“Russia today is in an undesirable strategic situation, and is not prepared to compete with the global world,” said Bruce Parrott, Professor and Director, Russian and Eurasian Studies Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, at a 13 June 2011 Kennan Institute event. Parrott’s remarks focused on Russia’s geopolitics during the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods.

During the tsarist era, Russia “had to choose where to put its priorities in foreign affairs—in East Asia or in Europe, and how to use its resources,” Parrott explained. Tsar Nicholas II initially chose to expand Russia’s territory in Asia, which resulted in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Eventually, accelerated industrialization throughout the empire prompted the imperial government’s geopolitical agenda to shift to the western borderlands—particularly, to Poland and Ukraine.  While industrialization proved economically beneficial to the empire, it also “increased the country’s economic vulnerability in the Black Sea and the Balkans” to European attack in times of war, according to the speaker.

Parrott noted that following the establishment of the USSR, Soviet-era geopolitics emphasized military globalization. In light of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian geopolitics again has narrowed in geographic focus, concentrating on relations with Europe, the Middle Eurasia zone, and the South Pacific zone. In particular, Russia has increased its economic engagement with Europe, with energy serving as the main “linking issue” between Russia and the EU. In Parrott’s opinion, however, if present trends continue, Russia’s prospects for closer relations with Europe are likely to remain modest, even though closer relations with Europe are a precondition for Russia’s socioeconomic modernization and security over the long term.

The Middle Eurasian zone—the speaker’s term for the territory that extends from the eastern shore of the Black Sea to the eastern edge of Mongolia—remains, as it has throughout history, part of the geopolitical “great game.” In the past, Soviet leaders feared that outside states would manipulate Islamic radicalism to undermine their hold on the USSR Central Asian republics. However, according to Parrott, today no great power is seeking to acquire more territory in the region, and no great power is trying to promote Islamic radicalism. Parrott further noted that Russia, like most major state actors interested in the Middle Eurasian zone, is mainly focused on the wealth of energy resources.

As for the Russian Federation’s geopolitical relations with the Asia-Pacific zone, the country’s role traditionally has been focused on military concerns. “The USSR viewed itself as a kind of fortress. In particular, it didn’t want active trade with Asia. Now all is changing,” Parrott said. Yet, despite trying to exploit new markets, Russia remains in a weak position against the other growing powers in the region, and cannot compete with them on multiple economic and strategic levels.

Russia needs to implement radical changes at home to improve its status in the geopolitical arena, concluded the speaker. “Modernization became a buzzword in Russia today, but it’s left to be seen if the Russian political elite will really carry out reforms,” Parrott concluded, “or whether their intentions will remain at the level of the promises of Soviet leaders.”

By Natalia Jensen
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute