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How powerful is Russia?

A review of Russia Resurrected. Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order. By: Kathryn E. Stoner. Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom, 2021.

June 22, 2021 - Jakub Bornio - Books and ReviewsIssue 4 2021Magazine

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has become a fraught issue on the political and analytical agenda. The mainstream debate, however, has lacked a close contemplation of Russia’s policy. It often failed to recognise that Moscow’s assertiveness, as well as its dissatisfaction from the shape of the international order, were presented long before 2014. Undoubtedly, it was Vladimir Putin’s rise to power in 2000 that constituted a qualitative change in Russia’s politics, compared to the 1990s, both in external and internal dimensions. As a result, almost a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union – the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” as once expressed by Putin – Russia began a gradual recovery. Yet, Moscow’s role in international relations, as well as its behaviours and ambitions were often misinterpreted. What is more, the question about Russia’s character, whether it is defensive or offensive, still causes confusion. The catchy – and fairly correct – slogan that Russia “is neither as weak as we think nor as strong as its leadership would like it to be viewed” does not provide us with any clarification either. The fundamental questions on how powerful Russia is, and how much it has changed under Putin, is addressed in a new book by Kathryn E. Stoner, a professor of International Studies at Stanford University, titled Russia resurrected. Its power and purpose in a new global order.

Quantifying power

The book consists of eight chapters each offering an analysis of a different branch of Russia’s might and capabilities. It discusses the geographical scope of Russia’s influence, includes a socio-economic analysis, examines Russia’s hard-, soft-, and sharp-power toolkit as well as identifies the domestic determinants of Moscow’s behaviour.

Yet, a proper evaluation of Russia’s power is difficult and problematic. Indeed, various branches of the country’s abilities have a diversified potential. In other words, the Kremlin’s means do not have the same impact on every region; and every country is vulnerable to Russia’s influence to varying degrees. Moreover, some of Russia’s capabilities are hardly measurable, due to their specificity. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that the concept of power is always relative. The capabilities of other actors need to be taken into account as well. Comparative studies are essential in this matter. It is worth to note that the various theoretical approaches to international relations provide us with different answers to the question of how powerful Russia is.

Kathryn Stoner, being aware of these difficulties, provides us with a comprehensive, multi-dimensional, and “multi-theoretical” study on Russia’s power, its influence, strengths, weaknesses and geographical domains. She has the unique ability to use different theoretical approaches in a very effective way. At the same time, Stoner does not usurp the right to propose a new theoretical perspective. Neither does she altogether criticise various schools of thought within international relations. Instead she drew on their experience to solve problems in the most comprehensive and multi-dimensional way possible. By doing so, she has also unveiled their shortcomings. The author’s ambition was to complement the current literature on the matter, and the goal was fairly accomplished.

Stoner is right arguing that the traditional perception of power is not sufficient to understand Russia’s abilities and influence. Indeed, under Putin, Russia uses both traditional and non-traditional means of external influence. Her analysis is conducted through the prism of domestic and international factors, which complement each other; yet, they also interpenetrate. She argues that Russia is not a great power, in a traditional understanding of the term, but rather an effective disruptor/challenger to the contemporary international system.

Geographical dimension of Russia’s power

The author identified the post-Soviet space as an area of Russia’s special interest and influence. Fair enough, bearing in mind Moscow’s narrative, activities, and centuries-long penetration of the area. Indeed, the latter enables Moscow to use various methods (the main ones analysed in the book) in shaping the politics of all of the former Soviet republics. Case studies of Russia’s bilateral relations with the Baltics, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus provides readers with a wider context. Unlike other authors, Stoner’s assessment of Moscow’s policy toward these states remains ambiguous.

In her analysis, Stoner approaches issues from different angles. It remains unconvincing, however, that the author had resigned from a focused case study of Russia’s impact on the rest of the ex-Soviet republics, and grouped the “Stans” together, as well as two other south Caucasus states into two merged subchapters. Even though Russia’s methods of influence in its self-defined “near abroad” are coherent, each of the ex-Soviet republics differs significantly. In this case, it refers mainly to Azerbaijan and Armenia. At the same time, with the Baltics being integrated into western structures, they are a completely different ballgame.

The analysis of Russia’s influence on the fourteen ex-Soviet republics is a successful attempt of comparative study. All of this is considered within the wider geopolitical context of rivalry with the European Union, the United States and China, which makes the analysis even more multidimensional. Despite Russia’s bilateral relations, Stoner elaborates on multilateral platforms of co-operation, trying to answer how Russia uses international organisations in the region for the purpose of its foreign policy.

