Yet Russia’s partial mobilization, its referendums and “annexations,” as well as its mounting nuclear threats have pushed some commentators to yet another turnaround. Even if single events may appear decisive, conflicts (like all political life) are always processes, which are inscribed within long-term trends. If one loses sight of those trends, it is easy to fall into immediatism, that is, into the risk of evaluating events as they fluctuate and evolve within the short and very short term. It is obviously impossible to summarize here all the long-term trends that resulted in the February 24 aggression. However, it is possible to isolate one that, by itself, allows us to escape the trap of immediatism: Russia is a country like no other.
Of course, no country is ever the same as another, just as two snowflakes are never identical; but Russia, if we may reverse the famous Orwellian paradox, is less equal than others. And the reason, to put it simply, is that Russia not only is not a great power, but it is perpetually tormented by the fear of disappearing; and in its specific struggle for survival, it has come to behave as if it were a great power. In this, it has had help from the outside, where many believe – or pretend to believe – that it is indeed a great power. This permanent illusion makes Russia an animal of its own kind, sui generis, in the international political zoology, meaning it cannot be considered or analyzed like others.
There is no shared definition of what a “great power” is; it all depends on one’s chosen criteria. For many, the decisive requirement is military strength; for others, it is rather economic strength; for still others, it is the size of the territory, or the demographic size, or even what has been defined, with great emphasis, as “soft power,” meaning the ability to conquer and appeal solely through the force of culture, institutions, way of life and so on. Obviously, in evaluating the overall strength of a country, all these criteria must be taken into consideration, even if, just as obviously, in their reciprocal influences, some criteria are more influential than others.
We know that money is “the nerve of war”; and if it is the nerve of war, it is also the nerve of politics, of which war is only the continuation by other means. Without money, weapons cannot be produced, and neither generals nor troops can be paid; without money, a government literally cannot feed those on the domestic front; without money a government cannot build the roads and railways on which to move goods from the producer to the consumer, or troops from the barracks to the front; without money a government cannot build schools to train engineers and political analysts, but also poets and filmmakers who are the soul of “soft power”; without money, research cannot be done to produce vaccines that stem epidemics. Without money, in short, no country can hope to become a great power.
Here we are then. Russia is not, and cannot be, a great power because it lacks the raw material – the necessary, if not sufficient, condition to become a great power: economic strength. In the late 19th century, Alfred Mahan, considered the founder of the American geopolitical school, summarized the main reason for this deficiency: “Russia’s irremediable remoteness from an open sea has helped put it in a disadvantageous position for the accumulation of wealth.” It would seem absurd to define a country with 37,653 kilometers of coastline as “remote from the sea”; and yet it is, because all its coasts are frozen part of the year. Even a superficial glance at the country’s physical map will show that the country suffers from many other geographic curses, including an inhospitable climate and a river system entirely unsuitable for transportation. But the former factor is enough and can be considered the leitmotif of recent Russian political history: all its lines of expansion in the last two and a half centuries bear the imprint of a relentless search for safety and an outlet to ice-free seas (the latter goal being the condition for achieving the former).
Here too, however, some might argue that the extension of the territory over an area of 17,125,191 square kilometers – which makes it by far the largest country in the world – proves that Russia has managed to expand more and better than any other country, despite its economic deficiencies. However, many of its conquests, from the Grand Duchy of Moscow onwards, were essentially made possible by three factors independent of its abilities: 1) the lack of human settlements in much of the conquered lands; 2) the inconsistency of its adversaries, and 3) external help. Even the beginning of the reconquista of the Tartar territories was made possible by the help ... of the Tartars themselves, who had armed their vassal Ivan III to make him a bulwark against the then Polish-Lithuanian superpower, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, only to find the Muscovite army unleashed against them. In the mid-19th century, the Russians ran to the aid of the deliquescent Qing empire and saved Beijing from destruction, only to take all of Manchuria north of the Amur River as a toll. In the mid-20th century, the Russians agreed on a series of annexations with Hitler’s Germany, only to have the Americans cede them at the end of the war as a reward for defeating Hitler’s Germany.
When Russia believed it could “go it alone,” at best it lost at the negotiating table what it had gained on the ground, as was the case after the war against Turkey of 1877-1878. At worst, it went crashing into immense catastrophe, as in the war against Japan of 1904-1905, which resulted in a memorable defeat, a revolution, and the beginning of a rapid disintegration that led to the collapse of the empire 12 years later. The Russians had miscalculated not only the strength of Japan but also the likelihood that London and, for the first time, Washington, would tolerate their possession of Port Arthur, in southern Manchuria -- the first Russian outlet on a year-round navigable sea. More than 70 years later, yet another underestimation of an enemy proved fatal, when Russia invaded Afghanistan: within 12 years of the start of that catastrophic intervention, the Russian empire fell apart.