Failed State Or Rising Power: The New Russian Enigma

Not just as viewed from Europe, but now globally, there is a new Russian Enigma:

Is Russia moving towards becoming a failed state, or is it a re-emerging world power?

On one side, the country certainly managed to put Europe in disarray, following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and the subsequent war against Ukraine in the southeastern Donbas region. As well, with armament programs are on the rise, there is worryingly lose talk about the role of its nuclear weapons. Accompanying this are unexplained moves and deliveries of materiel to Syria. Further affirming this ‘world power’ status, Russia has nuclear weapons and, by default, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

At the same time however, the economy of Russia is in a bad state: the Ruble has lost much of its value over the last 12 months and GDP is negative over the year, harmed by a low oil price and a particularly unbalanced and unsustainable economy feeling the bite of western sanctions. What’s more, there is little Russia can export besides oil, gas and armaments – certainly not the profile of a global power.

What kind of lessons can we draw from such a contradictory profile and behavior? Is it more beneficial to contain Russia, to (re)engage it, or to simply ignore it?

By Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers, Program Director of the Center for Global Politics

  1. Shen Dingli 3 years ago

    Russia is not moving towards becoming a failed state. True, it is has not been constructive on the Crimea issue, but it is not failing. Look: Russia was involved in fighting in Afghanistan for a decade, yet still didn’t become a failed state. In 1989, Russia withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, due to the collective resistance of the local people in Afghanistan, the US, China, Pakistan and jihadists from abroad. This time, none of them are sending troops to stop Russia in Georgia or Ukraine, so why would Russia be failing?
    Money-wide, Russia is indeed meeting some difficulties but these will not cause it to fail. As China didn’t fail in early 1960s when tens of millions of people died of famine during that period, Russia has does not have serious enough difficulties to cause it to fail. Until lately Russia’s per capita GDP has been higher than China, and it has reason to rise again just as China could.
    In fact, Russia has had some experiences already. The IOC awarded Russia with the Sochi Olympics despite the frustration with Moscow, two decades after Russia withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. After settling the Crimea issue more satisfactorily with the rest of the world, Russia shall rise again.
    Look at America. In 1970s, the US was struggling in Vietnam, but it didn’t degenerate into a failed state. It declined again with its “preemptive war” against Iraq a decade ago, but since recovered again. To some extent, the US premature withdrawal of force from Iraq is rather unhelpful to contain the ISIS, however, neither America’s fiasco in Iraq nor its financial crisis has made the US fail.
    It will take some time for Russia to reemerge as a world power, though not by handling the Crimea issue with such a heavy-handed approach, just like the US could once again gather its steam after withdrawing from Vietnam and Iraq.

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  2. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou 3 years ago

    I don’t think that Russia is becoming a failed state. In fact, greater recognition of its great power status by other countries and powers has always been one of the consistent leitmotifs of its foreign policy. Although its relations with the West have been frayed with its invasion and annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its continued supported for the secessionists in Eastern Ukraine, Russia was also a key actor in securing the Iran Nuclear Deal earlier this year both in its capacity as a P5 member and due to its proximity with Iran.
    In this context, its signal of greater involvement in Syria and the propping up of the Assad regime implies that it seeks to be part of the solution, at least vis-à-vis the Islamic State which is recognized as a greater threat to global security than Assad and his henchmen. After all, both Gideon Rachman writing in the Financial Times and Stephen Waltz writing in Foreign Policy earlier this week suggested that propping up Assad is the lesser evil when it comes to the Islamic State.
    Though Russia’s economy has been severely hit by declining energy prices and western sanctions, Putin’s support at home stood at 83% in August 2015 (according to the Levada Center). Even if one can dispute these consistently high numbers and debate whether they actually reflect Putin’s popularity, the fact is that for most Russians, the Putin Era (since 2000) has brought about a modicum of stability, increased wealth, and a recognition that the state structure that promotes the role of a hegemonic executive has been relatively well managed by Vladimir Putin and will probably continue to do so theoretically until 2024 when his second six-year mandate expires.
    In this context, albeit the moral challenges posed, the only viable option is reengagement with Russia because it is a key global actor that cannot be ignored and due to the fact that reengagement might enable to moderate its behavior on certain issues.

