Russian Reassertion: Towards Regaining Lost Glory

Deba R. Mohanty

President Vladimir Putin’s recent address to the Russian Parliament has attracted much attention for obvious reasons. Pitched betwixt his second term as the President, which according to some could be extended through a constitutional amendment and his seemingly carefully calculated desire to name the successor, the speech reflects three interrelated factors – robust nationalism, comprehensive national power, and a reassertion of the state in global politics – a concoction of which conforms to what is known as realism in international relations. At a time when the world is witnessing a widening gap between the United States and other powers thus deepening the crisis of conceptualizing global politics, an avowal from an erstwhile super power that the Cold War is not yet over would undeniably make scholars and analysts sit up and take note.

That whether Putin’s address – either interpreted as alarmist or simply treated as an empty braggadocio – is not the question. Neither could it be interpreted as a reaction to the recent Russia bashing by top American leadership, although timing of the speech could indicate as such. Be that as it may, it is critical to understand the finer points that the President wanted to convey the world at large and the domestic audience in particular. If concepts like symbolism or strategic culture are of any significance in the field of strategic studies, then President Putin’s speech certainly contains nuances that are linked to its grand strategy. In this context, it becomes all the more important for India to probe further such indicators that in turn could add inputs to its own strategic calculus.

The inability of the realists to at least predict the end of the Cold War or disintegration of the Soviet Union not only led to a reassertion of proponents of ideal institutionalism but also strategic culture theorists, both of which emphasized in varying degrees the erosion of state power on the one hand and inevitability of global institutional primacy as one of the main theme in international relations. While ideal institutionalists started emphasizing ‘soft’ power, proponents of strategic culture tried to underline the importance of historico-cultural elements embedded in strategic decision-making of the state. Although not pitted directly vis-à-vis these emphases, the realist school of thought still dominated international relations through centrality of the state in international relations as well as maximization of power for state survival.

Consider this: the world in the 1990s and beyond consisted of the United States as a super power of unchallengeable magnitude and a growing global power gap between it and the rest, a desperate attempt by Europe to project unity and ‘soft’ power, a near decimated Russia striving to put its house together, a China trying to shed its ‘Middle Kingdom’ skin and propound multilateralism and India embracing open economy for eventual integration to the global economy and in turn reap strategic dividends of maximizing comprehensive national power. If strategic culture approach is to be applied to all such developments, one may assume that ‘assertion’ and ‘reassertion’ in global politics run deep in national psyche of major states. While ‘primacy’ forms the core of the American grand strategy, revisionist notions seem to come from other powers – Europe’s ‘soft’ power, Russia’s reassertion of state might, Chinese strategic competition and India’s ‘assimilative’ power. The reassertion of Japanese nationalism and Iranian defiance also serve as pointers in this game.

Neither necessarily as a corollary to American primacy nor as a direct bi-product of prevailing global politics that entails some scope for resurgence of states is Russia’s reassertion to be seen, although realist assumptions would suggest otherwise. In this case, Russian reassertion seems coming more from within than without and it is the former that President Putin is trying to boost further.

The argument here is that Russia’s starkly contrasting positions during and immediate aftermath of the Cold War coupled with its own inner desire to regain lost glory are reasons enough for it to bounce back to the global center stage. Of course, the same argument may seem to be true in the case of other powers like Europe, China or India, who also have glorious pasts to look up to. Yet, Russia’s case is different from powers other than the US – first, Russia does not have to struggle much with challenges of pluralism as others like contemporary Europe or India; second, it has a more or less intact mighty military force both in qualitative and quantitative terms unlike others; third, its growing open market economy showing signs of maturity in withstanding future crisis; and last but not the least, its deeply hurt national psyche alone has the capability to not only weather any difficult phase in national history but also boost national energy to greater heights. It is in this context that President Putin’s speech needs to be interpreted.

His appeal to the domestic constituency appropriately focusing on nationalism, national power, responding to the Wolf’s (read Uncle Sam) hunger and making Russia a robust power comes at a time when the latter seems to be receptive to his grand ideas, which otherwise suggests that national conditions are ripe for such a reception. In that case, a reassertion does not take much time for an eventual transformation of state power into a formidable force in world affairs again. Russia’s reassertion, which has the capacity to force a paradigm shift in global politics, thus deserves a re-look especially by national policy makers.

Author Note
Deba R. Mohanty is a Senior Fellow (Security Studies) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.