Moscow’s shift towards imperialism heralds withdrawal from international cooperation
Russia’s renunciation of its international obligations
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West decided to support Russia both materially and morally in the hope that it would develop into a democratic country with Western values. Russia retained its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and was accepted into the G7+1 (G8), which brings together the most influential countries in the world. In 1994, it signed a Partnership and Co-operation Agreement (PCA) with the European Union. At the 2002 NATO–Russia summit in Rome it was implied that Moscow might join the Alliance in the near future. In 2010, the European Union and Russia began negotiations on a visa waiver agreement.
Having assumed the former Soviet Union’s obligations to improve the international security situation and to end the Cold War, the Russian Federation set about fulfilling them with varying consistency. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia managed to come to an agreement with the US that led to the decommissioning of new-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles and the replacement of multiple warheads and self-guided nuclear missiles with monoblocks. In the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union and the US signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1). This was followed two years later by START-2, which resulted in further cuts to the number of deployed nuclear warheads and their associated launchers.
The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM Treaty, or ABMT) between the Soviet Union and the US, signed on 26 May 1972, lasted the longest. However, the Soviet Union had already begun designing and building the S-200 and S-300 missile defence systems under the guise of air defence systems long before the treaty was signed. After the US unilaterally terminated the ABMT in June 2002 to ensure its security, in 2007 Russia deployed the C-300 ПМ3 missile system—the S-400 Triumf complex according to a newer modification, or SA-21 Growler in the NATO classification—which is designed to destroy hostile targets coming from both airspace and outer space.
In a formal sense, Russia also refrained from breaching the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), signed on 8 December 1987 between the US and the Soviet Union, which banned the building, testing and deployment of intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, with operational ranges of 1,000–5,500 and 500–1,000 km respectively, because there was no need for them at the time. Instead, land combat units were equipped with the OTR-21 Tochka (NATO: SS-21 Scarab) tactical operational missile complexes, which can be fitted with both regular and nuclear warheads and boast an operational range of 15–70 km. These missiles have been used in military operations in Chechnya (1999), Georgia (2008) and the Donbass (2014).1 On 5 November 2008 Dmitri Medvedev, the then president of Russia, delivered an address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in which he announced that Russia would replace the Tochka systems with Iskander (NATO: SS-26 Stone) new-generation tactical operational missile complexes with an operational range of 50–500 km,2 and deploy them in Kaliningrad Oblast. These missile systems have now been installed on Russia’s western borders, including in Leningrad, Pskov and Kaliningrad Oblasts. On 22 June 2013, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would withdraw from the 1987 INF Treaty.3
A New Course in Russian Foreign Policy
On 10 February 2007, President Putin made a speech at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy. His address contained the harshest criticism of the US and NATO heard in the last 20 years. Putin noted that Russia was a country with a history spanning more than a thousand years, which had practically always used the privilege to conduct an independent foreign policy and that it was not about to change this tradition.4 Various media outlets have compared the signal given by Putin in this address to the speech given by Winston Churchill in spring 1946 in Fulton, Missouri, which defined the Cold War.5
Five days later, Putin appointed Anatoliy Serdyukov as Minister of Defence, with the task to reform Russia’s armed forces. This began as a reform of the national defence budget, which became increasingly more secretive.6 Russia was planning to allocate 19 trillion roubles (613 billion US dollars) to the armed forces for the period 2011 to 2020.7 Funding for foreign and defence policy and military operations partly came from a number of foundations that consisted of profits from exports of oil, gas and oil products. In 2006, that income accounted for around two-thirds of Russia’s export revenue and 40% of total government revenue. In 2007, the European Union imported 185 million tonnes of crude oil from Russia, 32.6% of Russia’s total production. The EU is also Russia’s largest trade partner and its main investor. 52.3% of Russia’s total trade and 75% of foreign direct investments have roots in the EU.8 The end of 2011 saw the launch of Nord Stream, an offshore natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Western Europe, which provides Europe with 38.7% of the gas it requires. This became a real goldmine for Russia, allowing it to fund its political ambitions.
Real changes in military defence began with a large number of officers being made redundant, while those who remained in service were treated to considerably higher wages and could benefit from the housing stock that was to be established for them. This was followed by a drastic reform of the Russian Armed Forces, which reorganised its structure and management and eliminated superfluous relics of the Soviet era. The armed forces were equipped with new-generation weapons and technology.
