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Policy Watch: Russia's Role In The World

Face to face with its future?

Washington (UPI) Nov 28, 2005
Many Russians maintain two strong beliefs about their country's role in the world. First, they are absolutely convinced that, despite everything that has happened, Russia not only should be a great power, but is one. Second, they fear that unless Russia is a great power, it will fall apart.

They do not see any possibilities for Russia between these two extremes.

Russians who want their country to be a great power advance several arguments as to why it will be one again or even still is one: Russia was a great power in the past, it is the world's largest country, it possesses enormous wealth in the form of petroleum and other natural resources, and last but not least, it has a large army and a sizable nuclear arsenal.

None of these arguments, however, can withstand critical examination. Just because a country was once a great power does not mean that it can be one again. Many countries in the world were once great powers but are no longer so.

A country's geographical relative size compared to others does not determine whether it is a great power either. If it did, Canada would be more powerful than the U.S. Population size and economic strength are far more important. Russia, with a 2005 population of 143 million, is currently the world's eighth most populous country -- after (in order of population size) China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. These last four are clearly not great powers, and may never be.

More importantly, Russia's population is expected to decline to 110.5 million by 2050, according to projections made by the Population Reference Bureau. Other countries, by contrast, are expected to grow over the next 45 years with Russia no longer being in the top ten by then. Since great power is a measure of relative strength vis-a-vis others, it is clear that population trends will make it harder for Russia to be one going forward.

Russia's enormous reserves of petroleum and other natural resources clearly give it the wealth that a country needs in order to be a great power. But as Saudi Arabia shows, vast petroleum reserves alone do not make a country a great power--especially if the wealth it generates is not used to develop the non-oil economy. Indeed, as the Saudis, Kuwaitis and others already know: Instead of making a country a great power, the possession of vast oil wealth can make a country greatly vulnerable.

Finally, Russia's inability to suppress a few thousand Chechen rebels within its own borders after a decade of fighting makes it extremely difficult for others to regard Russia as a great power. And instead of seeing its nuclear arsenal as a sign of Russia's strength, outsiders are more likely to reason: If a country as poor as Russia can have a nuclear arsenal, so can any other country with a minimum of means and determination.

As more countries acquire nuclear weapons (which Russian sales of nuclear technology "for peaceful purposes" make likely), the less that Russia will have a great power advantage over others. While Russia's nuclear arsenal will undoubtedly continue to deter an all-out attack, Moscow dare not use it for fear of nuclear retaliation against the more likely threats it will face: Limited incursions along its border (especially with China) and support for secessionist movements inside Russia.

But just as Russian hopes that Russia can be or is a great power are unrealistic, so are Russian fears that their country will disintegrate. There are very few other "autonomous republics" like Chechnya within Russia where the majority of the population comes from a single, non-Russian ethnic group. In many, Russians make up a plurality or even a majority. It is doubtful that they will seek to secede from Russia.

In addition, much of Russia's large Muslim population (which the 2002 Russian census stated was 14.5 million, or 10 percent of the population) is Russified and does not want to live under an Islamic regime such as many Chechen rebels are fighting for. If treated decently, the overwhelming majority would undoubtedly prefer to remain part of Russia. Since the Muslims of Russia do not have one distinct identity but instead consist of many ethnicities, secession could lead to endless conflicts among themselves (as well as with Russia) that can be avoided by remaining part of Russia.

Although Russians pessimistically see Chechen secession as presaging the secession of many other Muslim areas, what is especially noteworthy is that Chechnya is the only serious secessionist conflict occurring in Russia. Even if Russia allowed it to become independent, the continued fighting there among rival Chechen factions is likely to serve as a deterrent to other Muslims wanting to secede from Russia. Russia's greatest enemy may not be either internal or external opponents, but its own pessimism about itself.

But if Russia is unlikely either to be a great power as Russians hope or to fall apart as they fear, what is its role in the world? There is, of course, another country with a relatively large amount of territory, relatively small population (compared to its southern neighbor), rich petroleum and natural resource endowment, and armed forces not strong enough to undertake intervention abroad: Canada. Russia would do well to imitate it.

Too weak to defend itself, Canada does not really even try to do so, but relies on the United States for its defense instead. The U.S. is also Canada's biggest export market. Yet despite this extraordinary degree of military and economic dependence on America, Canadians feel completely free to continuously criticize (often in highly abusive terms) both the U.S. government and Americans generally. Nor do they appear fearful that their behavior will induce the U.S. to either become hostile toward or stop buying from Canada.

The U.S. does not buy all that much from Russia, but Europe does. While Europe would not be willing or able to defend Russia, America could. Russia, then, could become something akin to Canada to the West as a whole. By foregoing any attempt to being a great power and even leaving its defense in the hands of more powerful allies as Canada has done, Russia could concentrate its efforts on developing its economy and increasing its exports, as Canada has also done. Russians could even continue to complain about their allies, just like the Canadians.

As sensible as this may seem, many Russians are likely to be deeply offended by the notion that they should give up their great power ambitions and become like Canada to the West as a whole. What they need to keep in mind, though, is that if Russia continues its futile efforts to revive itself as a great power and will not voluntarily become a Canada to the West, it risks involuntarily becoming a Canada to China as that country's military and economic power grow.

However, the relationship between a weakening Russia increasingly dependent on a strengthening China would not so much resemble the ties between Canada and the U.S. now as they would those between Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Needless to say, Russia would not be playing the role of the former Soviet Union in this case.

Instead of leading to its dissolution, a Russia that stops trying to be the great power that it is no longer capable of being can instead start to become the great country that it could be like Canada already is.

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Analysis: How Corrupt Is Russia?
Moscow (UPI) Nov 02, 2005
Recent claims by members of media and some Russian politicians opposed to the Kremlin that corruption during Vladimir Putin's tenure in office has gotten worse would seem to be based more on unfounded assumptions than solid economic logic.

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