Russian activities in Ukraine and Syria not only raise questions about Russia’s intentions in these conflict zones, but also about the country’s ability to sustain these interventions. Already suffering from the effects of economic sanctions, low oil prices, diplomatic isolation and a tarnished international image as a result of Putin’s imperial ventures, many wonder if the potential strategic gains are worth the cost.
Russia under Putin clearly has great power ambitions. Despite Putin’s efforts to promote Russia as a global power, which are mainly exercised at the UN through the fine skills of Mr. Lavrov, strategically, Russia remains primarily engaged throughout Eurasia, for obvious geopolitical reassons. The Russian Federation, with an economy smaller than California and a population lower than Pakistan, is continental power, not a global one, even though it stretches across 11 time zones and possesses an impressive military & armaments industry.
The country has immense hydrocarbon resources which Putin attempts to leverage for strategic and political gain – but this may not work in the long run as its main European market works towards energy diversification. Threatening to send gas East instead of West also rings hollow owing to the raw deals that China offers Russia. Putin may well sacrifice economic gain for strategic gain – as the cost vs. benefits of his Ukrainian and now Syrian operations reveal: the acquisition of Crimea, hybrid warfare in Donbass, and now military intervention in Syria have come at a cost seen as unacceptable, and unsustainable.
Of course, states pursue geopolitical strategies with the knowledge that the results may be economically detrimental – America’s wars in the Muslim world have cost trillions, producing arguably little in the way of strategic gain. What is Putin trying to achieve?
Expert consensus notes that Russian aims in Syria are
- shore up the Allawite regime of Assad, Russia’s last remaining ally in the region
- fight militants from the Caucasus on Syrian soil rather than on Russian soil later
- to break out of western attempts to isolate Russia by proving its too important to ignore
In Ukraine, Russia aims to
- discipline Kiev by demonstrating that its internal stability to hostage to Moscow
- dissuade NATO expansion by showing that admission of the country poses too high a security risk
- force a new security architecture upon Europe where Russian interests are taken seriously & reveal the limits of EU power
It is likely that Russia’s current geopolitical outlook will prove sustainable. The main reason is that the Russian economy has been crippled by the sharp fall in oil prices” and Western sanctions. In the long run, the country’s bleak demographic outlook – projected to decline to around 110 million by 2050 if fertility remained constant – means a decline in the number of males of military service age with the result that Russia will struggle to maintain large armed forces. This is compounded by a high mortality rate and high levels of immigration by the well educated.
The logical thing would be for Putin to seek a rapprochement with the west, to ease tensions and attract investment to offset economic woes which if continues will only exasperate demographic decline, further weakening the state. Putin’s thinking may well resonate with the words of the Poet Robert Browning who wrote that A man’s reach should extend his grasp, or else what’s a heaven for?
states pursue geopolitical strategies with the knowledge that the results may be economically detrimental