- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

Russia: The Domestic Sources of a Less‑than-Grand Strategy

Celeste A. Wallander


This chapter examines Russia’s political system, economy, and social conditions to assess whether Russia under Putin has the domestic foundations for a strong, strategic foreign policy.

Main Argument:

Russian grand strategy is derived from a domestic system that is fundamentally weak, corrupt, and unsustainable. The political system faces a period of uncertainty and potential instability with a presidential succession in March 2008. The increasingly state-controlled economy is booming but remains dependent on energy exports and is vulnerable to shocks. The economy has also failed to develop or sustain key sectors. Russian society acquiesces because Putin has delivered stability and generally improved living standards. The image of a powerful Russia rests on this fragile equilibrium, which is virtually certain to shift and is an inadequate basis for a truly strategic foreign policy.

Policy Implications:

  • Russian policy in Asia is tactical rather than strategic, missing opportunities to build long-term favorable relationships with Asia’s rising powers. Fundamentally weak, Russia cannot effectively oppose U.S. policies or intentionally harm U.S. interests in Asia.
  • Because the Putin leadership uses warnings of external threat to justify its control, the rhetoric and tone of the political process will likely worsen with the upcoming presidential succession. After March 2008 a new leadership may return to a more pragmatic policy.
  • Since specific interests and tactics rather than grand strategy drive Russian policies in Asia, the U.S. may need to avoid actions that reinforce any anti-U.S. or balancing tendencies in Russia’s relations in Asia.