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Like his Tsarist and Soviet predecessors, Putin has been highly successful in projecting Russian power and influence in the Middle East.  But the Tsars and the Soviets also suffered setbacks in the region.  Crises closer to home—the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and the collapse of the USSR—all led to Russian pullbacks from the Middle East.  In other words, crises in Europe or Russia itself have negatively affected Russia’s ability to pursue its grand strategy in the Middle East.  But as both the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan during the 1980s showed, Russia’s overreaching in parts of the Middle East can contribute to a decline in Russian influence throughout the region.

Up to now, Putin’s grand strategy toward the Middle East has avoided the reverses that Tsarist and Soviet grand strategies experienced.  But the Romanov dynasty lasted for just over three centuries while the Soviet Union lasted over seven decades.  Putin, by contrast, has been in power for only two decades.  Although Putin led Russia’s rebound after the collapse of the Soviet regime, the Putinist regime’s not yet having experienced in its brief lifespan the sort of dramatic setback negatively affecting Russia’s position in the Middle East that its longer-lived predecessors did does not mean that Putin or his successor will not do so.

In that Russia has experienced so many crises and debacles affecting its position in the Middle East in the past, it is useful to consider what sort of events might trigger similar setbacks in the future, even if what these might be and when they might occur cannot be foretold.  One is the possibility of a power struggle to replace Putin getting out of hand, especially if he exits the political stage suddenly without having designated a clear heir.  Another is the eruption of domestic opposition to Putin or his successor that is so massive that the security forces themselves are unwilling to suppress it (especially if the same oppositionist spirit has spread within their ranks).  Yet another is the possibility that the decline of Russia’s ethnic Russian population and the growth of its Muslim population will lead to increasing demands on the part of the latter either for independence or (more frightening for ethnic Russians) a greater role in governing Russia. Even if such movements do not succeed, Moscow will have to allocate more and more resources to suppressing them should they rise up.  And if the status of Muslims in Russia becomes a cause célèbre in the broader Muslim world, Moscow’s ability to separate its efforts to suppress Muslims domestically while having good relations with them abroad may diminish drastically (as occurred during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan).  Crises such as these, of course, might occur in combination and so make Russia’s ability to pursue a grand strategy in the Middle East all the more problematic.

Events in the Middle East itself could also undermine Putin’s grand strategy toward the region.  Compared to the Cold War when the Middle East contained some governments allied to Moscow and others allied to Washington, Putin’s having established good relations with all Middle Eastern governments appears to be a more successful approach.  The Middle East, though, is a region where sudden political change has occurred in the past and could well occur again.  The Soviets were usually able to take advantage of that change when a pro-Western regime was replaced by an anti-Western one (the Iranian Revolution of 1979 being the exception).  By contrast, in supporting the status quo everywhere in the Middle East, Putin risks the possibility that Russia will lose influence if it falls anywhere.  The same, of course, can be said for Western powers which also support the status quo in the Middle East, even if they sometimes (usually hesitantly) call for progress toward democracy and human rights while Putin does not.  But if the change that occurs is the rise of jihadist regimes which are anti-Russian as well as anti-Western, this may be of little comfort to Russia.

Finally, while many in Moscow believe that U.S. power and influence is declining and that its doing so is contributing to the rise of Russian influence in the Middle East and elsewhere, this may not necessarily be the case.  For the decline of the U.S. as a great power may actually serve to further the rise of China more than Russia.  And if China decides to assert its influence in the Middle East, status quo governments there may find Beijing—which is far stronger than Russia economically and which buys petroleum from the Middle East instead of competing to sell it like Russia does—to be a far more useful external partner than Moscow.  Further, if Russia’s own economic dependence on China continues to grow, Moscow may not be in a position to compete with China in the Middle East if Beijing decides to assert its influence there more vigorously.  Finally, if the U.S. with all its resources is having trouble maintaining its influence in the Middle East and even questioning how much it should even try to do so, it is not clear how Russia, with far fewer resources, will be able to acquire the role of most influential external great power in the Middle East much less maintain it.

 

This article was adapted from Mark N. Katz, “Incessant Interest: Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist Mideast Strategies,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2020, https://mepc.org/journal/incessant-interest-tsarist-soviet-and-putinist-mideast-strategies

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Russians take pride in how whenever Russia has experienced a severe blow to its ability to play the role of a great power in the past, Russia has every time been able to recover and re-emerge as one—often in a very short period of time.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 was soon followed by Russia being part of the winning coalition that defeated him in 1814-15.

