The CSS Blog Network

Russia: A Land Power Hungry for the Sea

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This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 19 April 2017.

Trying to understand the military behavior of nations has been a hobby of Western academics, beginning with the great geopoliticians of former centuries, such as Nicholas Spykman, Sir Halford Mackinder, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Simply, the argument is that geography demanded that insular and coastal nations such as England, Japan, and the Netherlands develop strong navies to support their national economic and political interests. Conversely, Germany, the Turkish Republic, and the Roman Empire were required to use their formidable land armies to defend and expand their territories. Russia stands out as a one-off. Situated squarely on the borders of Eastern Europe and central Asia, she endured numerous land assaults, and, accordingly built large defensive and offensive land armies. However, in fits and starts, she has also assembled naval forces equal to or greater than most of her presumptive adversaries. Why does Russia, a traditional land power, engage in such counterintuitive and unique behavior? Do recent international events shed light on Russia’s future naval activities?

When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on building a navy 330 years ago, he did so to defend the homeland from Swedish and Turkish enemies, north and south, while at the same time buying Russia a seat at the “great power” diplomatic table. Serendipitously, his navy did enable him to expand Russian boundaries and give him access to the world’s oceans. A second noteworthy Russian foray into the sea was at the height of the Cold War when Soviet Adm. Gorshkov planned and built a naval force that rivalled American supremacy at sea. His submarines alone (385) outnumbered those of the NATO Alliance and they regularly patrolled off the American Atlantic and Pacific coasts until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the surface of the oceans, it was commonplace for U.S. warships visiting exotic ports around the world to be joined by their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War.

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Challenges to US-Russia Strategic Arms Control during the Trump Presidency

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This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 3 April 2017.

The coming years may mark the end of bilateral limitations of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The future of the New START treaty is unclear, chances for a new agreement slim, and violation of the INF treaty by Russia remains a serious challenge. While strategic arms control strengthens NATO’s security, it should not come at the price of concessions undermining the role of the U.S. as guarantor of security and stability in Europe.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent contradictory signals about the future role of U.S.-Russia strategic arms control. On the one hand, as president-elect he indicated that the nuclear forces of both countries should be substantially reduced and that an agreement to do that could be an element of rebuilding mutual relations. On the other hand, Trump also declared that the U.S. nuclear arsenal must be greatly strengthened and expanded and implied that the United States should seek nuclear dominancy. After taking office, he questioned the need for the New START treaty (formally, “Treaty between the U.S. and Russia on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms”), which was agreed in May 2010. According to the U.S. president, the treaty is disproportionally advantageous to Russia. Greater clarity about the U.S. approach to strategic arms control will be provided by the Nuclear Posture Review, ordered by Trump in January 2017.

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The Two Levels of Russia’s South China Sea Policies

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This article was originally published by the East-West Center (EWC) on 28 March 2017.

Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.

One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.

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Is it Time to Drop the F-Bomb on Russia? Why Putin is Almost a Fascist

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This article was originally published in Volume 34, Number 1 of the World Policy Journal in Spring 2017.

Abstract

Vladimir Putin’s Russia meets the classical definition of fascist state, says Maria Snegovaya, except for one factor-the Kremlin can’t yet unite the public around a clearly articulated nationalist ideology. This missing piece constrains the aggressiveness of the state. Without it, the Russian people will not accept fighting foreign wars indefinitely.

The word “fascist” gets casually bandied about. After falling into relative disuse, it has once again become a go-to term to dismiss a person or government as irredeemably intolerant and totalitarian, and few hurl the F-bomb as liberally as the Kremlin. Following Russia’s invasion into eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian nationalists called the democratic movement in Ukraine “fascist,” referencing the collaboration of Ukrainian independence leader Stepan Bandera with Nazi Germany. One of Russia’s most popular TV propagandists, Dmitry Kiselev, spent five minutes on air explaining how all 14 features of the Italian scholar Umberto Eco’s definition of fascism applied perfectly to Ukraine.

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Russia’s Reimagined Arctic

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This article was originally published by World Policy on 15 March 2017.

In this text, Arctic Yearbook managing editor Heather Exner-Pirot interviews George Soroka, lecturer at Harvard University and author of “The Political Economy of Russia’s Reimagined Arctic,” to better understand Russia’s motivations in its Arctic. These include not only economic ambitions focused on resource development, but also a resumption of its great-power status in the international system, buoyed by its demonstration of pre-eminence in the Arctic region. 

Heather Exner-Pirot: There’s been a lot of speculation in the media and elsewhere about Russia’s motivations in the Arctic. They’re often described as nefarious. How would you describe them?

George Soroka: In general, I think Russia’s motivations in the Arctic are what Russia tells us they are, even if we are not always ready to believe them. Moscow has three main priorities in the region and they are all interrelated: (1) fostering Russia’s socio-economic development by exploiting the Arctic’s natural resources and the Northern Sea Route; (2) stemming demographic decline in its peripheral territories and better integrating them with the federal center; and (3) projecting power in the High North, where Russia continues to regard itself as the pre-eminent state actor.

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