On 13 July 2007, Putin signed a moratorium on Russia’s participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE),The EU is Russia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 52.3% of all foreign Russian trade in 2008 and 75% of foreign direct investment (FDI) stocks in Russia also come from the EU. entered into in November 1990, and the fulfilment of related international obligations. The 1996 amendment to the treaty concerning territorial restrictions imposed on conventional weapons in border regions between NATO and Russia in both north and south was also given the chop.
On 4 July 2007, just days before the unilateral suspension of the CFE Treaty, the 119th session of the International Olympic Committee had naïvely selected Sochi as the host city for the Olympic Winter Games in 2014. For Putin, the main question was not the organisation of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but to use them as a distraction to finally incorporate the northern Caucasus, together with its so-called mountain republics, into Russia and the establishment of Sochi as Russia’s “southern capital” in addition to St Petersburg in the north. Sochi belonged to Georgia until 1934. Security measures were also updated when preparing for the Olympics, because the Sochi region had to be protected against international terrorism and the Caucasus region had not yet calmed down since the First and Second Chechen Wars. As a result, the building of Olympic venues brought with it the renewal of military infrastructure in the northern Caucasus.
A year later, on the eve of the Summer Olympics in Beijing on 7 August 2008, Russia used the 58th Army—formed to ensure the security of the northern Caucasus—to attack Georgia and seize South Ossetia. In the shadow of these events, Russia occupied Abkhazia and got the occupied territories to declare themselves independent republics (albeit only recognised by Russia and a handful of other countries). The security of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was naturally guaranteed by Russian “peacekeepers”.
Seventeen years after the conclusion of START-2, US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed START-3 on 8 April 2010 in Prague. This was to remain in force for ten years, but it failed to take effect in reality, as Russia began to deploy next-generation missile systems with new nuclear warheads.
In 2012, Putin became president for the third time and introduced a new foreign-policy concept. This was based on the 1997 Primakov Doctrine9 regarding Eurasia and the near and far abroad, and the theses presented in Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference. The concept was based on Alexander Gorchakov’s (1798–1883) legacy of Russia’s main foreign-policy objectives and the chauvinistic and imperialistic geopolitical postulates of Lev Gumilyov and Alexandr Dugin. The new concept involves Russia’s so-called special place in the world, the primacy of its interests and the creation of a corresponding world order that makes it equal to the US. And all of this despite the fact that Russians account for less than 2% of the world’s population and, according to its economic indicators, the country’s share of global GDP is only 1.9% compared to 24.6% for the US.10
When analysing this Russian geopolitical construction in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski—National Security Advisor to US president Jimmy Carter—stated that the Russian Empire would not exist without Ukraine.11 And so it came to pass. The Baltic States are now members of the European Union and protected by NATO’s Article 5, while Ukraine is fighting an undeclared war against Russia to ensure its sovereignty. Perhaps this is where the reasons for Russia’s current post-imperial hangover and aggression towards the West lie, because, according to Moscow, each political or military victory should curb the ambitions of China, which is gradually gaining both political and economic power over Russia. This means that the display of military might and aggression towards the West is actually a message to China.
The foreign-policy concept also involves disinformation activities and the use of non-profit organisations—subsidised through various funds registered in Russia or abroad—to support foreign- and security-policy goals.12 Such non-profits are suspected of organising cyberattacks, riots and provocations and recruiting mercenaries for the undeclared war in eastern Ukraine.
Putin’s Doctrine—the Foreign Policy Concept of the Russian Federation—was published on 7 May 2013.13 Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin has hinted that the implementation of this strategy was entrusted to people with a special services (intelligence) background who use related methods in their work.14 This list includes Yevgeny Primakov—a former head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), foreign minister and prime minister—and other former prime ministers such as Sergey Stepashin, the former head of the FSB, and Vladimir Putin, a former regular officer and then director of the FSB (1998–9). The management of Russia’s foreign policy followed the same pattern. In 2004, on the recommendation of Primakov—who served as foreign minister from January 1996 to September 1998—Sergey Lavrov (who had been part of his team) was appointed foreign minister while Igor Ivanov (foreign minister 1998–2004), the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation from 2004 to 2007, became the second-last head of the Putin administration. The apple does not fall far from the tree.
Changes in Russia’s Defence Policy and Military Strategy
In November 2012, Putin began making changes to the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces and appointed Sergey Shoygu as Minister of Defence. General Valery Gerasimov, who had served as the Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the 144th Guards Motor Rifle Division in Tallinn from 1987 to 1994, became the new Chief of the General Staff.