It is quite obvious that Russia’s ambitions reach beyond its “near abroad”, a fact also noticed by Stoner. In this case, Moscow’s means are more limited, yet still influential. Trying to answer the question “where else does Russia matter”, the author starts with Europe, traditionally at the centrepiece of the Kremlin’s policy. Stoner correctly observed the evolutionary character of Russia’s policy toward Europe. Once again she provides the reader with a deepened analysis of an array of methods that Russia uses to impact policy of the so-called “new and old” Europeans. Such a clear distinction is well-founded bearing in mind the different historical roles which Russia played in Western Europe on the one hand, and in Central and Eastern Europe on the other. This obviously results in different abilities and methods that Moscow’s use to increase its influence over these countries.

Undoubtedly it was NATO’s eastward expansion that concerned Russia the most. Stoner argues that Putin’s role in shaping Moscow’s harsh policy towards NATO was determinative. In fact, it was not Putin who had been unique in this matter, but Boris Yeltsin who “had come to gradually accept NATO expansion” despite the fact that the state apparatus and Yeltsin’s back-office opposed Poland and Hungary accession to NATO. The US engagement in Europe remains a major preoccupation of Russia’s foreign policymakers.

Thus, pushing the US out of Europe is one of Moscow’s top priorities. Indeed, Putin envisions a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, but there is not much space left for Washington in such a concept. Hence, it is not that evident whether Moscow’s policy would have been different if someone else had replaced Putin. Even though the subchapter is an excellent analysis of the various dimensions of Moscow’s modus operandi towards Europe, I would argue that the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine (which focuses on information warfare) is a part of it. As the military historian Charles K. Bartles remarked in 2016, Gerasimov was rather misinterpreted by western scholars.

Russia is also present globally, trying to influence its partners in several regions of the world. They all grab Russia’s attention for various reasons. Some of them are constituents of Russia’s long-term strategy and some became an object of Russia’s interest because they got into geopolitical vacuums. Stoner offers good insights into Moscow’s influence in Africa and the Middle East, for example, where Russia’s is trying to be a bigger player, as well as on bilateral relations with China and India. It is a pity that not much was said about these countries perspective on Russia – a factor that could change the outlook dramatically. Although, as the author acknowledges these are “worthy of a book in and by themselves”.

Economic weakness and military might?

Another issue Stoner has dealt with includes the economic and financial condition of the country. In addition to the relatively well-known energy sector, Stoner analysed financial assets, macro-economic indicators, Russia’s capacity to overcome crises, level of innovations and its research and development capabilities. She pays great attention to the structure of the domestic economy. Indeed, its unbalanced oil-based character and the domination of a few hegemons over the entire economy are serious obstacles. She also included the oligarchy and Russia’s unique “patronal politics” as an inseparable component of its economy.

Generally, Stoner is correct to say that the oligarchy weakens the country’s condition. What she does not mention, however, is that members of this “inner circle” may also contribute to Russia’s foreign policy. They do this in a way that benefits the Kremlin. Being aware of the relativeness of power, Stoner compares Russia’s economy with the economies of other major players like the BRICS countries, the EU, and the US. Surprising to some, she shows that the widespread opinion of Russia as a political/military colossus with economic feet of clay is an oversimplification. Her critical attitude, once again, needs to be appreciated here. Stoner is right that Russia’s projection of foreign power is not based on its economy. Money, however, provides other means with necessary impetus. That is why this part of this book is so valuable.

A widespread historical narrative about Russia’s strength emphasises the great role of its landmass and manpower. The latter should not be limited to the military scope. In fact, these are people who are one of the main factors of production. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a great trauma for Russia because of the unprecedented decrease in its population. As a result, the Kremlin “lost control” of around half its population. Nevertheless, as Stoner correctly points out, it is not just about the number but the quality of the social fabric. Russian demographic and health indicators, as Stoner reminds us, significantly improved since “the dark years of the 1990s,” but there is still much to be done. From the Russian perspective, it is not just about the body but also about the soul.