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  3. Alexei Voskressenski 3 years ago

    I think that Russia has entered a new stage in a still interim period in its history. This is no enigma, in that it has happened already several times before. Being caught with a generational change, Russia is creating theories and practices following a postmodern invention and construction of a new reality through the synthesis of a radical vision with the application of mass culture concepts to mobilize people with simple slogans and shallow answers to complex questions as it has already occurred before in a Russian history.
    Some in Russia say that existing ‘pro-Western’ international order must be changed forcefully notwithstanding any consequences, including these for a Russian population. Some are even preparing for a nuclear war, forgetting the Soviet anecdote saying that the best way to prepare for a nuclear war is to cover yourself with a bedsheet and crawl to the cemetery. There are also people in Russia and elsewhere who argue for a new engagement pointing out that Russia deserves a better future than that of a collapsed USSR. However the new engagement can’t be implemented without an international consensus and a prevalence of constructive pragmatism, including that in Russia itself. A new generation of Russians has come who will write Russia’s future.
    A recent student review of one of my MA courses at the University showed that 52 to 57% consider it too difficult to overview what they knew and also learn new information, while a mere 32% to 36% wrote that it helped. Truthfully, there is nothing difficult in the course, except that students need to study sincerely: listen to the lectures, ask questions and be prepared for discussions. I believe that as a professional I must teach those Russians who try to understand and those who need to learn new information – these are Russia’s future.
    A famous Russian poet of the 19th century once said: “I love Russia, but my love is of a strange kind.” What does this mean? He loved Russia, but he hated everything that hindered its development. For ordinary Russians a practical answer to this question is of an individual choice: one may try to make the country and the world better, or one can fight what make it worse. Critically, this must not be a social construction to keep power by all means even if it is detrimental for the population, rather it must rely on a country’s international historical experience and on national and international knowledge. Thus appears a civil society. What is the answer to this question for other states, governments and people from other countries? It all depends on how they see this difference between 36% and 57% – as growing or diminishing.

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  4. Justas Paleckis 3 years ago

    The picture of Russia that Prof. Segbers has presented is quite a realistic one. Unfortunately this picture also lines up a lot with some other countries or regions of the world where the situation is quite similar and can erupt in explosions.

    To ignore and forget Russia is simply impossible. You have to maneuver between reengagement and containment in response to specific situations while always keeping in mind how it will all end. Are Western countries interested in the former superpower’s transformation into a failed state? Will it be better if, in fragmented Russia, rather than the somewhat unpredictable Vladimir Putin, there appears 15 or 50 completely unpredictable Putins with most able to brandish nuclear weapons?

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  5. Andrey Makarychev 3 years ago

    A strategy of (re)engagement with the Kremlin will most likely be dominant, not only due to the duly comprehended economic importance of Russia. Political reasons are no less important: Putin has multiple loyalists in the West, and many non-Western governments share his foreign policy philosophy of balancing the West and preventing other interventions – after Serbia, Iraq, and Libya – from happening. Besides, Europe is now busy with the refugee crisis and the Islamic State, which diminishes the relative importance of Russia – Ukraine conflict.
    In sending Russian troops to Syria, Putin definitely gave a new twist to its policy of sidelining and bypassing the West. Much will depend on Putin’s speech at the United Nations, but it is clear already now that Russia – beyond demonstrating leadership qualities – is ready to take the risk of a direct confrontation with ISIS. This might constitute a – perhaps shaky – background for cooperation with the West.
    The key problem here is that Russian history over the past century confirms that great power status can easily dwindle to state failure, as happened in 1917 and in 1991. This is because the very model of Russia’s greatness is based on imperial overstretch and overstrain. Russia’s security policies are enormously costly and look unsustainable against the backdrop of the poor financial situation in the country. Besides, the deployment of Russian troops in Syria might trigger a reaction from radical Islamist groups, which will cause huge domestic troubles.

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  6. Robert Legvold 3 years ago

    Russia is neither a failed state nor again a world power—nor, more to the point, is it moving toward one or the other. It, however, never ceased to be a major factor in international politics, even when it was weak and disoriented following the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was true not merely because it has roughly half of the world’s nuclear weapons, the veto in the UN Security Council, and vast human and natural wealth, but even more important, because of where it is. Residing at the core of the Eurasian landmass, how it lived within its now transformed neighborhood would have a fateful impact on everyone outside of it.
    Working out that relationship, a fraught process interwoven with the even more fraught process of creating a new identity for itself, has been exceedingly hard for Russia, hard on others, and the decisive factor in shaping Russia’s relationship with the West and its approach to the wider world. Russia’s passage remains still very much in motion, with destination, even resting points, entirely unclear. Its leadership, political elite, and public define themselves more by what they don’t want than by what they want and are ready to build. They don’t want a world where they feel marginalized—or, as Russians put it in their self-flagellating fashion, “on their knees;” they don’t want others, particularly a West, whom, despite the bluster, they still envy and measure themselves against, telling them who and where they should be; and they don’t want the objects of their fears—real and imagined—having their way in Russia, on its borders, or in the approaches to them. But what kind of a world they want to live in, with whom, and on what terms remains without answer. Both at home and abroad, as Russian analysts have put it, their leadership’s strategy is “a strategy of no strategy”–only tactical dexterity in response to the rush of events.
    At some point either they will begin making basic choices or the dictate of events will force basic choices. The ones that will most determine the future will be those for inside the country. If chosen well—that is, choices that permit slow, if painful, progress toward the political as well as economic modernization of the country—then they will be in a position to choose with greater confidence their role in the world. Chosen poorly, history has before given us a Russia in smutnoe vremya.