Germany’s forcing Moscow to sign the humiliating treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 which involved great loss territory for Russia was soon followed by the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power and recapture of most of that territory.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941 was followed by the USSR being part of the winning coalition that defeated Germany in 1945 and the USSR becoming one of the world’s two acknowledged superpowers afterward.

The collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and the economic chaos under him and Yeltsin was followed by Putin restoring stability and prosperity internally and reasserting Russia’s role as a great power internationally.

Putin, then, appears to conform to the pattern of Russian leaders who succeeded in reversing precipitate decline and reviving Russia, like the phoenix, as a great power.

There is, though, another way of viewing Russian history:  instead of seeing Russia as always being able to bounce back from near collapse, the pattern can also be seen as one in which despite Russia constantly building up its power and prestige, it always experiences catastrophic setbacks—much like Sisyphus’s efforts to push a boulder up to the top of the hill always ending in futility.

Despite everything the 18th century tsars did to advance Russia into the ranks of the European great powers, Russia was unable to avoid the disaster of being invaded by Napoleon.

Despite the tremendous economic development that Tsarist Russia experienced in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the promising political reforms of the early 20th century, Russia did not avoid the disasters of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Civil War

Despite the tremendous economic strides made under Stalin (albeit at enormous human cost), the Soviet Union experienced the catastrophe of the German invasion of 1941.

And despite the Soviet Union’s achievement of superpower status after World War II, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and Russia experienced severe economic decline..

All this raises the question:  Will Putin’s efforts aimed at reasserting Russia’s role as a great power also end in yet another painful setback?  Instead of another phoenix, will he prove to be another Sisyphus?

The answer depends on a determination about what has been the main cause of Russia’s repeated setbacks.  Many Russians would point to invasions by other powerful states—Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany, and Nazi Germany—as the cause of them.  While there was no direct Soviet-American conflict during the Cold War, they see America’s containment policy as having served to weaken the Soviet Union.  Putin has long claimed that the West seeks his downfall.

Viewing Russia’s past catastrophic setbacks as being due to foreign aggression and overcoming them as the result of Russian grit and determination is a very comforting view for many Russians.  Russia’s setbacks were caused by hostile foreigners, and its recoveries are the admirable result of Russian initiative.

But in three of Russia’s most catastrophic setbacks, poor decisions made by Russian leaders—decisions that they did not have to make—played an important role in bringing them about.

Nicholas II did not have to decide to defend Serbia and enter World War I.  If the war had remained limited to one between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the increasingly vulnerable imperial government in Vienna may well have exhausted itself in a conflict with nationalist Serbia.  The Tsarist government, though, could have survived even in the unlikely event that Austria-Hungary quickly defeated Serbia, and avoided the far greater catastrophe of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Similarly, Stalin did not have to agree to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which put Germany in a far better position to attack the USSR in 1941.  Stalin’s extraordinary belief that Hitler would not attack the USSR was a truly historic blunder.

And while Gorbachev was right in concluding that the USSR needed sweeping economic reform in order to keep up with a strengthening West, he did not have to try to implement his utterly naive economic reform plans—especially when he could have just copied the successful model of market-based economic reform while maintaining political control that Deng Xiao-ping had implemented in China.

Will Putin experience the same fate?  He clearly seeks to reassert Russia’s role as a great power.  But it is not at all certain that the way he has chosen to do so will achieve that aim.  He did not, after all, have to annex Crimea, get Russia involved in a prolonged conflict in eastern Ukraine, frighten many European nations, or do anything else that has unnecessarily resulted in antagonizing the West—Russia’s most likely ally against an increasingly powerful China which has been more slowly but more successfully reasserting itself as a great power than Russia.  Instead of strengthening Russia, Putin’s decisions may be similar to the avoidable ones made by Nicholas II, Stalin, and Gorbachev that resulted in harming Russia.

Just like previous Russian rulers, then, what Putin’s aggressive efforts to reassert Russia’s status as a great power may actually be setting Russia up for yet another catastrophic setback.

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Various scholars have sought to identify what the objective criteria are for a state to become and remain a great power—especially a dominant great power or hyperpower.   These include Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers:  Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York: Vintage Books, 1987); Amy Chua (Day of Empire:  How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall, New York: Doubleday, 2007), and Richard Jackson and Neil Howe (The Graying of the Great Powers:  Demography and Geopolitics in the 21st Century, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2008).  What I will do here is discuss the model of how a great power rises and falls that each of these set forth, and then discuss what each of these models implies about what great powers are likely to rise and fall at present.

