by Manlio Graziano
Russia is a Country Like No Other
Russia's Eternal Struggle for Survival
Originally Published in Scenari as "L’eterna lotta della Russia per la sua sopravvivenza"
The misconception that the country is a great power has been fed not only by the Kremlin but also by its rivals.
Led, paradoxically, to behave as a superpower even while lacking the necessary strength, Moscow has perfected the art of bluffing.
In the conflict in Ukraine, Russian structural weakness will prove to be the deciding factor.
Through the first six months of the war in Ukraine, the commentary has often wavered, reflecting the situation of the moment. When Moscow’s initial Blitzkrieg proved a resounding failure, many observers rushed to say that Russia was losing the war. When Russian forces then established a solid internal front during their offensive in the Donbas, the dominant opinion was reversed: Moscow was winning. Now that that offensive has bogged down, with airfields, ammunition depots and even a bridge to Crimea exploding, and with internal Kremlin struggles emerging into the public domain, the general sentiment is shifting back to the starting point: Russia is losing the war.

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.
Yet, the idea that Russia is a great power is supported not only by the tenants of the Kremlin but by almost all other powers. Another seeming paradox: If Russia has an excellent defensive capacity (thanks to the immensity of its impervious territory, the resilience of its population and the availability of raw materials), its offensive effectiveness is very bad, as the current war makes abundantly clear. These two conditions make Russia an ideal ally for anyone who wants to exhaust an opponent while at the same time debilitating the Russian ally, as happened in the Napoleonic wars and in the Second World War. In those two conflicts, the Russians were able to win because they were allied with the superpowers of the time (Great Britain and the United States), and were able to advance into the heart of Europe because those superpowers allowed them to do so. But they emerged exhausted – to the point that, in 1947, George Kennan noted that Russia would remain “economically a vulnerable, and in a certain sense, an impotent nation.”

Painting Russia as a threatening great power, however, allowed Washington to use it to keep Europe divided – Europe, after all, was one of the two real existential threats to the United States, along with Japan – for 45 years. When Washington today affirms that “Russia will not stop in Ukraine,” it is repeating the same operation: keeping the Europeans in line and pushing them into the mighty and protective American embrace. Of course, the United States was not alone in playing this game: since the end of the 19th century, Russia has been a card up France’s sleeve, played at times against Germany, at times against the United States; today, Paris is in trouble because that card can no longer be used, at least for the moment. The same is true for Germany itself, which played the Russian card from the time of Bismarck up to the alliance of August 1939, and then in its Ostpolitik, up to the Siberian gas pipeline of the 1980s.

Thanks to this inclination of its supposed rivals, Russia has brought the art of bluffing to the highest degree of perfection: since it is rarely called on its bluffs, its every threat is taken seriously, even over-dramatized. Thus, the idea that the Red Army could continue its march to Paris, Rome or London hung in the air throughout the Cold War, even though each time the Kremlin leaders tried to cross the line beyond what was granted to them – in 1948 in Berlin, in 1950 in Korea and in 1962 in Cuba – they were forced to withdraw with their tails between their legs.

Credits: NBC News
In the war against Ukraine, Russian threats have been countless: against all those who dared to send weapons to Kiev; against Finland and Sweden if they tried to join NATO; against Europeans who didn’t want to pay for gas in rubles; against Lithuania if it did not immediately clear the accesses to Kaliningrad; against the Ukrainians themselves if they dared to attack Crimea. Not to mention the omnipresent nuclear threat, already brandished in 2008 against Poland if it hosted American missiles, in 2009 against Denmark if it participated in NATO defense systems, and in 2014 against Ukraine if it tried to take Crimea back. After February 24, the litany of atomic intimidation is recited almost daily, directly or by implication: in early July, the uninhibited ex-president Dmitri Medvedev even threatened to end the “existence of mankind” (ipse dixit) if the International Criminal Court investigated Russian war crimes in Ukraine. And Putin himself has done so, with tones and looks that would make don Vito Corleone jealous, threatening the whole world if someone dared to contest the annexation of the occupied territories (and “it’s not a bluff,” he added, something that a real poker player would never say). Despite this barrage of warnings, the United States, Canada and many European countries have continued to provide Kiev with weapons, money, intelligence and training, brazenly fueling the war against Russia without suffering the slightest military retaliation.

Accrediting the idea that Russia is a great power, then, implies accrediting the country with an identity and a strategic purpose. The reality is that its only strategic purpose, as noted earlier, is survival: the defense against real or, more often, perceived enemies. An exclusively defensive strategy requires a fluid identity, indeed multiple identities; for this reason, Russia is intrinsically schizophrenic: since its creation, for example, the dispute between “Asianists” (or "Slavophiles") and “Westerners” has perpetually raged, with no common ground ever found. Today, the flag around which the Russians are called to rally is the struggle against the “West,” but in 1905 Prince Sergej Petrovič Trubeckoj stated that Russia was at the forefront of defending Western civilization against the “yellow danger, the new hordes of Mongols armed with the new technology”; and 40 years later, at the end of World War II, Stalin’s education minister, Vladimir Petrovič Potëmkin, reiterated that the “Russian people” had “preserved Western civilization against Asian barbarians.”
Times change, of course. But while Putin and his chorus launch sharp invective against the “West,” the choir leader stands apart to compare himself to none other than Peter the Great, the tsar, historians say, who definitively docked Russia to the West. And while Putin compares himself to Peter the Great, the head of the Foreign Policy and Defense Council, Sergej Karaganov, promotes the notion of a “Greater Eurasia” and advises closing “the ‘Petrinian’ page of our history.”
The unscrupulous use of lies is an important skill of a good prince, as Machiavelli knew well; but in Russia, the art of lying (the twin sister of bluffing) has been taken to unexplored heights. The whole story of the conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century, superbly told by Peter Hopkirk in his The Great Game, is the story of some military confrontation but also of myriad feints, tricks, conspiracies, sudden changes of alliances and deceptions; in another book, Hopkirk relates that the Russian invasion of Xinjiang, in 1934, was preceded by the dispatch of a couple thousand soldiers in anonymous uniforms, without symbols or badges; 90 years later, the same tactic was used to launch the first attack on Ukraine. All countries, in war, tell “their” truth – generally a bundle of lies; Russia, however, tells several “truths” at the same time: saying the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital was the work of the Ukrainians and, at the same time, justifying it by the fact that it was actually an enemy arms depot; the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, was presented as an accident but, at the same time, furious threats of retaliation were launched against the Ukrainians for having dared do so. The same goes for ideologies: the current gospel of sovereignty is preached by the country that invented the theory and practice of “limited sovereignty,” and which now pays little attention to the sovereignty of the former republics of the Soviet Union.

It is possible that some of the peculiar Russian characteristics summarized here may be disproved by this or that event in the ongoing war. But we must not be misled: Russian structural weakness is, once again, destined to be the decisive factor. Last but not least: Ukrainian political culture has been formed over three centuries in symbiosis with the Russian one; they are homozygous twin. The only difference is that Ukraine is weaker; therefore, its struggle for survival can only be more intense.
The opinions expressed in this article is of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.