Russia today is now investing in a much stronger military, strongest in two decades, to counter concerns about the growing threat of China, Japan and the US in the Pacific. See "Massive Exercises Underscore Russia's Interests in Asia." It is also creating a Eurasia Union with former Soviet states, set to launch in 2015. On the surface, these moves may be seen as defensive in nature. But it could very well be that Russia is seeking to recreate its old empire.
The truth is that today's Russia does not act much different in foreign or domestic policy from the former Soviet Union. Twenty years ago, it did let go of its satellites in Eastern Europe, of course, because it couldn't afford to subsidize them any longer. It allowed the Berlin Wall to be torn down, Germany to unite, and it no longer engages in an intense "sphere-of-influence" battle or lethal arms race with the US. (It has signed numerous nuclear non-proliferation treaties with the US to limit arsenals.)
But Russia still sharply restricts free speech, jails dissidents and generally has a poor human rights record. See Human Rights Watch's report, "Worst Human Rights Record in Post-Soviet Period." Russia's now "capitalist" economy doesn't work much better than its old communist economy. (See "Russia's Economy Sputtering" in The Economist.)
These were things the U.S. spotlighted during the Cold War, opposing the Soviet Union on moralistic grounds and thumping our chests over our superior economy and superior freedoms. Now we mostly look the other way from Russia's human rights record, because there's not much propaganda value to be gained among non-aligned nations in trumpeting America's economic superiority when they know that already and the world is no longer a bipolar clash between two superpowers, engaged in proxy wars -- hot or cold -- all over the globe.
We're no longer "engaged in a long twilight struggle with communism," as John Kennedy said. There's not much to be gained by American presidents to refer to the Russian threat with domestic audiences either. "The people" already perceive that "we won the Cold War," and don't want to hear otherwise.
Yet Russia still perceives the US as a great competitor if not a threat in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East (Syria and Iran), and Asia. It's nervous because neighboring buffer states have disappeared. Lauren Goodrich, Stratfor:
"The US successfully incorporated former Soviet satellites into NATO, supported pro-Western "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; set up military bases in Central Asia; and announced plans to place ballistic missile defense installations in Central Europe. To Russia, it seemed the United States was devouring its periphery to ensure that Moscow would forever remain vulnerable."
The truth is that Vladimir Putin, now in his 14th year of power, does not act much different from the old Soviet premiers or Russian czars. See some of the many references to "Czar Putin." He's an autocrat not accustomed to sharing power with a Congress or Supreme Court like US presidents must.
More from Lauren Goodrich of Stratfor:
"The Soviet Union did not act differently from most of the Russian empires before it, and Russia today is following the same behavioral pattern. Russia's defining characteristic is its indefensibility, which means its main strategy is to secure itself. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia's core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it and thus has been invaded several times. Because of this, throughout history Russia has expanded its geographic barriers in order to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and the myriad enemies surrounding it. This means expanding to the natural barriers of the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia. The one geographic hole is the North European Plain, where Russia historically has claimed as much territory as possible (such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany). In short, for Russia to be secure it must create some kind of empire."
Look at the history of invasions of Russia.
- 1920: Poland Invades Bolshevik Russia.
- 1918: Allies intervene in Russian civil war.
- 1915: Germany and Austria-Hungary invade Russia.
- 1904: Japan invades Russia.
- 1812: Napoleon Invades Russia.
- 1709: Sweden Invades Russia.
- 1609: Poland and Lithuania invade Russia.
- 1571: Tatars of Crimea invade Russia.
Now you can argue that in some of these cases, Russia was actually the aggressor. But at the least, you'd have to concede that at least five times in 150 years, from 1812 to 1941, Russia was a victim of foreign invasion. Insecurity is not just paranoia on the part of Russians. In sharp contrast, aside from the War for Independence in 1776 and a few border disputes with Mexico, the continental United States has been invaded by foreign armies only once since its formation, by Britain in 1812. Yet the US has spent far more on military matters than Russia has.
To maintain its empire, Russia must keep a strong central government, and "a tight grip on society and security," Goodrich observed. Russia's leader -- whether Christian Czar, Soviet premier, or current president -- must make it clear he controls the army and the security apparatus, she says.
Characteristics of the Russian state we Americans wrongly blamed on Soviet communism -- the failure to provide a strong and efficient economy and integrate its many ethnicities, the brutal suppression of non-conformists and dissidents, the desire to dominate neighboring countries -- were actually endemic to the nation's geographica position and history, and remain so.
- Analysis of Russian Geopolitics by Lauren Goodrich, Stratfor.
- Massive Exercises Underscore Russia's Interests in Asia.
- Eurasia Union
- The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis, the Dean of Cold War historians. It's hard to believe that for today's college students, the Cold War that was so vivid and scary to my generation is so remote. "Stalin and Truman, Reagan and Gorbachev, could as easily have been Napoleon or Caesar or Alexander the Great," Gaddis writes.