James Corum, Dean of the Baltic Defence College in Estonia, has taught at American and British staff colleges and is the author of seven books on military history and counter-insurgency. He is also a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve and has 28 years’ experience as an army officer. Writing on a blog of The Telegraph, he describes a dangerous, Tsarist Russia bent once again on confrontation with the West:
Western nations and NATO ought to take note. Several events have recently occurred that will embolden Russia to adopt a more aggressive and less cooperative stance in its dealings with the West.
Domestically, Russia has had some good news lately. After disastrous yearly drops in population for two decades, Russia showed a minuscule increase in population (11,000) last year. The Russian inflation rate has dropped to single digits. A rate of 8.8 per cent is high by Western standards, but a huge improvement over the massive inflation suffered by Russia in the last decade. With oil prices holding fairly high, the Russian regime can count on a steady income.
The foreign news is especially favourable. The Ukrainian attempt to join the West is now finished, or at least put on hold. The election in the Ukraine pits two Russia friendly candidates against each other. Whatever the outcome, Ukraine is now likely to opt to become a satellite state of Russia and join with Russia and Belarus (another satellite state) in a Russian-controlled trade pact to counter the EU and WTO. The Russian lease on the Ukrainian naval base will be extended on good terms and the Russians will be allowed to continue their strong military presence in the Ukraine. The Ukraine leadership will turn away from democracy – with strong Russian encouragement. The Ukrainian people will get nothing from the arrangement – but that’s what being under the Russian “sphere of influence” is all about.
The good news on domestic and foreign fronts will give the Russian leadership the impression that things are turning around for Russia. This will encourage the Russian leadership to continue its recent crackdown of dissent and to suppress the small vestiges of democracy that remain in Russia.
Russian leaders will use the news to take a much harder line on cooperating with the West to limit nuclear technology and weapons sales to Iran. It will also mean a more aggressive policy in the Caucasus in regards to Georgia and the two Russian-occupied breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia will also take a harder line against NATO emplacing missile defenses in Central Europe – even as the threat from Iran grows.
Russian foreign policy is based on a truly weird combination of nostalgia for the old Soviet Union and the imperialism of the Tsarist Empire. Russian politicians and academics use the term “sphere of influence” in the late 19th-century sense of the ruler’s right to control the external and domestic policies of neighbouring states. One of the strangest aspects of the new Russian ideology is the revival of the old Tsarist symbols to include the double-headed Romanov Eagle – complete with crown— displayed on official buildings and in the Russian parliament.
While Russia demands recognition as a first rank power, the only things it has to back up this claim is a lot of oil and nuclear weapons. Even with vast oil and energy reserves, its GDP is barely above Brazil’s. Outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia is an impoverished, miserable Third World country. Life expectancy for men is 61 years – mostly due to the prevalent alcoholism. Most of the Russian government and economy is mired in corruption. The incredibly low birthrates and high alcoholism rates of the last decades are evidence of a demoralised population.
The rise of the new form of Russian nationalism and authoritarianism is something the West should not ignore. Russia is likely to turn away from any cooperating with the West and chart a course based on more open confrontation. Both NATO and the EU need to take a firm line and not ignore Russian expansionism and support of the Iranian regime.