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  1. Rado Kovacs 3 years ago

    On the question of Russia as a failed state, too many of the contributors are focusing on the military/foreign policy aspects of the discussion, rather than the economics. The truth of the matter is that Russia is a petro-state which simply can’t afford to be a world power unless the price of oil is over $100 a barrel.
    While it is possible that, into the future, high oil prices might return, this is far from sustainable. Furthermore, future trends suggest that the development of renewable energy technologies and electric cars, will significantly diminish demand for oil, putting a downwards pressure on its price.
    From this standpoint it seems that while Russia may not collapse into a “failed state” into the future, it will almost certainly not be able to maintain (or reclaim) its position as a world power.

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    1. AW 3 years ago

      I think, that the problem of the discussion is that the term “failed state” is too powerful and very strongly connotated, so that it is hard to use it in a sober debate. I would totally agree, that focus on foreign policy is in this context completely useless. Russia has been called for a while already a “snowy Nigeria”, which appears to be a slightly derogatory term towards Nigeria. But putting jokes aside, all the economic , level of corruption and doing business index, HDI – these are the actually important things for a country. Look at Germany – it does not have a permanent seat in the Security Council, it does not have nuces. However, it is involved in all the important international formats – Ukraine, Iran, etc. Finally lets not forget, that the USSR has been seen a world power up till its collapse. Did the status save the country? Nope.

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  2. Elena 3 years ago

    Failed-state and world power are not antonyms. While world power designates the impact of the state on the international level, failed state denotes state’s inability to act responsibly on the domestic level. So, there are two factors under question – Russia’s position in the world and survival of its current political regime. The latter one determines the former one to a certain degree and both are expected to be impacted by the economy. Thus, one would expect that the current economic decline would result in more modest foreign policy behavior and fall in regime’s support.

    However, it doesn’t work this way in Russia. Despite struggling Russian economy, Russia maintains its military budget (much smaller than that of the USA or China, but significant) and is able of some world power moves. Although, its economy is in decline, the political regime enjoys one of the highest approval ratings during last decade (if believe Levada center). Due to the structural problems and absence of any reforms’ strategy, Russia’s economy is unlikely to show a significant improvement in the nearest future. Thus, both the world power status and the survival of the regime depend on how long the regime would be able to maintain this balance given the economy is in crisis. As a long as the regime is supported within the state, Russia should be treated as a world power.

    To conclude, we can say that authoritarian regime with high support ratings are able to act as world powers, even when they do not live up to economic standards of being one. It is in the interest of other states not to ignore them on the basis of economic failures.

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  3. Guenther Kraemer 3 years ago

    It’s definitley not a failed state, as it has control of all territory. The monopoly of force is mostly given (there is a problem with corruption/ organized crime, e.g. the murders of several journalists). It is also able to interact with other states as a full member of the international community and provides public service to its citizens (again: Massive corruption problem).
    And as it is a G5 (recognized nuclear state by the NPT) state, with the largest to date stockpile and a permanten member of the security council, i think it has to be taken as a global power.
    Economically, i wouldn’t count it as a global power, it is an important player but not comparable to the EU, US or China.

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  4. paul walsh 3 years ago

    Today’s world is interconnected, we have a global economic system. The lifeblood of that system is the trade in goods – logistics. This is part of the secret of China’s success – logistical innovation.

    If you look at The World Bank’s Global Rankings for Logistics (LPI) you will see that Russia is in 90th place, lagging behind Nigeria, Cambodia and Kazakhstan:

    You could argue that it is the topography and terrain that makes Russia a special case, but China/ Hong Kong ranks 15th.

    Russia is over-dependent on its fossil fuel industry and has paid little attention to its long-term economic growth. Clientelism and corruption also mar Russia’s potential development – propping up the regime of Ramzan Kadyrov being a case in point.

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  5. Yang xiaoping 3 years ago

    Russia is not moving towards being a failed state for it still has very strong control of its military and political regime, the strong leader there still has the ability to mobolize and get public support to conduct some KEYs to maintain its national pride and real interests. Also the goven. is still trying to provide some public goods for its people in the sense that its society adpots almost the same criteria on food security.

    But Russia is not USSR, it will never ever be the another superpower to block U.S. It is still a great regional power in the sense of its size, its military strength, and overall development status, some call it as Middle-Power when considering its aging and wrinkling population, its NOT diversified economic structure, its incapability in creativity, its lack of hope for YOUTH and its lack of independence in essence when facing the shock of pop culture which flows with globalization.

    What Russia needs is not be engaged for if you see, you can feel the western in its people’s lifestyle; What Russia needs is re-define of itself, it is still on that difficult road to re-identify itself. Sometimes it fells it didn’t get the respect it deserves, for example, on crimea; sometimes it also felt its weakness on economy and social issues.

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