Western predictions about Russia's future.  But at least one forecast is quite safe: By the turn of the century, Moscow will still be the seat of some kind of government.  That government--whether communist, democratic, fascist, nationalist, autocratic--will control at least the current territory of the Russian Republic (three-fourths of present Soviet territory) and probably the Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan (a Central Asian republic where the largest ethnic group is Russian).  If it succeeds in holding together this "Slavic core," it will have inherited nearly 92 percent of the territory and over 80 percent of the population of today's Soviet Union.  It will also be in possession of most of the USSR's current military capacity, including the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and the biggest, best equipped army in Europe.  Even though arms control measures may lead to reductions in absolute numbers, they will not greatly change the relative balance between Russia and the West.  Moreover, some 85 percent of the USSR's military industry and 90 percent of its military R & D facilities are located in Slavic republics, percentages that will only increase if efforts are made to transfer the most mobile assets.

For these reasons the proposition that Russia will remain a great power ought to be a truism.  Yet it receives scant recognition in the current strategic debate in the West.  I will go further: By the year 2000 we are likely to witness a significant resurgence of Russian military power in both relative and actual terms.  For the regime that governs Russia at the turn of the century will not merely inherit the existing Soviet military establishment, it will actively build on that foundation to ensure Russia's place as the predominant power in Europe and the military equal of the United States.  In doing so, Russia will simply be pursuing the logic that has impelled Russian statecraft since Peter the Great.

Geography, Culture, and Autocracy

For centuries, Russia's foreign policy has been shaped by three main factors: geography (the absence of natural frontiers, open plains that are difficult to defend, and the quest for warm-water ports); culture (an inferiority complex vis-[gra]a-vis the West, an idealistic sense of national mission, and a pervasive xenophobia); and autocracy (reinforced by deeply ingrained feelings of political insecurity).  These factors in turn have created powerful tendencies toward territorial expansion, high levels of military spending, and dictatorial government propped up by military and police power.  More than seventy years of Soviet rule have only reinforced these tendencies, and they are likely to persist whatever the fate of communism and the multinational Soviet Empire.

Throughout history, new city walls have been built on the foundations of earlier ramparts.  Similarly, if there is a regime change in Moscow, the new government will be built on the foundations laid by both czarist and Soviet rule.  The two strongest elements of political continuity in any such transition will be the professional military and the secret police.  This is because neither the present regime nor any probable successor could survive politically without support from these two institutions.  They are entrenched, powerful bureaucracies with stable personnel systems: most Russian officers who are under age fifty-five will still be serving in the year 2000, regardless of what government issues their orders.

The military and the secret police are always portrayed as "conservative" in the Western press, and rightly so.  But their conservatism is based less on ideological devotion than on deeply held institutional values and Russian traditions whose antecedents predate the October 1917 Revolution.  Just as a majority of the czarist army and secret police readily adapted to Bolshevik rule, so could the Soviet officer corps and KGB accept, and perhaps even support, the demise of the current regime.  But they would only do so provided that the successor government (whether communist or not) was committed to high levels of military spending and to maintaining political controls at home.  Since the new regime could not survive without Soviet military and secret police support, it would have to be so committed.  That is the unavoidable bargain the future holds, and its elements are already becoming increasingly evident in Gorbachev's transitional regime.

Thus, our hypothetical government of Russia in the year 2000 is likely to remain a political rival and potential military adversary of the West.  It is likely to pursue policies of weapons acquisition, force structure, and arms control not dissimilar from those now advocated by the Soviet General Staff (including its predilection for large strategic nuclear forces).  The only two future scenarios that definitely would not lead to such an outcome would be the establishment of a genuine Russian democracy or a devastating civil war.  For reasons that I shall discuss, neither outcome seems likely.

The good news is that a future resurgence of Russian power does not automatically imply a return to the stark Russian-American rivalry of the Cold War.  Marxism-Leninism is so thoroughly discredited that any future Russian government will almost certainly be less ideologically driven than past Soviet regimes, even if it retains a notional commitment to an undefined "socialism."  Russia's relations with the West, though still adversarial, are likely to be characterized by greater realism and calmer rhetoric than during the Cold War.  In the Third World, prospects for Russian-American confrontation should be drastically reduced, as Moscow ceases its automatic support of anti-Western regimes and Washington sheds some of its own anxiety about Russian intentions.  We are already witnessing this effect in many regions of the Third World, including southern Africa, Indochina, and--most dramatically--the Persian Gulf.

The bad news is that Marxist-Leninist ideology will be replaced by Russian nationalism.  For over half a century, the Western world has regarded ideological regimes, both fascist and communist, as the ultimate threat to peace.  We have tended to forget that from the French Revolution to World War I, nationalism was the principal source of conflict among nations.  Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have recently argued that "post-Communist nationalism" is today emerging as a dominant force in international affairs.  Certainly nationalism is on the rise throughout the USSR, in Russia as much as in the non-Russian republics.  It suggests a future relationship between Russia and the West resembling that which prevailed between Imperial Germany and the rest of Europe for several decades after 1870.  In short, while the Cold War will be over, the necessity of maintaining a balance of power will remain.

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