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Russia – perhaps more restrained and less powerful than you think?

A US Air Force C-17 lands during NATO’s Steadfast Javelin II military exercise in Lielvarde, Latvia, Sept. 6, 2014. The exercise will run through Sept. 8 in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as Germany. (EPA/Valda Kalnina)

The following is a guest post by political scientists Brandon Valeriano (University of Glasgow) and Ryan C. Maness (Northeastern University).


Debates about the origins of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine have typically taken as given Russia’s position as a muscular, capable regional power, engaged in what Realists regard as power maximization. This perspective suggests the moves by Russia were caused by external forces and NATO’s move east, with conquest of the former Soviet space an inevitable response. Critics of this perspective suggest that Russia’s aggression was motivated either by the price of oil or domestic concerns, but nonetheless with Russian power on display. When we consider the outcomes of past episodes of Russian aggression, however, a very different conclusion appears warranted: the Russian state actually appears to be both a relatively weak and restrained power that struggles to assert hegemony in post-Soviet space.

It may be paradoxical to consider a state restrained when it has (unofficially) sent troops into Ukraine, invaded Georgia (2008), made antagonistic moves toward Estonia (2007) and recently blatantly threatened Denmark with nuclear weapons.  The key, however, is to examine how coercive power is actually used, as we do in our soon-to-be released book, “Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy: Energy, Cyber, and Maritime Policy As New Forms of Power. In examining Russia’s use of cyber and energy power, we find the state doing almost the least it can do, and often failing to achieve the desired outcomes.

In 2007, Russia showed its capabilities in cyberspace when the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet era WWII soldiers’ grave marker from the center square of the capital Tallinn to the outskirts of the city. Seen as an insult to Russian pride, this action led to a flood of DDoS cyber incidents which bombarded Estonian private and government Web sites, disrupting commerce and government functionality for about two weeks. By 2008, in large part in response to the incident, Estonia became firmly entrenched as the headquarters for NATO’s cyber defense. The grave marker was never moved back into town, and the actions lead to the Baltic state completely removing itself from Russia’s sphere of influence — hardly a success for showing the coercive nature of Russian power.

Later in 2008, a series of DDoS and Web site defacements originating from Russia preceded the conventional military attack on Georgia. These cyber incidents caused disruptions in communications nationwide and confusion. However, the cyber tactics did very little to decide the outcome of the conventional military conflict. The short military conflict also hardened Georgia to a swifter path to integration with the West.

Russia’s recent incursion into the Ukraine did not utilize any cyber methods. As the past two operations failed, it seems that Russian cyber power has been largely muted. The same is true with energy power given new pipeline options and the failing price of oil.  Over and over again, we find Russia using its power in limited and largely symbolic ways, with these power demonstrations producing outcomes that seems largely opposed to what was intended.

Russia uses its power externally because domestic public opinion supports these moves, the price of gas and oil have allowed it to do so, and because its own strategic rivalry with the United States pushes the state to assert its dominion in the region of post-Soviet space.  But these moves do not achieve strategic success beyond limited, seemingly pyrrhic victories. Given this, how just far will Russia really go? Russia seeks to punish its enemies, whether that be the United States, Georgia, Ukraine, or Estonia, but it can only do so in a limited fashion.  And uses of this kind of power always come with consequences, often unintended.

The worry is that as Russian moves continue to fail and as the price of oil drops, it will be less restrained in the future. That being said, past behavior suggests that Russia’s leadership will continue to be restrained and rational, with saber-rattling at the forefront. Russia is not a power maximizing state, but simply a middle power trying to maintain its interests with limited strategic capabilities.

As we look ahead, the next potential flashpoint is the Arctic where Russian elites see both tremendous economic opportunities and a good prospect for success on the international stage. Here, however, Russia has worked within international law to assert its territorial rights, along with Canada, Norway, and Denmark (via Greenland). These countries are making underwater exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims via the laws set forth by the United Nations Law on the Convention of the Sea (UNCLOS); the only state not doing so is the United States.

We side with John Vasquez in the call for foreign policy research that considers outcomes of the use of power, in addition to the beginnings of strategic situations. How these conflict end should tell us much about the next conflicts.  Past uses of force seemed to fail (Estonia-Georgia); will Ukraine be seen as a failure also?  Can it possibly be a positive outcome if it drains resources from the state, lays bare conflicts over the conscription army, and further demonstrates Russia’s inability to leverage cyber and energy power?


For more recent Russia coverage at The Monkey Cage, see:

How Russia Today is using YouTube

Think of Russia as an ordinary petrostate, not an extraordinary superpower

Will there be a ‘full, rapid, and transparent investigation’ of Boris Nemtsov’s murder? Don’t bet on it.

Five fatal flaws in realist analysis of Russia and Ukraine

The question to ask about Boris Nemtsov’s murder is not who but why?

What does Boris Nemtsov’s murder mean for Russia?