These changes improved the operational response capacity of the Russian armed forces and laid the groundwork for developing the strategy and tactics for a new form of combat—hybrid warfare. This led to extensive unexpected and unscheduled combat readiness evaluation exercises in the immediate vicinity of the borders of neighbouring countries, without the prior notice required by the OSCE’s Vienna Document, which Russia had also signed.15
Russia began to organise regular large-scale military exercises in close proximity to neighbouring countries, while formally following the OSCE’s arms control and confidence-building measures. Even though the exercises were billed as defence-oriented or counterterrorism training, their real purpose was to practice an attack. The new leadership of the Russian Armed Forces based its latest military doctrine on a theory developed by Nikolai Obruchev (1830–1904), the Chief of the General Staff of the Imperial Russian Army, later professor at the [Tsar] Nicholas General Staff Academy and a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This states that war begins long before the first shot is fired and the enemy’s border is crossed. As far as the objectives of the aforementioned exercises go, this meant catching the victim of a potential military attack off-guard and presenting them with a fait accompli, as was the case with the Baltic States in 1939 and the Crimea in 2014.
The leaders of the Russian Armed Forces continued with their large-scale provocative military exercises and to use the experience gained from the Caucasus Frontier 2008 (Кавказ 2008) exercises. In the spring of 2013, exercises were held in the Southern Military District, after which, following the end of the Sochi Olympic Games on 23 February 2014, Russia began the occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine on 28 February16 and moved on to military activities in eastern Ukraine. In so doing, Russia breached the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances signed on 5 December 1994, breaking the security assurances given in connection to Ukraine’s accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Since such exercises are directly connected to military aggression, it is worth remembering the events of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviet Union organised a series of military exercises for the members of the Warsaw Pact on Czechoslovakian territory, which turned into a military operation on 21 August.17 The soldiers and officers of the air assault division in Pskov who were sent to Estonia on 20 August 1991 to “put things in order” were also told that they were going to participate in a military exercise in Tallinn.
In 2015, Russia got involved in a domestic conflict in Syria in the hope of restoring its Soviet-era position in the Middle East. Under the guise of the war against terrorism, Russia has turned Syria into a military training area for its armed forces where it can gain experience and polish the combat tactics of different types of unit, but also test and use new weapons—which goes against the 2000 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. At the same time, Russia is also using mass bombings to dispose of its obsolete missiles and bombs. Simple statistics show that the less selective Russia was in bombing Syrian cities and settlements, the more refugees arrived in wealthy European countries (52.4% of whom were of Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan origin). All of this leads to the conclusion that this was not a spontaneous refugee crisis but a form of human trafficking, which might be coordinated from one central point and, above all, in a way that someone could benefit from the European migration and refugee crisis and the chaos it is bringing. This is an attempt to undermine the integrity of European and NATO countries.
Russia’s military and political interests are now aimed towards the northern part of the geopolitical arch between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, where Poland and the Baltic States are. Russia is probably using the fact that the Baltic States constitute the weakest link in NATO’s defence chain, and by isolating them it can drive a wedge between members of both NATO and the EU.
At the same time, the Suwałki Gap—the 64-km land connection between Russia and Kaliningrad Oblast, which is used for all Russian land communications and for which Russian citizens require a visa—is as important to Moscow as the Polish Corridor was to Germany prior to World War II. If the annexed Crimea is to be linked to Russia via a bridge, then it makes sense for Russia to be interested in the Suwałki corridor for both political and economic reasons.
On 14–20 September 2017, Russian and Belarusian armed forces held the large-scale joint strategic military exercise Zapad-2017—earlier versions of which were held in 2009 and 2013—to practice operations by different types of forces not only in Belarus and Kaliningrad Oblast but also on or in the immediate vicinity of the borders of four NATO and EU member states (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and Ukraine.
This was Russia’s largest military exercise in the post-Soviet era, and may have involved more than 200,000 troops—33 times the number in a similar exercise in 2015.18
According to Shoygu, these exercises were designed to take account of NATO’s increasing activity on the borders of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.19
NATO and its driving force, the US, have not been passive bystanders in the new arms race and Russia’s military provocations, which will probably not be limited to the exercises in Belarus. At the 2017 NATO summit in Brussels, US President Donald Trump highlighted Russia’s threats and aggression. Less than one and a half months later, on 6 July, he visited Poland ahead of a G20 meeting, at which he met the leaders of Central and Eastern European countries and guaranteed their security under NATO’s Article 5.20 On 25 July, the US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to impose additional sanctions against Russia for annexing the Crimea and occupying eastern Ukraine, which were approved by President Trump.
