Post-Soviet Russia rattles its saber

Moscow’s increasingly provocative behavior on the world stage demonstrates the failure of the Obama administration’s reset policy.

By Paweł Piotr Styrna | June 17, 2013

The banner of Russia’s armed forces under Putin, combines the symbolism of the Tsarist and Soviet empires.

Post-Soviet Russia is becoming increasingly brazen and provocative. In late April, the Russians and their Belarussian allies conducted war games right on the frontier of Poland (i.e. NATO) and rehearsed a potential war with that country. A month before, the Kremlin simulated a mock air attack by nuclear-capable aircraft against Sweden, which is not even a member of NATO.

This pattern of behavior continues. In June of this year, according to Finland’s Ministry of Defense, Russian fighters twice violated Finnish air space. Moscow denies this, although it has a long history of provocative infringements of the airspace of nations it wishes to intimidate. In this case, the Kremlin’s goal seems to prevent Finland from joining NATO. Yet, like many of Russia’s other neighbors, the Scandinavian nation has many reasons to fear Russia. Apart from the fact that Finland was ruled by Tsarist Russia for over a century (albeit enjoying autonomy for most of that time), the country was invaded by Stalin during the Winter War (1939-1940). Finland’s ability to heroically resist naked aggression by the Reds was a source of great irritation and embarrassment to the Soviets. During the Cold War, Finland escaped the fate of Sovietization and remained independent at the price of not challenging the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. This power relationship came to be known as “Finlandization.” Given Putin’s desire to restore Moscow’s hegemony over the former empire, it seems logical for Helsinki to prefer an alignment with NATO to another vassalization by the Kremlin, whose violations of Finnish airspace are pushing Finland in that direction.

Russia, however, has been so bold as to violate American airspace several times. As in the volatile days of the Cold War, Russian strategic bombers have flown over U.S. air defense areas. In addition, the Kremlin announced that it will resume its Soviet-era ballistic missile submarine patrols.

Furthermore, the post-Soviets have tested an ICBM which they proudly dubbed the “missile shield killer.” While the veracity of this boast remains to be verified, it is obvious that Moscow wants to discourage America and her allies from proceeding with the European missile shield, in which it has already partly succeeded.

Meanwhile, in the Caucasus the Russians have unilaterally shifted the border between Georgia-proper and South Ossetia—one of the two secessionist Georgian provinces which Moscow de facto annexed after its invasion of Georgia in August 2008—by several hundred meters.

All of the above provocative moves intend to demonstrate both to Russia’s neighbors and other powers—primarily the United States—that Moscow may do as it pleases and everyone, including the “most powerful nation on earth,” is powerless to stop them. The objective of such taunting is to demoralize the adversary.

The Kremlin’s increasingly confrontational modus operandi underscores the failure of the “reset” policy. The notion that gestures of good will and preemptive, unilateral concessions will somehow turn post-Soviet Russia into a “friend,” or at least diminish its antagonism, is surely a triumph of hope over experience. Russia has a long and consistent history of expansionism. National identity and empire have become fused in the minds of many Russians, the ruling post-Soviet establishment in particular. Historically, Russian and Soviet expansionism has been opportunistic: when a vacuum appeared, Moscow eagerly exploited and filled it; whenever confronted with firmness and strength, the Kremlin eventually desisted, albeit not without holding a powerful grudge. Expecting this tradition to change anytime soon—particularly under the leadership of a KGB colonel who referred to the implosion of the Soviet Empire as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”—is simply wishful thinking.

At this point, Putin’s strategy seems to be to reconstruct a Russian-dominated empire in Eurasia before Moscow’s strategic position deteriorates due to several factors, including the demographic decline at home and the “shale gas revolution” abroad. This sense of urgency contrasts with the strategy of post-Maoist China, whose leadership believes that time is working in its favor. It also suggests that the Kremlin’s aggressive, neo-imperialist behavior will continue into the near future.

Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.