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Resurgence of Russia

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  • August 27, 2008
    Round Table
    Only by Invitation

    The discussion at IDSA on August 27, 2008 was part of the Institute’s ongoing research activities and was aimed at encouraging interactive dialogue among experts available on specific fields. The objective of the Round Table was to discuss the underlying and most compelling factors contributing to the resurgence of Russia and its implications. The Round Table was held against the backdrop of recent developments in Russia and its conflict with Georgia over the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    Some twenty scholars including international affairs specialists participated in the half-day working session. Those who joined the discussion included, Shri Rajiv Sikri, former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Shri Nandan Unnikrishnan, Russia expert at the Observer Research Foundation, Dr. Gulshan Sachdeva, Russia expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr. Subhas Kapila, Russia Expert, Shri N.S. Sisodia, DG, IDSA, Dr. Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA, Dr. Thomas Mathew, DDG, IDSA, Shri Sujit Datta, Senior Fellow at IDSA, Brig. B.S. Sachar, Senior Fellow at IDSA, Prof. P. Stobdan, Senior Fellow at IDSA and others.

    The discussion mainly centred around three broad themes covering a range of issues relating to internal trends in Russia, strategic issues and the cast of international players impacting Russia’s course, and finally aspects of Indo-Russian relations. Among the many points discussed the following stand out as important.

    Russia’s Resurgence

    Russia’s resurgence has been underway since 2004 when Vladimir Putin, through his tough domestic policy measures, put an end to several ambiguities and misgivings about Russia’s ability to stage a comeback as a power of consequence. Putin’s military successes in Chechnya provided Russia the latitude and sense of self confidence for restoring the country’s lost strength and international prestige.

    Whether or not such assessments indicate full resurgence of Russia, there was no doubting the optimism expressed in the discussion about Russia’s remarkable economic comeback. The country has emerged as the world's biggest energy producer, pumping more oil than Saudi Arabia and making Europe dependent on the export of its natural gas. The growing commodity items exports have swelled the Kremlin's coffers, which now possesses the third largest reserve of foreign currency in the world. It has a Stabilization Fund worth over $160 billion dollars. There was no doubt among the participants that with the current 7 to 8 per cent growth rate, Russia could emerge as a powerful economy; with Europe's biggest market. Such being the current trend, it became clear from the discussion that Russia cannot be wished away so easily by the world.

    However, there was a great deal of deliberation on how Russia remains a nation fraught with problems and uncertainty. For example, its current internal stability and economic situation conceals as much as it reveals. The economy is still largely based on export of natural resources that entails policies for diversification process in other areas. Russia has lost its capabilities, especially technical skills for handling large project management. Georgia’s ability to bring down six Russian aircraft indicated chinks in the Russian armoury.

    The current surge in Russian economy is linked to a power struggle within – redistribution of wealth (centralisation and re-privatisation) - especially in the energy sector and even in military industrial complexes. Corruption is rife with little transparency in decision making system. Judicial system is weak and requires urgent reforms. It was noted that the Russian leadership is adopting autocratic tendencies, backsliding on democracy, curbing free press, encouraging nationalism and xenophobia while using energy as a powerful weapon of foreign policy.

    Also on the downside, the country is facing a widening gap between rich and poor. The social sector i.e., education, health and transport systems suffer from acute underinvestment. The country is also mired in a dangerous demographic crisis – its population is declining by 800,000 people every year that could curtail future economic growth. It is difficult to imagine how merely 100 million people in the decades ahead would be able to defend a vast nation of 11 time zones. Russians are already worried about the Chinese increasingly creeping into their territory, but are not able to deal with the problem. Many felt that the potential of Indian workers immigrating to Russia could be taken up as a serious option.

    Strategic Perception

    The discussion reflected a view that Russia is subtly seeking strategic autonomy as against the earlier partnership strategy with the West. This could be indicative of Russians getting emboldened by the windfall from oil revenues, as such determined to reassert on the regional and global stages. However, participants who had experience of directly handling Russian affairs in the past felt that the Russian people have suffered enough national humiliation and would now stand up against the host of international scenarios being drawn up by the West. Interestingly, some experts perceptibly put forth the argument that the Cold War, in fact, has never ended. The West never dismantled the NATO and instead chose to expand beyond Eastern Europe into the traditional Russian strategic sphere i.e., Ukraine and Georgia.

    Some experts expressed the view that the ideological basis for the resumption of a new Cold War did not exist, as Russia too now adheres to democratic values, free market and globalization. However, they expressed the view that as long as the US plan for further dismemberment of Russia persists, tension between Russia and the West will continue unabated. The current Georgian crisis is a fallout of Kosovo, as Moscow was preparing for a showdown for months. The objective was to draw a strategic line beyond which Moscow would not tolerate Western poaching. The Russians had a history of strong national pride and there would be an obvious tendency for Russia to counter the repudiation of its great power status. It is seeking to reinvigorate nationalism and international assertiveness to regain its lost national pride. There were, however, questions about the sustainability of Russia’s emerging geo-strategic policy orientation.