The sanctions also affect Russia’s energy industry, which could lose a significant part of expected income from gas transit, used to fund Russia’s Armed Forces. Russian nuclear-powered battlecruisers had not yet left the eastern part of the Baltic Sea—where they took part in the display of another Potemkin village—when US Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Tallinn for a short visit at the end of July 2017, where he met the presidents of the three Baltic States and passed on security assurances in the name of President Trump.
Offering assistance to Ukraine is also on the US agenda. This initiative has woken NATO members and other Western countries from their beautiful dream of a Russian angel of peace and prompted them to increase their defence capability, which will lead to another arms race or a rehash of the Weinberger Doctrine (a November 1984 speech on the strategic modernisation of the US Armed Forces made by the then US defence secretary Caspar Weinberger) in a contemporary setting.21 An arms race is also a form of warfare, as noted by the pacifist Baroness Bertha von Suttner (1843–1914) at the 1899 Hague Conference in her presentation “Arms Race as a Method of Warfare”, on which the military strategies of World War I and II—and also the Cold War—were based. For this, von Suttner received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. This means that if one desires peace, one must prepare for war (Si vis pacem, para bellum) or arm oneself, which presupposes the existence of the necessary resources. Now, more than 100 years later, NATO countries account for 47.8% of the global GDP, while the respective figure for Russia is 1.9% according to 2016 data. For Russia’s neighbour China, which keeps a watchful eye on Russia’s every move, the figure is 14.9%.22 Is Russia facing the fate of the Soviet Union in this battle of giants?
Since World War II, the world has seen more than 300 wars or armed conflicts based on conventional weaponry, the number of casualties in which totals over 26 million.23 Within the same time frame, seven countries—and, allegedly, Israel and North Korea—have acquired nuclear weapons and their associated launchers. During this period, nuclear weapons have become a method of limiting wars or means of deterrence, because a nuclear attack also damages the attacker. At the same time, nuclear states spend astronomical sums on the development of these weapons and associated launchers. This arms race of weapons of mass destruction is comparable to that of chemical warfare because, despite the fact that the major powers had developed new highly toxic chemical weapons prior to World War II, they did not use them—even Germany, despite being on the brink of losing the war. The Allies and the Soviet Union dumped their entire supply of the last chemical weapons—more than 300,000 tonnes in total—in the Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea after the war.24 Even though mass production of chemical weapons continued after World War II, they remained in storage. As a result, the great powers of today are not interested in banning nuclear weapons (e.g. they did not sign the treaty banning nuclear weapons adopted by the UN General Assembly on 8 July 2017) but, rather, in preventing their spread (e.g. through the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT)25 and reducing their number.
Their main focus continues to be on international security agreements and stopping the proliferation of conventional weapons, which was already set out in the agreement at the 1975 Helsinki Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and the CFE signed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries in November 1990 and its amendments on regional restrictions on weapons and mutual weapons evaluation. This guaranteed peace in Europe for the next 20 years. The situation changed when Russia began to submit pre-imperial claims and breached the Helsinki agreement and the CFE. The results could be felt and now Russia has been lumped together with Iran and North Korea26 as new forms of pressure, including sanctions, are introduced to tame it. The driving force behind this is Donald Trump’s new take on the so-called Reagan Revolution—Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “restore the great, confident roar of American progress and growth and optimism”.27
Pressure on Russia must involve an invitation to sign new agreements on security and cooperation as well as conventional armed forces in Europe without discussing its thousand-year-old “rights” over its neighbours. Discussion of Europe’s new security and cooperation environment must include an agreement that would ban nuclear-powered submarines with nuclear weapons from the Baltic Sea and Black Sea.
In this, Estonia could take the initiative by kick-starting new agreement on conventional armed forces in Europe, just like the Finns did in 1975.
Those who make populist statements that dealing with Russia requires compromise, or that its wishes must be accommodated and the imposed sanctions lifted, should study the history of international relations and diplomacy to see examples of how Russia has responded to such concessions in the past with political blackmail.
