As November 2021 drew to a close, intelligence organizations from multiple North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states loudly warned of a massive buildup of Russian Ground Force (RGF) units along the Russo-Ukrainian border. Specifically, they drew attention to installations across the Russian Federation’s Western Military District (WMD), where large amounts of armored vehicles, equipment, and ammunition stores seemed to be forward deployed. News organizations in Europe and the United States quickly seized upon these assessments, with pundits proclaiming that Russia's deployment was unpredictable, and that policymakers in Moscow were keen to violate the sovereignty of Ukraine without cause or reason. Policymakers across the west seemed completely caught off guard, with some publicly admitting as much. As this analysis will soon reveal, however, recent Russian actions in Eastern Europe were extremely predictable when viewing international relations through a realist lens. In order to act effectively, NATO members must develop a working knowledge of Russia’s Strategic Troika: the need for a strategic buffer, the necessity of unimpeded economic growth, and the will to be seen as a great power.
Since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russian actions in states along its periphery have been guided by a realist interpretation of international affairs. Specifically, policymakers in Moscow seem to have adopted the concept of defensive realism. Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, in Security Seeking under Anarchy: Defensive Realism Revisited, defines this theory as the act of pursuing expansionist and aggressive policies when states, "believe that aggression is the only way to make their states secure." As many political theorists have noted, this expansion and aggression improves the security positioning of one state at the expense of another.
Time and time again, the Russian Federation has shown a predisposition towards defensive realism. In 2008, Russian Ground Force units entered Georgia, specifically South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in order to limit western influence in the country and ensure the Russian Federation’s soft underbelly was not threatened by a new NATO member state. RGF motorized-rifle elements preformed exceptionally well, coming to within thirty miles of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, within five days.
In 2014, Russia once again acted based upon the concept of defensive realism. During the 2014 uprisings that eventually led to the resignation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in Kiev, it became clear that the populous of Ukraine would pursue, as the Council of Foreign Relations declared, “greater economic integration with the European Union.” In the eyes of many, this more western government was sure to develop better security relations with NATO, something deemed unacceptable to Russian policymakers given Ukraine’s border is less than 450 miles from Moscow. Sensing a major geopolitical challenge on such an important border, Moscow utilized Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms with support from the Black Sea Fleet to capture the Crimean Peninsula, territory it views as essential for continued stability in the 21st Century.
In both Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian Federation operated as though its actions were justified and righteous, despite the fact it was invading neighboring sovereign states. This can largely be attributed to defensive realism.
Need for a Strategic Buffer
In his 1998 publication Russia and NATO Expansion, Dr. Alex Pravda, an Emeritus Fellow at the University of Oxford, perfectly captured the differing views of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s expansion following the collapse of the USSR, “For the last four years the question of NATO enlargement has figured prominently in relations between Russia and the West. There has been hyperbole on both sides, with Western officials claiming that eastward enlargement is more historic than German unification and Yeltsin comparing tensions over NATO with those of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
In the 23 years since the publication of this journal article, such tensions regarding NATO expansion have dissipated and reemerged in a seemingly endless, bitter cycle. While policymakers in NATO states may truly believe expansion of the alliance will ensure continued peace on the European continent, policymakers in Moscow view that same expansion as a threat to national security and international stability. In fact, Russia’s 2015 National Security Strategy specifically declares continued expansion and development of the NATO alliance in states boarding Russia or within Russia’s sphere of influence as a major concern, “the buildup of military potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the endowment of it with global functions pursued in violation of the norms of international law, the galvanization of the bloc countries’ military activity, the further expansion of the alliance, and the location of its military infrastructure closer to Russian borders are creating a threat to national security.”
Does the continued expansion of the NATO alliance truly pose a threat to Moscow? In this discussion, a definitive answer doesn't matter. Instead, one must realize that irregardless of the fact that it may or may not pose a threat, Moscow views it as one. Strategic empathy dictates seeing the issue from the perspective of a target state, and not one’s own.
The Russian Federation's need for a strategic buffer between NATO and its borders can largely be attributed to geographic realities and painful historical memories. In 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte and French troops captured and partially razed Moscow, the capital of Russia. He was only forced to retreat due to overextended supply lines, thus proving the importance of a strong buffer in a fight against an invasion force in Russian minds. During the Second World War, a Wehrmacht reconnaissance battalion reached the town of Khimki, less than 19 miles from the Kremlin. Multiple military historians of high regard have drawn a direct correlation between strategic depth and the nation's security.
The Russian Federation’s economy, namely its stability, is a driving factor of Russia’s policy and strategy. Time and time again, Moscow has made decisions based off how they would impact its economy. Specifically, Moscow is highly reliant on oil as a source of revenue. This substance funds military projects, public infrastructure, and the day-to-day operations of the Russian government. Although officials are attempting to encourage investment in a diverse array of sectors, these gambits have yet to mature into significant sources of alternate income for Moscow. Thus, when oil prices fall or its economy is threatened, it can be expected that the Russian Federation will do its utmost to increase its virtues, even at the expense of others.
