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.

Essay Types: Essay