Russia’s Strategic Vision and the Role of Energy

Russia's Strategic Vision and the Role of Energy

by Robert Legvold
July 1, 2008

This article assesses Russia’s strategic vision, or lack thereof, and the role that energy plays within that vision.

Herein lies the problem: Russia does not have a strategic vision—not if, by strategic vision, one means a sense of where Russian leaders want the world to go and with what role for Russia, coupled with a reasonably clear notion of how to bring it about. Russia is not special in this respect. Countries—maybe most countries—rarely have something as grand as a strategic vision. They do have foreign policy objectives, which are integrated to a greater or lesser degree and in some order of priority. Most countries also have a strategy or strategies by which to apply means to these ends. In Russia’s case the integration is weak, and the order of priority is blurred. Hence, to look for a conscious and coherent design in Russia’s use of energy in its Asia policy is to chase a chimera.

At a deep, elemental level, the reason for the void in Russia’s case stems from three paradoxes. First, and most fundamentally, Russia’s restored self-confidence and accompanying assertiveness mask very real insecurities. Second, Russia’s basic posture suffers from a curious antonymous pairing: no one is Russia’s enemy, and no one is an ally, while everyone is a potential partner, and everyone is a potential competitor. Third, for all the wind and dust stirred by the seemingly bold and far-reaching foreign policy pronouncements of Putin, Lavrov, and others, for much of the last year little serious thought has been given to foreign policy, as leaders and pundits have buried themselves in the politics of Putin’s succession.

Without question, over Putin’s last four years as president, Russia recovered what earlier had been most lacking: a genuine sense of self-confidence. This stemmed partially from the liberation from vulnerability to debt provided by soaring commodity prices, partially from the swagger engendered by Russia’s position as a major energy provider, and partially from the sense that the regime’s firm political hand had checked and then reversed the chaos of the Yeltsin years. Putin and his supporters—a large number, indeed, including the bulk of the political elite—take considerable satisfaction from knowing that Russia is again seen as a player that counts, is in a position to assert its influence throughout the post-Soviet region and no longer needs give deference to U.S. policy preferences. Granted some of the puffery and threat-mongering is instrumental, designed to secure domestic political support by emphasizing that the world is…