In 2014, crude oil prices sharply plummeted downwards. According to the World Bank, 2014 saw one of the largest price declines per-barrel of the 20th or 21st Centuries. As a result, Russia's Ministry of Finance reported massive loses and shortfalls of billions of Rubles. Russia, as previously mentioned, needed to act to restore its economic stability. Ukraine, a nation which is a key trading partner with the Russian Federation, was in talks to sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union, thus decreasing its reliance on Moscow and opening it up to greater western political, cultural, economic, and security ties. When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign the agreement, the Ukrainian people summarily forced his government to resign. This opened up the opportunity for the election of a more pro-western government which could’ve potentially impacted any Russian gas flowing through Russian pipelines in Ukraine, something Moscow could not allow.
Following the covert deployment of Russian ground troops to Crimea and the peninsula’s subsequent annexation, Moscow withdrew from the 2010 Kharkiv Agreement. The Kharkiv Agreement stipulated that Russia would provide significant discounts on cruise oil, natural gas, and other refined and unrefined products that move through Crimea and Ukraine at large. In return, the Russian Navy was granted a 32-year lease of Sevastopol’s Naval Base, the homeport of the Black Sea fleet. As noted by multiple economic analysis organizations, the invasion of Crimea not only allowed secured Russian control over a strategically important port, but also increased its yearly revenue by well over $4 billion, as it no longer needed to provide discounts on its oil and gas products. In addition, Russia captured billions of cubic meters of gas reserves and oil in the waters around Crimea, thus securing future sources of revenue to develop.
Return to Great Power Status
Just as all state actors do, the Russian Federation hopes to be seen as a major geopolitical player and great power. Moscow has aggressively pursued such a status and has attempted to meet the requisite criteria, although it has reached the limits of its power in some areas. As Robert E. Berls wrote succinctly in July 2021 for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Russia’s leaders have been intensely focused on repairing the damage and regaining a position of influence in the world that it considers worthy of a great people and a great nation. Put simply, the Kremlin wants Russia once again to be viewed as a great power.”
Before understanding why Moscow wants to be seen as a great power, one must understand what a great power is. According to Kenneth Waltz, the founder of neorealist theory, a great power is measured by the, “size of population and territory, resource endowment, economic capability, military strength, political stability and competence.” Specifically, a large or dynamic population, strong economy with leverage over others, offensive military strength, and a politically stable system are all requisites to be seen as a great power.
In the area of population, Moscow has struggled to maintain any form of growth. In fact, World Bank data indicates that its growth rate has actually fallen by -0.2% annually over the past three years. This, therefore, limits Moscow’s ability to act in the present, and will mean the United States, EU, and NATO may not need to devote a larger number of resources to countering Russia in the future. As RAND noted in 2019, “The Russian population is likely to shrink. Counterbalancing Russian power and containing Russian influence will probably not place a growing burden on the United States.” Although the Russian Federation has attempted to change the direction of this reality, it is not clear if this is a feasible task.
On the Hard Power front, Russia is not afraid to take greater risks in pursuit of being recognized as a great power. As noted in Understanding Transatlantic Relations, the Russian Federation’s quest for such recognition will mean greater risks will be taken, and a higher degree of punishment will be dished out than in otherwise normal times of diplomatic courtesies. Since 2014, the Russian Federation has exercised its Hard Power by deploying the RGF and its Air Force to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Despite this drive, funding issues remain, with the RGF, Navy, and Air Force struggling to field new platforms quickly and effectively. Simultaneously, the Russian Federation has utilized SHARP Power by seeking to develop economic control over state actors it sees as strategically important for national security.
Lastly, the Russian Federation enjoys a relatively stable political system. Although there are opposition parties within the country, they have no significant chance of upsetting the current technocratic and oligarchic system.
Thus, although the Russian Federation does not meet all of Waltz’s requirements of a great power, their drive to be seen as a major geopolitical player has a direct impact on their policies and strategy. It impacts their military deployments, economic interests, soft power actions, and overall political climate, and thus results in an assertive foreign policy abroad.
As most Russian citizens would understand, a troika is a sled which is typically pulled by three work animals. Much in the same way, Russian assertiveness is driven by three concerns and interests: the need for a strategic buffer, the will to be seen as a great power, and the requirement for unhampered economic growth. This trio drove Russian action in two of its most recent conflicts in Europe, and will continue to play a decisive role in guiding Moscow’s foreign policy towards the United States and European Union in the future. Thus having strategic empathy, understanding Russia’s interests, and shaping policy around these concerns will be key if peace is to be maintained on the European continent.