Kennedy’s Conjecture

In his classic book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, historian Paul Kennedy described how the rising economic strength of a state not fully engaged in international relations allowed it to gain politico-military strength vis-à-vis those that were more engaged and overextended, but then how its own subsequent politico-military overextension would in turn result in this state becoming weaker versus rising economic powers that were not (yet) overextended.

I well remember how when this book came out in 1987, it received tremendous publicity in the United States for forecasting the decline of the US as a great power.  Kennedy, though, also forecast how it would be difficult for the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Europe (then still in the form of the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union) to remain (or become) great powers.

In 1989-91, of course, it would be the Soviet Empire that would collapse.  In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his famous article, “The End of history?” in The National Interest, where he argued that this event would result in the inevitable triumph of democracy worldwide.  Since Kennedy’s forecast of decline did not seem to apply to the US, Kennedy’s book was quickly forgotten back then.

Looking back at Kennedy’s forecasts now, what is interesting is that all but one of those countries or international groupings whose future potential as a great power that he discussed then still clearly has the potential to become or remain a great power now.  These are China, Europe, Russia, and America.  Japan is the one country that he forecast could not be a dominant great power that appears unambiguously accurate.  Candidates for great power status that he missed back in 1987 include India (definitely) and Brazil (at least potentially).

What does applying Kennedy’s model to the present forecast?   1) America is clearly the great power that is the most overextended; 2) Europe now has the same problem as Europe did when Kennedy’s book was published:  an unwillingness to project force; and 3) the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—now appear to be adhering to Kennedy’s model for rising great powers:  growing economically while avoiding military engagements.  Whether Russia, India, and China will continue to avoid military engagements, though, is somewhat uncertain.

Chua’s Challenge

In her book Day of Empire, Amy Chua described how states that became and remained hyperpowers had more inclusive and tolerant regimes than their actual or potential competitors, thus allowing the former to more successfully harness the human resources needed to acquire and maintain this status.  But when tolerance in them declined, she warned, this presaged the subsequent loss of their hyperpower status.  This pattern, she argued, was the path taken by the Persian Empire, Roman Empire, Mongol Empire, Dutch Empire, and British Empire (among others).  America, she further argued, became a hyperpower after the end of the Cold War, but that rising intolerance in the US threatens this status.

Obviously, economic and military power is needed.  But if the attractiveness to others is a requisite for being a hyperpower (or even just a great power), what can be said about the attractiveness of our potential candidates to others at present?

The rise of anti-Americanism worldwide, especially during the presidency of George W. Bush, suggests that America’s attractiveness is waning.  Although the election of Barack Obama led to hopes (or fears) that this trend could be reversed, his ability to make the positive changes that he has called for appears to be limited by the increasingly intolerant Republican Party which controls the House of Representatives and can block action in the Senate.

As Chua herself argues, China is quite an intolerant country, thus limiting its appeal to others.  As for Russia:  while the Tsarist Empire had significant cultural attractiveness and while the Soviet Union led an ideological movement that was highly attractive worldwide, the appeal of post-Soviet Russia to others (for better or worse) appears quite limited.  India’s cultural attractiveness is growing, but not in the countries neighboring it.  Perhaps Brazil may have this quality of attractiveness to others.  And very strangely, Japan combines a domestic intolerance of foreigners with the possession of a popular culture that has become wildly popular worldwide with young people

Although Chua argues otherwise, the entity with the greatest attractiveness to others at present may be the European Union.  It is the only entity which other countries not only want to join, but willingly alter their behavior for in order to do so.

Demography Is Destiny

Richard Jackson and Neil Howe see population decline and aging as negatively affecting the ability of great powers experiencing them to retain this status.  The implications of their model are straightforward:  the developed world is shrinking and aging while the developing world is growing and remaining relatively young.  In their view, Europe and Russia in particular are especially unlikely to be able to remain great powers.  Developing countries will have the potential to become great powers, but their very youthful populations will make them highly unstable.  Interestingly, America—with its growing population that is aging less rapidly than Europe’s or Russia’s (due to immigration and a higher birth rate) is likely to remain a great power, but will face growing challenges.

Subjective vs. Objective

While there are undoubtedly objective criteria that affect whether states become and remain great powers, public opinion, commentators, and policymakers in different countries often employ highly subjective criteria in making assessments about this.  Policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in various countries often maintain not only that their country deserves to be a great power, but also that because it deserves to be a great power, then it either is, will remain, or will become one.  Similarly, policymakers, commentators, and public opinion in one particular country often maintain that certain other countries do not deserve to be great powers, and therefore they will either not gain or retain this status.

Employing these subjective criteria, then, every country that wants to become or remain a great power can convince itself that it can do so.  Whether or not they actually can, though, is another matter.

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