    While rejecting the resumption of a Cold War theory, experts recognised that Russia faces inherent technological limitations and military wherewithal vis-à-vis the 10 times stronger USA. Russia, they felt, may have to play a more nuanced game especially in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. China’s entrenched influence and the West’s ability to use its economic leverages could drive a further wedge between the former Soviet Republics and Russia. The crisis in Georgia was a case in point.

    While the tensions between Russia and unrelenting neighbours have been growing for years, the US’ exuberant support for Georgia’s leadership clearly emboldened the latter to enter into full confrontation with Moscow. The US, according to some experts, was a ‘paper tiger’ and would not be able to defend Russia’s neighbours, should the confrontation develop full scale. Russia, they felt, feels seriously threatened about its security, and therefore its future actions would be security driven even if it means going for another war. Importantly, there would be a split inside Georgia and Ukraine before they finally join NATO. As Russia’s stake in the global energy market grows, Russia would be seeking a global strategic balance even if this meant a return to bipolarity. By any means, the US would be unable to force Russia out in an arms race.

    The discussion also brought up the issue that China might negatively react to Russia’s reassertion. In a scenario of a wider strategic competition, experts felt that China, because of the nature of its relations with the West, will swing in favour of the US. Most participants did not take an optimistic view of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Suspicions between the two are greater than co-operation. The broad view that emerged finally was that Russia would threaten the West up to a point. It will withdraw once it is able to draw its red lines. A full confrontation is unlikely, but Russia would retain the right to disrupt or contain the American agenda in Russia’s strategic neighbourhood.

    Implications for Indo-Russian Relations

    There was a great deal of discussion on how Russia was still politically, diplomatically and militarily important for India. A country with large stockpiles of strategic bombers with a veto power in the UNSC acts as a useful counterweight against global hegemony. A view was expressed that Russia could refurbish its strategic assets, and has strong scientific and technological base that can be taken advantage of by India. A view was expressed that Russian weapons were still the best bet for India’s requirements. It was felt that India cannot afford to ignore its old and time-tested strategic partner, as the traditionally strong US-Pakistan relationship and China-Pakistan nexus still persisted. Also, India had to develop sufficient confidence in alternative source of support in the area of defence. Further, Russia’s diplomatic support to India in the context of the issue of Kashmir cannot be lost sight of.

    However, another view expressed was that India needs to shed its old nostalgia and instead seek a more realistic relationship with Russia based on current realities. There has been a tendency to overestimate the importance of Russia especially among Indian academia, foreign policy circles and the defence establishment. Critics viewed diversification as a major challenge, especially when a linkage is yet to be established between engines of growth in India and Russia. Some experts felt that defence cooperation with Russia is not going to be same and it would be wise to speed up the diversification process. Similarly, on energy, nothing big is happening. An alternative assessment put forward was that Russia and India had substantially moved away from each other, as can be seen from the divergent foreign and defence policies pursued by both countries. The existing dispensation had a utility for India only for a single-window clearance. But, clearly, the lack of a transport corridor and banking system could inhibit any meaningful commerce between the two countries in the future. Russia’s recent action against Georgia had questioned the sanctity of the existing state boundaries. The unravelling situation in the Caucasus would have implications for India, especially when a position is required to be taken by India on the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This would require a carefully calibrated response.

    Conclusion

    While some experts expressed optimism about Russia’s future, others saw it to be less strong than it perceived itself to be. A revival of the Cold War seemed unlikely, but Russia protecting its vital security interests while acquiring strength to thwart US moves in areas where Russia had got a hold came out clearly in the discussion. Russia was likely to remain important for both the European and Chinese economies.

    On its road to regaining domestic and international stature, the participants saw several challenges in Russia’s way. The most serious issues related to social indicators and demographic trends. The establishment of a democratic and plural political system, which was at a nascent stage, was also noted as a constraint.

    While Russia’s potential to emerge as a major power centre and a countervailing influence to the US in global affairs was not in doubt, it would still require a positive and sustained engagement with major powers like the US, Europe, China and India to achieve the desired status. An equally important factor would be how others, while keeping pace with the changing reality, approach Russia’s resurgence as a phenomenon and gain from its endowments. The US, however, seems unprepared to reconcile to a resurgent Russia and will need to take initiatives for a deeper engagement with it to avoid a repeat of the Cold War-like confrontations.

    Finally, the participants felt that there remained a serious gap in the research being done on Russia in India and urged a fresh impetus for scholarship on the emerging Indo-Russian relations in a realistic manner. A proposal for a research programme in cooperation with the government could be mooted to bridge the gap in knowledge, as well as, for preparing analytical papers needed by the Government.

    Prepared by Professor P. Stobdan, Senior Fellow at IDSA and Co-ordinator of the Russia and Central Asia cluster.

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