Russia: Great Power Image versus Economic Reality

Article excerpt

Russia's vision of itself has largely coalesced around that of a unique regional power, with the natural resources, glorious history, and will power to be a major player in a future multipolar world. As seen by most Russians, under the guidance of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become an economically powerful actor with an important and independent voice on the international stage, including rebuilding historic economic alliances with states described as rogues by the United States and forming a strategic partnership with China. Some have seen the challenges to the West combined with Russia's close relationship with China as a threat to the United States; but this threat should not be overblown. As China continues to assert itself and eventually challenges Russia's declared dominance of Central Asian resources, the two states may well clash.

Key words: Russia, BRIC, international political economy

Introduction

Russia's vision of itself has largely coalesced around that of a unique regional superpower, with the natural resources, glorious history, and political will to play one of the select starring roles on the global stage. President Vladimir Putin, as seen by the vast majority of Russians among both elites and the masses, has taken the state from a floundering follower of the West to a strong Eurasian-leading state. Putin and his predecessor, President Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999), have designed several regional economic integration accords that give Russia a dominant position among the members, which are a subset of the post-Soviet states. Russian troops are based in several of the states, some of which are also parties to the integration accords. Russia's economic power has grown under Putin, with the primary hardcurrency earners being exports of natural gas and oil, as well as military and nuclear energy equipment.

These economic interests have pushed Putin to partner with a variety of states, including several in Western and Eastern European that rely on fuel imports, as well as several states that the United States strongly opposes, including Libya, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Iran. Despite these economic relationships, Russia has remained close to the United States, in part because it wants to continue membership in or join international governmental institutions (IGOs) that are dominated by the United States, most notably the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the G-8.

Since the mid-1990s, Russia's most important long-term strategic ally has been China. Their common dislike of Western interference in internal affairs, particularly on human rights and democratic institutions, binds them together ideologically. Economically, China needs to import the energy and military equipment that Russia needs to export. The second most important emerging power for Russia is India, with which it has an historic trade relationship that includes military and nuclear-technology sales. Far from the continents that matter to Russia and seemingly uninterested in significant military power, Brazil is not seen by Russian leaders as a contender for major power status. Finally, a partnership between Russia and Japan-Asia's largest economy- has been stymied by the debate over the islands that Russia has claimed for itself since World War II, along with memories of Japanese aggression.

Yet while Russia has the military might and will to be a great power, its economic foundation is weak. Its future status will in part depend on how far bluster and a close relationship with the true next great powers-China and India-can take it.

The Yeltsin Years: From Western Hopeful to Independent Power

The Russian Federation's first two years of independence are critical for understanding Russia's response to the United States today, its emphasis on controlling the former Soviet region, and the Russian policy of reaching out to the emerging Asian powers, particularly China. In the early 1990s, President Yeltsin closely aligned Russia with the Soviet Union's erstwhile enemy-the United States specifically and the West more generally. …

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