After the debacle of the Soviet Union in 1991 and its dissolution, the loss of its sphere of influence in Central an Eastern Europe, the economic and political woes of the 1990’s as well as lowed failures in its foreign and security policies (the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo and the First Chechen War), Russia has begun quite forcefully to assert itself again as a great power in the international system. It has become evident that Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin is no longer the sick man of Europe, but on the contrary we are now dealing with a different Russia, one that has managed to put an end to its internal instability, has become quite prosperous and has an active foreign policy that befits a great power.
The return to an assertive foreign policy has been a trend in Russia’s dealings with the world since the election of Vladimir Putin as president – however this trend has been more evident in the last six months. On February 2, 2007 Vladimir Putin delivered a speech at the Munich Conference Security Policy in which he heavily criticized US foreign policy for its unilateralism and use of force, and made a veiled threat regarding the possible rise of a balancing coalition against the US. Another sign of increased assertiveness was the crackdown by the Russian government against internal opposition, most notably against the movement led by Gary Kasparov as well as vocally denouncing Western interference or advice regarding democracy in Russia. Furthermore in early April 2007 Gazprom sprang the idea of creating a gas cartel modelled around OPEC, in order to prevent “conflicts caused by energy resources issues in the future.” Russia has rejected from the onset any deployment in Central Europe of any parts of the American ballistic missile shield and to make its point clear it embarked on series of exercises carried out by its strategic missile forces as well as bellicose statements made by its generals – a clear signal that it will not tolerate such actions so close to its borders. On July 14, 2007 came the latest diplomatic skirmish with the West (NATO and US) as well as the clearest signal that Russia is asserting again its great power status, as President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, a cornerstone of European security, citing as reasons the non-compliance of NATO member states with some terms of the treaty as well as U.S. redeployment of bases in Romania and Bulgaria and a perceived inequity in the quotas of major arms categories. Russia also opposes US plans regarding the independence of Kosovo, threatening to veto any such proposition if it is put forward in the UN Security Council. Last but not least, in an ongoing spying scandal, reminiscent of the Cold War, Russia sent two Tu-95 strategic bombers towards the United Kingdom to demonstrate its will and capabilities and disenchantment with the latter’s foreign policy.
What does this means for the West (NATO, EU and United States)? It means that Russia will be increasingly difficult to deal with on hot topics such as energy security, European security, West Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Middle East, WMD proliferation or strategic forces. Russia will also put forward many more foreign policy initiatives and will constantly challenge the power of the United States of America, currently the only great power in the international system. However such a heightened strategic posture will not necessarily mean that Russia will have its way regarding some international issues or that its foreign policy will be successful. For the present it just marks the end of the period of Russian weakness and debacle.
What does this means for the international system? A tentative answer would be that the post Cold War unipolar structure of the international system is drawing slowly to a close. Slowly but surely other actors will rise to the status of great power – Russia therefore is no exception. However what will be the exception, at least in terms of recent history, is that the international system is not likely to be shaped solely by the actions of one or two great powers, but by increasingly more actors. It is too early to estimate how many great powers will rise in the future or how successful they will be – nonetheless the writing is on the wall. On the other hand one should bear in mind that the distribution of power among the great powers will not be equitable, and there is likely to be great capability gaps among them.