Blame attempts to change the balance of power in Europe
Much of the commentary in the Western media over Russia’s aggressive reaction to the placement of American missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech republic revolves around the authoritarian nature of President Putin’s government. But it is wrong to conflate the type of regime in Moscow with Russia’s geopolitical behaviour: a Russia under a different type of government is unlikely to behave differently.
Here’s the rub: despite what America thinks or says, Russia perceives the expansion of NATO and America’s strategic proximity as a threat to the balance of power in Europe. America’s decision to unilaterally abrogate strategic arms control arrangements undermined the stability in Europe during and since the Cold War. Some academics have even argued that the United States is close to, or has already achieved nuclear primacy—the ability to wipe out all nuclear weapons directed against it. It should come as no surprise then, that the decision to place missile defences in countries in its former backyard is being seen by Russia as a red line, warranting the delivery of a direct nuclear threat.
In today’s multipolar world, America’s attempts to extend its hegemony across the world is matched by other great powers using their own strategies to counter it. China, the master of indirectness, continues to use its proxies—North Korea and Pakistan—to keep the United States embroiled in its region. Russia, on the other hand is taking a more direct, though nuanced, approach.
The main development in Russian foreign policy under President Putin has been its ability to cooperate in areas of common interest, and take an aggressive position in others. Driven by a desire to keep Iranian gas out of the European market, it has generally co-operated with the West over Iran. At the same time, it has been clear in its resistance to what it sees as the West’s encroachment in its near abroad. With India, it has continued defence supplies and technology cooperation, while playing hardball on commercial terms, intellectual property, overflight rights and now, rice imports. And it has agreed to sell RD-93 engines for JF-10 fighter a China-Pakistan joint venture, even while being in the race to supply India with multi-role fighter aircraft.
What the world missed in the last few years is that Russia is re-emerging as a great power: it is the “R” in BRICs and one of the world’s major energy suppliers. Even if it does not enjoy a demographic dividend—unlike India—it is quite possible that it will receive a “climate change dividend”, as global warming makes greater parts of Russia’s vast expanse habitable. If it invests its energy windfall wisely, it is possible to envisage a Russia stronger than the Soviet Union ever was. All this suggests that the West, and India, re-examine their relations with Russia in this new context.
Should we prefer a less authoritarian, more democratic Russia? Well, yes. Not least because democracies will deal with each other along familiar lines. But will democracy change Russia’s perception of its national interests? That’s unlikely. Russia is not a small Eastern European state but a pole in the multipolar world. So blaming a lack of democracy for Russia’s ‘bullying’ misses this important point. Russia has just given some very high profile notice that it seeks to be treated as great power that it perceives itself to be.