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  • Russian Brinksmanship:Don’t Confuse Unpredictability with Strength
  • Olga Oliker (bio)

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Russia wants the world to treat it like the global power the Soviet Union once was. With a renewed trust in its military and a willingness to accept economic loss for political gain, Moscow has annexed Crimea, shifted the military balance in Syria, and stoked fears of nuclear conflict. Yet as pleased as the Kremlin must be that it has thrown the U.S. and others off balance, Russia’s impulsive activism is unlikely to lead to the influence it seeks.

The reason for this is that Moscow lacks a coherent set of policy aims. Instead of trying to advance specific interests, it seeks out opportunities to demonstrate capacity. Around the world, Russia tries to curtail U.S. power and prove its worth as an alternative ally and collaborator. But when Russia intervenes just for the sake of showing strength or embarrassing the U.S., the result is not respect, but a global reputation for unpredictability. [End Page 81]

This policy of anti-American opportunism renders many of Moscow’s relationships transactional and fleeting. As a result, most countries see Russia as unreliable. This will remain true if the U.S. becomes more isolationist under President Donald Trump, because Russia would no longer be able to present itself as a U.S. counterweight. Until Russia develops a more intentional foreign policy, the country’s influence will be limited to its neighbors.

This is not to say that Russia has no goals. In those parts of Europe and Asia that were once the Soviet Union (excepting, at least for now, the Baltic countries), Russia wants recognition that it has “privileged interests,” as then-President Dmitry Medvedev put it in 2008. Russia believes these countries are in its sphere of influence, and that if other states want a role, then they too should have to play by Moscow’s rules.

The Kremlin has made no secret that it views Western support of civil society in Russia and in former Soviet states as attempts to undermine its rightful role as regional hegemon. In reality though, the United States and its allies— while loath to accept Russian leadership—have little interest in directly challenging Moscow in its own neighborhood.

Yet the experience of Ukraine since 2014 shows that a Russian push for influence, particularly a militarized one, can backfire. Rather than forcing Washington and Brussels out, Russian behavior prompted the U.S. and Europe to provide additional support to Kiev and apply more pressure on Moscow. With the Kremlin likely to test a variety of techniques to gain leverage in Ukraine, including propaganda campaigns and economic sanctions, the risks of escalation are real—even if the U.S. decides to take a step back.

In Europe, Moscow wants a new security order, one which weakens or dismantles NATO and the European Union. Russia has funded disinformation campaigns, bolstered ties with both right- and left-wing groups across Europe, and possibly interfered in internal political processes. Given the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, the ongoing refugee crisis, the election of Trump, and growing economic and social frustration, the future shape of Europe is in question. That said, the continent’s overall alignment—as well as the consensus that continued U.S. leadership is beneficial—has proved remarkably resilient.

If the U.S. abdicates that leadership under Trump, Europe would likely look within for guidance, and not to Moscow. Russia’s tendency toward brinkmanship—evidenced through military activity near EU and NATO borders, as well as its involvement in domestic politics of other countries—courts further distrust. Even if Moscow is able to amplify discontent, as long as it offers no clear alternative to the current order, Russia will not direct the evolution of Europe.

In the Middle East, Moscow has long been a player, but its capacity—and desire—to exert influence is greater now than it has been in a quarter century. The Kremlin, though, faces many of the same challenges as the U.S. It is difficult to define a way forward when so many of one’s ostensible friends and sought-after partners...


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pp. 81-83
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