Russia Rising

July 10, 2018

The world is currently facing an increasingly aggressive Russia that is actively projecting its influence and establishing a presence well beyond its periphery.


At a news conference with Federal President of the Republic of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen.

Image source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia


A Growing Threat?


Since at least 2012, Russia has conducted a sophisticated, well-resourced and thus far, successful campaign to expand its global influence at the expense of the United States and other Western countries. 


Moscow has pursued a host of objectives, such as tarnishing democracy and undermining the US-led liberal international order, especially in places of traditional US influence. Some of Russia’s key, ongoing efforts include: Dividing Western political and security institutions; demonstrating Russia’s return as a global superpower; bolstering Vladimir Putin’s domestic legitimacy; and promoting Russian commercial, military, and energy interests.


For much of the post–Cold War era, the United States and Europe paid little attention to Russia’s efforts to expand its political, economic, and military influence abroad. The West saw these efforts as relics of the Cold War, primarily confined to Russia’s immediate neighborhood but largely absent or at least ineffective elsewhere. 


For some time, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia’s internal challenges, and Moscow’s stated desire to integrate with the West sharply constrained the Kremlin’s interest and capacity to project its influence on a global scale. These factors also diminished the West’s interest in Russian foreign policy and its global activities.


However, since Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency in 2012 after a four-year stint as prime minister, Russia has engaged in a broad, sophisticated, well-resourced - and to many observers - surprisingly effective campaign to expand its global reach.


Tactical and special drills with tank, motorized rifle, artillery and reconnaissance units of Kantemirov division.

Image Source: Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation


To advance its diverse objectives, Moscow has relied on a wide array of diplomatic, military, intelligence, cyber, trade, energy, and financial tools to influence political systems, public attitudes, and elite decision makers in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.


Re-emergence of the Former Soviet Union?


The geopolitical tug-of-war between Washington and Moscow has not been easy. But while Washington has been preoccupied with its wars, Russia has been able to re-consolidate its influence in countries that never strayed far from Moscow's sphere, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan This has allowed Russia to make progress in its grand scheme to solidify its position as a regional power in Eurasia once again, reversing what it sees as Western infiltration.


Since Russia has no natural or geographical features truly protecting it. To compensate for these vulnerabilities, Russia historically has had to create buffers around its borders.

It has only been a stable, strong power when it had a buffer zone surrounding its core. The best example of this was the Soviet Union, in which Russia surrounded itself with a sphere of countries under its control, from Central Asia to the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. This gave Moscow the insulation it needed to project influence far beyond its borders.


Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Georgia protect Russia from perceived threats in Asia and Europe, and give Moscow access to the Black and Caspian seas. They are also the key points integrated with Russia's industrial and agricultural heartland. Without all four of them, Russia is essentially impotent. 


The closing ceremony of the joint Russian-Belarusian-Serbian drills Slavic Brotherhood.

Image Source: Ministry of Defence of Russian Federation


The Russian government also wants to re-consolidate its influence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia does not need these countries in order to remain strong, but without them the West is too close to the Russian core for comfort. 


These countries have either strategic geographic links to Russia or valuable assets. For instance, Estonia is vital because of its location near Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, and it is also on the Baltic Sea. 


Leveraging Relations with Eurasian Nations


Countries like Germany, Turkey, France and Poland can potentially check and counter Russia’s efforts in Eurasia. Therefore, Moscow feels it needs to form  strong relationships, or at least an understanding, with these countries about Russia's dominance in the former Soviet sphere. 


Vladimir Putin and President of France Emmanuel Macron took part in the Russia-France Business Dialogue panel discussion. 

Image Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia


Notably, these countries are all NATO members and each has its own complex relationship with the United States. However,  Moscow  is taking advantage of the United States' distraction to strengthen and leverage its own relationship with these countries. Ultimately, Russia will have to play a very delicate game with these regional heavyweights to make sure it does not turn them into enemies.


German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for talks with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. 

Image Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia.


Increasing Involvement in the Middle East




Moscow's plan to expand its influence in the former Soviet sphere depends on Washington's preoccupation with other issues. Thus, Russia has openly supported Iran with political, nuclear and military deals, and has made negotiations for military supply routes for the United States and NATO, in Afghanistan, more difficult.


The Trump Administration’s decision to challenge the 2015 Iran nuclear deal now carries a broad geostrategic price. The relationship between Moscow and Tehran, once tactical militarily, coldly calculating diplomatically, and practical economically, has been converted into a growing strategic partnership. 


Moscow and Tehran share increasingly common interests that have resulted in growing tensions with Washington. While the United States used to largely frame Middle Eastern

issues, even for Iran, Russia has now emerged as an appealing alternative for regional actors. Simply put: The US produced regional confusion and Russia stepped in to fil the resulting power vacuum.


On April 4, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani held a trilateral meeting of the heads of state, guarantors of the Astana process for facilitating the Syrian peace settlement.

Image Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia.



However, Moscow and Tehran are far from natural allies. For centuries, the neighboring Russian and Persian empires were rivals. Russia’s occupation of Iran during the Second World War, and its refusal to leave afterward, produced the first crisis of the new U.N. Security Council. 


Yet, with recent developments, the US is pushing Iran into the arms of the Russians, intentionally or unintentionally. 




In March 2017, President Putin's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said the Taliban's demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan was "justified" and criticized the long-term presence of US and Nato forces in the country.


US officials say Moscow uses  ISIS’ presence as an excuse to justify its meddling in Afghanistan and to further grow its military influence in Central Asia.


A resurgent Russia, under President Putin’ has also been pushing for influence in Afghanistan. This move is largely seen as part of an effort to ensure a seat for Moscow at the negotiating table for any future arrangement in the country.


This comes at a time when US-Russian relations are at a low point and the geopolitical situation is changing fast.


Moscow's increasingly assertive stance is linked to US-Russian tensions in other parts of the world, especially Ukraine and Syria. By establishing links with the Taliban, Moscow seems to be actively working to undermine the US and NATO.




The Russian military intervention in the Syrian Civil War began in September 2015, after an official request by the Syrian government for military aid against rebel and jihadist groups. The intervention initially consisted of air strikes. 


Prior to the intervention, Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War had mainly consisted of supplying the Syrian Army. At the end of December 2017, Russia said its troops would be based in Syria permanently.



Russian President Vladimir Putin with President of Syria Bashar al-Assad

Image Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia

Shortly after the operation began, Russian officials were cited as saying that, apart from fighting terrorist organizations like ISIS, Russia's goals included helping the Syrian government retake territory from various anti-government groups that are labelled by the US-led coalition as ″moderate opposition″. Of course, Russia’s  broader geopolitical objective is to roll back US influence in the region.


By the end of 2017, Moscow’s intervention produced significant gains for the Syrian government.


Western nations and human rights groups have frequently vilified Russia for its support of the Syria regime. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have alleged that Russia is committing war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians in Syria. Russian authorities have dismissed the accusations as false and politically motivated.


Ongoing Efforts


Currently, Russia successfully continues to exert pressure on some countries while utilizing its power to bond with others. Unsurprisingly, Moscow’s ultimate goal is to expand its sphere of influence and perhaps restore its former glory as a global superpower. 


Vladimir Putin took part in a meeting of the BRICS leaders that was held within the framework of the two-day BRICS summit in Xiamen, China.

Image Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia


Disclaimer: The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) visual information on this website does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 

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