The military strength – the key features of Russian might – obviously could not be ignored in the book. Unquestionably, hard power remains the core asset of Russia’s foreign policy and no one will deny its unprecedented technological and organisational revolution. Russian policymakers, as Stoner argues, learnt from failures in past wars like in Chechnya and the shortcomings of their military campaign in Georgia. It resulted in a deep modernisation and reinforcement of the Russian army. Moreover, some technological and tactical abilities were examined in “real-life manoeuvres” on the battlefields of Ukraine and Syria. That provided Russia’s armed forces with the necessary experience and skills. Russian Private Military Companies are addressed in the book as well. Stoner escapes the trap of power-metrics, which merely focuses on a quantitative comparative study. In addition to this, she includes qualitative research and, importantly, pays attention to the “geographic dividend” Russia clearly poses.

The issue is not that simple regarding Russian soft and sharp powers – especially as the former is not often associated with Russia’s modus operandi. But as presented in the book, Russia’s toolkit is quite wide. Its effectiveness, however, is extremely challenging to adequately evaluate. At the same time, Russia’s sharp activities, like cyber-attacks or propaganda spread via state-sponsored media outlets, are more tangible. Stoner accurately points out that the latter aims mainly at fuelling social stratification, in line with a divide et impera approach. Last but not least, it needs to be emphasised that Russia uses all of these methods simultaneously; a strategy that, since 2014, is commonly referred to as “hybrid”.

Has Russia resurrected?

Stoner demonstrates that Russia has undergone a deep structural evolution over the past two decades. Importantly, it is not a revolution since revolutions are perceived by Russian authorities as worst-case scenarios. These changes are most visible especially in Moscow’s geographical domain, some branches of the country’s economy and its armed forces. Yet, Putin still faces several challenges when it comes to the structure of the economy and demographic issues.

Contrary to the widespread narrative, Stoner argues “Russia is not playing a weak card well, rather it has some strong cards to play”. The book is a detailed analysis of the evolution of Russia’s power under Putin. In fact, Stoner pays great attention to Putin himself. Even though I still think it is debatable whether Russia would have altered under different leadership, Putin’s personal abilities cannot be denied. In this sense, the author is right to claim that his contribution was invaluable.

While analysing Russia’s purpose, Stoner pays great attention to domestic factors. She argues that the “patronal system” is one of the most important determinants of Russia’s projection of power abroad. It is due to the fact that the so-called “inner circle’s” main interest is to preserve the domestic status quo. And once it can no longer meet the expectations of the public via economic means, it is pressed to satisfy the public’s desires by the vision of a great Russia. And it finds a sympathetic ear. Thus, contemporary Russia does not lack an ideology, as Stoner argues. Even though Moscow uses imperialism, nationalism and geopolitics in a very instrumental way, it does not mean they are not behind Russia’s external activities. The public’s support for imperialism is the main reason I do not believe any easy democratisation of Russia would happen, as Stoner envisions, if someone else replaced Putin.

Let me raise a few provocative questions. Maybe it is time to admit that countries like Russia or China cannot be democratised? That maybe their civilisational differences are too great. That maybe their contribution to western-led international organisations should not be interpreted as a willingness to co-operate? Stoner is correct to say there were plenty of attempts of Russian-West co-operation. The question, however, is whether Russia understood them in that way. The problem is not about what really happened in the context of the so-called coloured revolutions, NATO being offensive or defensive, but rather about Russia’s interpretation of these and other events. It seems that “civilised rivalry” does not fit the Russian mentality. The international struggle is still a zero-sum game for the Kremlin. This, absolutely, requires further research.

The greatest wisdom of the book is that the Stoner treats her explanations and conclusions as a complement to current studies. Even though she pays most attention to the domestic factors, she also acknowledges the importance of the international structure (as understood by neorealism) and significance of great power rivalry. It is also a multi-polarity of the global order which enables Moscow to act assertively. Stoner, being a conscious researcher, is aware of some of the shortcomings of her study. As she claims her conceptualisation of power underscores the fact that contemporary conflicts are no longer determined by a country’s military size, population or wealth.

In addition, her book is one of the finest responses to John Mearsheimer’s famous article “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault”. In fact, both Stoner and Mearsheimer are right. It is time to finally accept that reality is more complex than any theory can explain. This book is one of the greatest elaborations of Russia’s capacities that I have read over the last few years. Stoner, with this book, has significantly contributed to the current debate on Russia. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a well-structured, critical and up-to-date analysis on present day Russia. I hope my questions and comments, which are not a critique of the book, will shed further light on the various themes discussed by Stoner.

Jakub Bornio is an assistant professor at the Department of European Studies at the University of Wrocław.

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