Russia’s expansion only stopped when it ran into countervailing geopolitical forces—the Germanic powers (Prussia and Austria, and eventually a united Germany) in the West, China and eventually Japan in the East, and the British Empire in the South. Over the centuries, this dialectic of expansion and resistance created Russia’s geopolitical space, roughly the territory of the former Soviet Union or Russian Empire. This is the sphere of influence Russian rulers consider essential to their security. This is why they have pushed back so vigorously against what they see as American encroachments on this sphere in the past fifteen years through, for example, the expansion of NATO and the establishment of military bases in Central Asia, tied to operations in Afghanistan. It is a primary reason for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014.
The internal and external imperatives have combined to feed a persistent sense of vulnerability that never lies far beneath the surface in the consciousness of Russia’s rulers. External expansion draws in ever more people of dubious loyalty, raising the costs of maintaining internal order. This situation grew acute in the nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism as a potent political force in Europe. Nationalist movements among Poles, Finns, Balts, Romanians, Ukrainians and various Caucasian nations along the periphery were constant threats to the empire’s domestic stability and external security. In these circumstances, Russian rulers have struggled to mobilize the resources to ensure domestic order and defend against external foes, constantly shifting forces and attention between domestic and external threats as the need arose in a never-ending quest for absolute security.
In this predicament, Russian rulers have been challenged to acquire the economic and technological capacity to generate the hard power for both those tasks. All the major reforms since 1700—Peter the Great’s Europeanization, Alexander II’s great reforms, Stalin’s industrialization, and Gorbachev’s perestroika—originated as state projects for this purpose and were pushed ruthlessly against the wishes of a profoundly conservative society. Because the great powers were until the current period all Western (or, in Japan’s case, Westernized) states, which Russia usually lagged behind in technology, and because economic activity was tightly intertwined with political structure in Russia, the question that has exercised Russian rulers is what aspects of Western political systems Russia had to adopt to catch up technologically. The aspiration was always to borrow as little as possible, so as to preserve as much as possible the fundamental character of the Russian state. The Soviet period offered a brief interlude, as the Bolsheviks thought they had discovered a non-Western path to modernization, but the illusion died as the country entered a prolonged period of stagnation in the 1970s. Until Gorbachev, their efforts paid off handsomely. For no matter how backward and poor Russia might have appeared by European and then Western standards, the Russian state was among the most successful if judged by the terms Russian rulers have valued—that is, territorial control, geopolitical sway and international standing. At least until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia not only relentlessly expanded its territory in Europe and Asia, but it also saved Europe twice from domination by a single power, by driving its forces to the heart of the continent to defeat Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany. No other European or Asian power can claim a comparable record of success.
RUSSIA’S CURRENT rulers hope to replicate the success of their predecessors, and avoid the catastrophic failure of Gorbachev, by restoring and sustaining Russia’s position as a great power. The task is daunting. The Russian state, if not the Russian people, faces one of its most severe challenges in the last three or four centuries, a challenge born of a geopolitical predicament and a domestic dilemma.
Geopolitically, Russia is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia, radiating influence and creating strategic depth. Rather, the flow of power has been reversed. Russia is being pressed on three fronts—in Asia, Europe and the Middle East—as a new, fourth front opens in the Arctic at time of economic uncertainty. China has overtaken Russia as the leading commercial partner of each of the Central Asian states; it is drawing Russia’s eastern provinces away from Moscow economically and perhaps, over the longer term, strategically as well. The European Union, even at a time of great trials, continues to act as a magnet on the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Extremist Islamic movements in the Middle East are penetrating Central Asia and, more worrisome, the Muslim-dominated provinces of Russia itself in the North Caucasus and Volga region.
Making matters worse, Russia’s resources pale in comparison to its rivals. The economies of China, the European Union and the United States are each five to six times the size of Russia’s. The gap is only growing with China and perhaps the United States. Technologically, the United States and Europe are far superior to Russia, and China is rapidly overtaking it. Europe may suffer from a demographic fatigue similar to Russia’s, but the American population remains robust, and China’s is nearly ten times as large.
These realities shape the geopolitical contours of Russia’s grand strategy. The elements have been spelled out in official documents and leaders’ comments, and made manifest in specific actions, during the past twenty-five years. The strategy is coherent, even if the Kremlin’s capacity to execute it might be in doubt.
At the center is an effort to reassert Russia’s preeminence in the former Soviet space, to recreate a sphere of influence, which all great powers by definition must have. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have tried various institutional arrangements to achieve that goal—the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and most recently the Eurasian Union. None, however, is complete with the full participation of Ukraine, the former Soviet state with the greatest economic potential after Russia, which occupies moreover a strategic location on the north shore of the Black Sea. If Moscow cannot lure or force Ukraine into a Russian-dominated structure, then at a minimum it has to keep it out of an association—such as NATO or the European Union—beyond Moscow’s control. That is the crux of the current Ukraine crisis.
Related to this goal is the policy of building up Russia’s presence in the Arctic. Because of climate change, Moscow has been compelled for the first time in history to actively defend its position there to ensure access to the region’s abundant resources and control of potentially lucrative northern sea routes. The effort to extend sovereign rights as far north as possible reflects in addition the traditional drive for strategic depth.
Beyond the former Soviet space, Russia seeks to balance between the two major strategic-economic zones of Europe and East Asia. It wants to enjoy the economic benefits of interaction with both while preventing either one from eroding its position in the former Soviet space. Diversifying commercial relations eastward reduces what is now an excessive dependence on Europe, which accounts for half of Russia’s overall foreign trade and provides three-quarters of foreign direct investment in Russia. But Russia must maintain robust relations with Europe as a source of leverage in relations with China—as Russia’s current isolation from Europe as a consequence of the Ukraine sanctions shows, China will exploit Russian weakness for commercial and strategic advantage.
Another aspect of this balancing act are steps to complicate the process of European unification, preventing the consolidation of an entity that would dwarf Russia in population, wealth and power potential much as the United States does today. The goal is to reduce the disadvantages of excessive commercial reliance on the European Union—Russia can play states against one another, as it has in energy matters for at least the past fifteen years—and it diminishes the security risks. In this effort, Moscow does not have to create fissures so much as exploit the ones that have emerged within the European Union over migration, fiscal management, the democratic deficit and other matters. The challenge is doing this in a way that does not preclude continued commercial and security cooperation with key European states.
Dealing with the Middle East presents a different problem, not one of integration, but rather of containing the contagion of extremism. Moscow’s approach, consistent with its view on the centrality of states in world affairs, is to support current regimes against popular forces, whether they be liberal, democratic, extremist or something else. That is the logic behind support for the Assad regime in Syria today and the resistance to what the Kremlin sees as destabilizing American meddling in the internal affairs of regional states aimed at regime change.
The final geopolitical element of the grand strategy is to rein in the United States, to compel it to take into account the interests of other great powers, including first of all Russia, as it pursues its own. That is the goal of Russia’s effort to rally support against the U.S.-led global order for a new multipolar world based on state sovereignty and mutual respect (at least among great powers). The Kremlin hopes to use China as a strategic counterweight to the United States and such organizations as the BRICS (an association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it coleads with China, as alternatives to U.S.- or Western-dominated international economic and security arrangements.