Beyond anti-Western rhetoric, a review of Russian actions on the world stage during the Putin years demonstrates just how Russia’s leaders have been expressing these grievances with the West in the post-Cold War period. These include:
- A series of pipeline wars perpetrated by Russia against its neighbors, and by extension, Western European oil and gas consumers downstream. These have taken the form of discretionary price increases and interrupted flow of energy in response to political slights as well as tremendous intrigue about the construction of new pipelines in order by-pass certain countries and gain monopolies on energy markets. Gazprom has been Russia’s major instrument of power here. This is compounded by talk among Russia, Iran and Qatar around forming an OPEC-like cartel to control natural gas production, supply, and pricing. Russia claims that these dealings are no more than an expression of capitalistic desire to gain comparative advantage in global markets.
- Seizure of foreign owned oil assets to further consolidate the Russian energy monopoly in Eurasia to which Shell, BP, Exxon-Mobil, and Total have been subjected. Russia claims that these nationalizations are simply remedying ill-conceived business deals of the Yeltsin era.
- The resumption of Russian military patrols over the Atlantic, reminiscent of Cold War operations, including plans to conduct surveillance flights over the US Eastern seaboard, potentially from bases in Cuba.
- A dramatic increase in Russian military spending, including the renovation of its naval assets located in key international shipping lanes. It has been estimated that Russian military defense spending has increased 500% from its 2000 levels.
- The announcement that Russia intends to re-aim its continental weapons at Europe should the US go ahead with plans to install BMD mechanisms in Poland and the Czech Republic.
- The decision to withdraw Russia from the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), an agreement that has accounted for much of the removal of US, European, and Russian tanks and troops from the continent.
- The placing of a Russian flag deep under the Arctic Ocean near the North Pole, claiming ownership of the disputed the underwater Lomonosov mountain range with its potential oil and gas reserves.
- The extension of Russian citizenship to ethnic Russian minorities living outside Russia, particularly in former Soviet republics such as Georgia. The granting of Russian passports emboldens separatist movements and creates the premise for Russian military intervention to protect the rights of Russian citizens.
- Cordial and productive relations with “rogue states” such as Venezuela, Libya, Syria and Iran who are considered enemies of the West, and obstructionism on United Nations’ attempts to deal with these nations.
- Arms sales to many of these same rogue nations and to China, in opposition to US-backed sanctions.
- Verbal attacks on international institutions dominated by the West such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization whom Putin has called “archaic, undemocratic, and awkward.” This criticism serves to incite those in the emerging and developing world (who already feel excluded to some degree from these bodies) toward anti-Western solidarity.
- Criticism of US unipolarity in the world and ongoing commentary on the democratic failings exhibited by the West, particularly by the US with regard to alleged human rights abuses in the Global War on Terror and electoral irregularities.
- Overtures to China and Central Asian nations to add a military component and defense pact to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Most experts see a pattern at work: as Russia’s oil and gas wealth have grown, so has its brazenness in promoting its interests on the world stage. How truly menacing are these expressions of Russia’s new assertiveness? Are they intended to be threats, or merely reminders of Russia’s relevancy and power? A much quoted statement by Putin himself seems newly haunting, its meaning being pondered anew by analysts the world over. What were his intentions when he pronounced that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th Century?” Is this merely a lament or a declaration that Russia seeks a remedy to restore its superpower status?
It is against this complicated mosaic of grievances, messages, and unclear intentions that the crisis in the Caucasus occurred in August 2008. Because lives were lost (military and civilian), people displaced, and sovereign territory heavily damaged, the conflict marks a departure from Russia’s past dynamic of asserting itself with mere demonstrations of power or even threats. Intentional or not, provoked or not, reasonable or not, the fact remains that Russian troops engaged with the troops of a neighboring country for the first time since the Afghan war of the 1980s. (The Chechen conflict, with all its shades of gray, for the purposes of international relations is classified as a civil war).
Next: Modern Russia Beyond Its Borders: Crisis in the Caucasus: Background