1 Deutsche Welle, “Ukraine Denies Using Ballistic Missiles” (2 August 2014), www.dw.com/en/ukraine-denies-using-ballistic-missi…, accessed 2 October 2014; Lister, Tim, “Wrecked Tanks, Deserted Playgrounds: Inside the Kill Zone of Eastern Ukraine,” CNN (3 September 2014), edition.cnn.com/2014/09/03/world/europe/ukraine-ki…, accessed 2 October 2014.
2 Ushakova, Veronika, “Ракетная эра Непобедимого,” Krasnaya Zvezda (19 May 2014), www.redstar.ru/index.php/newspaper/item/16112-rake…, accessed 12 January 2015.
3 www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDTonThItHg&feature=p… Россия заявила о намерении расторгнуть договор с США о ракетах СМД.
4 Putin, Vladimir, “Address to the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy” (10 February 2007), www.securityconference.de/konferenzen/rede.php?men…;.
5 Rolofs, Oliver, “A Breeze of Cold War”. Munich Conference on Security Policy (February 2007),
www.securityconference.de/Putin-s-speech.381+M5208…;, accessed 26 September 2012.
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7 Rusbase, ‘Россия потратит 19 трлн рублей на перевооружение армии.’ (21 September 2010), rb.ru/article/rossiya-potratit-19-trln-rubley-na-p… 8 Goldthau, Andreas, “Taastärkav Venemaa?”, Diplomaatia (April 2008), www.diplomaatia.ee/artikkel/taastarkav-venemaa/; “Country Analysis Briefs: Russia”, Energy Information Agency (2006), www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/russia.html 9 TASS Russian News Agency, ‘Лавров: в недалеком будущем историки сформулируют такое понятие, как “доктрина Примакова”’ (28 October 2014), tass.ru/politika/1537769.
10 “List of countries by GDP (nominal) 2016”. Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(no…
11 Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
12 Kadak, Jüri, “Venemaa Föderatsiooni välis- ja julgeolekupoliitilised doktriinid ja reaalsus”. Poliitika, riigiteadus, rahvusvahelised suhted 5(14) (2013): 10911.
13 ГАРАНТ.РУ: www.garant.ru/products/ipo/prime/doc/70218094/#ixz….
14 Kalugin on the RTV television programme Здесь и там (broadcast 17 July 2017, 14.15–16.00).
15 Kolga, Margus, “Relvastuskontroll ja usaldusmeetmed – üks julgeoleku tõstmise vahendeid”, Diplomaatia (October 2007), www.diplomaatia.ee/artikkel/relvastuskontroll-ja-u….
16 1863X. ‘Учения и Война. Как РФ готовилась к агрессии’ (11 May 2017), 1863x.com/manevry.
17 1863X. ‘Учения и Война. Как РФ готовилась к агрессии’ (11 May 2017), 1863x.com/manevry.
18 Petrovskaya, Galina, “Учения «Запад-2017»: Москва давит, Минск молчит” (8 December 2016), inosmi.ru/military/20161208/238358986.html; Santarovich, Andrei, “Второй украинский фронт: зачем Путин перебрасывает войска в Беларусь”, Apostrophe (24 November 2016), apostrophe.ua/article/world/ex-ussr/2016-11-24/vto….
19 Plotnikova, Anna, “Учения ‘Запад-2017’: возможные сценарии и реальные тревоги”. Голос Америки (22 March 2017),
20 Postimees, 6 July 2017.
21 LaFeber, Walter, “The Rise and Fall of Colin Powell and the Powell Doctrine”. Political Science Quarterly 124 (1) (March 2009): 71–93. doi:10.1002/j.1538-165X.2009.tb00642.x.
22 Report for Selected Country Groups and Subjects – World Economic Outlook. International Monetary Fund. October 2016; GDP (current US$) – World Development Indicators. World Bank, accessed 1 July 2017.
23 Warconflict, “Войны по хронологии”. www.warconflict.ru/rus/new/?action=assortment&….
24 Keso, Kairi, “Ipriit ja teised: Akadeemik Anto Raukas ennustab, et Läänemerre …”, Keskus (17 December 2011), kes-kus.ee/ipriit-ja-teised-akadeemik-anto-raukas-….
25 Postimees, AFP/BNS. “ÜROs võeti vastu ülemaailmne tuumarelvade keelustamise lepe” (8 July 2017), maailm.postimees.ee/4171507/uros-voeti-vastu-ulema….
26 CNN, 2 August 2017.
27 “The Reagan Revolution”, Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/the-reagan-revolution-def….
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.