Great Power Syndrome or "Recalcitrant Russia"


Following usual rhetoric, the end of the Cold War replaced the global competition for supremacy of the two great powers and fears of a large-scale nuclear conflict between them with a new era of cooperation and consolidating efforts for enhancing international security. Even so, the acute dialogue of Russia with outside (especially Western) world on too many security issues remains troubled. As it appears now, a permanent source of disaccord constitute the differences of views on local conflicts (whether a militarized crisis like the 2008 Georgia war or a diplomatic one like the 2011 question about what action to take toward Libya and the 2012 row over Syria), as well as sharp tensions over the US/NATO missile defense plans in Europe.

Those are just the most striking examples of collisions where Moscow and its Western partners found themselves on different sides of the fence regarding their assessments of piece/security threats and appropriate actions for countering them. Also in broader security dialogue, the Western side often blames the recalcitrance of the Russian military and foreign policy establishment that still seems to suffer from inertia of confrontational thinking and traditional phobia. As it appears to Western observers, ‘prickly’ Russia persists in seeing NATO and the US through the old Soviet prism of global confrontation while fearing growing NATO dominance in the wake of another military intervention, and pushes with the same suspicion-ridden approach as regards missile defense being ‘obsessed’ with getting legal guarantees on its non-targeting the Russian ICBMs.

It is true that officials at the highest levels of the Russian government have suspicion of the U.S. intentions, and even fearful that a weak Russia could become ‘the next victim’, according to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. High ranking military officers may publicly pretend that they still fear a war with NATO (like the Chief of the General Staff Nikolai Makarov did in fall 2011), but rather, what Russian military fear is not war, but irrelevance. In Soviet times, the Russian military enjoyed huge power, heavy spending on military programs and a high social status. Furthermore, for hundreds of years, the Russian strategic cultural tradition has said that Russian military have always been useful, successful, and greatly deserving of respect. In this context, it is rather natural for Moscow to feel irritation with respect to those who have been more successful in terms of military development and advanced military technology and who in fact have abandoned Russia as an ally.

The same psychological phenomena are essentially true of the Russian foreign policy elites that seem to be disappointed by the West’s irresponsiveness to their arguments and concerns, be it missile defense or assessments of what was/is going on in the Arab world. The US and NATO are basically ignoring Russia’s arguments (‘simply brushing them aside’, according to Putin). For a power with a long and rich tradition of independent foreign policy, used to be capable of affecting world policy affairs, it is painful to accept the fact that the U.S. together with its NATO allies do not care much about its position and reasoning. Simply put, by perceiving itself as a great power, Russia feels like treated without due respect.

Indeed, re-establishing its great power status has become a constant motive in Russia’s foreign policy discourse and actual international behavior. In a broad sense, the extensive reference to the great power status of Russia points to country’s cultural heritage, gigantic territory, enormous potentials of wealth, considerable military might and unique geopolitical location. Russia has enjoyed the prominent international status throughout much of its history, is a WWII winner and furthermore, a big nuclear power – consequently, despite all its failings in the recent past, Russia has a legitimate right to be recognized in great power capacity.

This is something often called a great power residual syndrome: Russia seems to be in search for a new international role as a regional power and attempting to secure a worthy place in the post-bipolar international system while positioning itself as an independent player whose international activities are centered on securing its vital interests, especially in the near abroad. The failure to agree on missile defense issue resulting in Russia’s warning about possible countermeasures against this system’s future deployments in Europe, refusing to endorse UN resolutions on cases like Syria by using its permanent member veto also seem to reflect the attempts to prove that Russia is not a weak, second-rank country but a great power that can still make a big difference in the emerging global power balance.

Another great power asset of Russia is its nuclear weapons potential: despite all the changes after the end of the Cold War and moves forward in terms of arms control and growing rhetorical support for the idea of nuclear disarmament, nuclear weapons remain for Russia a fundamental tool for maintaining national security and supporting its prominent international status. Moscow today has practically no other means to compensate for the gap in its conventional military potential and only a few other instruments for playing great power politics. That is why focus upon nuclear deterrence and concerns over the US/NATO planned BMD system potentially undermining it occupies a special place in the country’s current security discourse and dialogue with Western partners, foremost the US.

It seems that the vital question here is not (or not only) about whether Russia’s enhanced relying on nuclear deterrence is right or wrong, whether viewing it challenged by the planned missile defense system is correct or not (whether fears are reasonably justified or counterarguments convincing enough) but the question for Kremlin’s leadership is essentially about if the country’s concerns are listen to or disregarded. On missile defense specifically, it seems that the US and NATO have not done a lot in terms of giving clear indications to the Russian side of their readiness to listen to and accommodate reasonable Russian suggestions on the issue in order to make it easier for Moscow to agree to some kind of a cooperative missile defense arrangement (short of a treaty, experts cite many ways to possibly reassure Moscow about the capabilities of the planned BMD system – like offering annual declarations on the numbers of its key elements, commitment to provide notice of changes in the planned numbers, observing SM-3 interceptor tests by the Russian side, etc. Such or similar measures, however, have never been proposed to Russia).

It is true that today’s Russia with its ‘difficult’ strategic cultural heritage and great power aspirations is not an easy partner to cooperate with, and yet, it is the pivotal player on global security issues, therefore, the US and NATO are simply bound to cooperate with Russia. In order to make such a cooperation an asset rather than a liability, the most important task to start with is obviously trust-building which must become an articulated policy objective above cooperation – because one can still cooperate with someone without necessarily trusting them fundamentally. Trust-building, in its turn, necessitates showing respect for the counterpart’s legitimate interests and concerns, not disregarding them. Else, Washington and European capitals can from time to time ‘cooperate’ with Moscow on this or that front, continuing, in fact, to fear each other’s influence in a competitive struggle.


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