Historically, Russia has been dangerous as a great power – but it has also been dangerous whenever it has felt that it is not being treated as a great power. Many Russians cannot believe that the West has anything other than hostile intent, and they believe the West wants to sweep their country aside from its ‘deserved’ position as second global superpower (something it is not and never will be again).
Russia generally feels disappointed by its cooperation with the West, and especially by the NATO–Russia partnership, which it interpreted as a guarantee that Russia could influence all NATO decisions.
A more assertive, and at times hostile, foreign policy posture has emerged in recent years as a result of this, but also as a result of the alumni of the former KGB controlling the government and all other instruments of coercion. There may be uncertainty about the successor to President Putin, but, whoever it may be, the West’s interest in striving for partnership with Russia will remain important.
In contrast to the United States, Europe depends on Russian gas and oil imports, and is, in addition, vulnerable to the renewed Russian development of authoritarianism. The country’s leverage and financial standing are principally based on its export of raw materials and armaments – both industries that are controlled by the state.
Unlike India and China, it does not have much else to offer the world in terms of services or manufacturing.
It is not Russia’s strength that its economic growth is almost entirely at the state level rather than as a part of civil society.
Looking at today’s military capabilities, there seems to be a mismatch between President Putin’s political statements and the realities. A few examples: according to Russian force planning, all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are supposed to be Topol-M missiles by 2015, but the annual production rate is seven missiles. In the air force, just half of the aircraft are operational, 55 per cent are older than 15 years, and new aircraft procurement is very low. Looking at air defence, Russia would need some 650 S-300 missiles, but only around 100 are operational. Overall, not much more than 20 per cent of the Russian military equipment can be called modern, and 15 to 20 per cent of all materiel can be classified as not operational.
When it comes to personnel, the Russian Armed Forces are definitely not in good shape. They are still top heavy in their personnel structure, and they are increasingly struggling to maintain military discipline and sufficient morale to enable them to fight and sustain combat operations. For the next 10 to 15 years, the Russian military will continue to struggle with reform, and not many of the objectives set out by President Putin in his May 2006 speech will be achieved.
For all of these reasons, it is fair to say that today it is not the strength of Russia’s military that is a cause for concern, but rather its weakness. It is in the interests of both the West and Russia, therefore, to increase cooperation at the political and the military levels. The trends within Russia that are pushing hard in the opposite direction are a cause for great concern.
It will be important for the West to maintain a partnership with Russia, if an escalation of future tensions is to be averted. Cooperation with Russia must be based on strict reciprocity, and Russia should never be given a unilateral veto over Western decisions; but Western nations should take account of legitimate Russian interests in their security arrangements. In this context, it is important to maintain the existing arms control agreements, such as the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and the Treaty on Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF), and to explore options with Russia for the future of arms control.