.
I

t seems that every four years, upon the election or re-election of a president, the United States undertakes a new Russia policy. Whether it is a “reset” or “overcharge”, intimate eye-gazing or burger diplomacy, or a strange and unrequited courtship dance, Washington attempts to recreate policy towards Moscow and consistently fails. This is, perhaps, the consequence of the foundations of America’s policy towards Russia—which rests upon outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the country.

Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order | Kathryn E. Stoner | Oxford University Press | February 2021.

The Washington policy establishment’s perspective on Russia does not seem to have evolved much since the post-Cold War, post-Soviet Union-era, and that is a serious problem when it comes to policy formulation. For many, Russia is still a backward country: its economy is wholly dependent on the extractive industries, its people are scrapping a meager existence in their short (and often exceedingly unhealthy lives), its military is composed of Soviet-era holdovers and next-generation vaporware, and its greatest influence globally is seen in the luxury good and real estate markets in London, Paris, and Monaco. It is, in the words of the late Senator John McCain, “a gas station masquerading as a country.” At the same time, for many, Russia’s influence is global, ubiquitous, and perfidious, even upending democracy across Europe and in the United States.

While it remains to be seen what new policy the incoming Biden-Harris administration crafts towards Russia, it is nonetheless an opportunity to look at Russia with fresh eyes—a chance to cast off these tired old clichés. Dr. Kathryn Stoner of Stanford University offers a fascinating look at contemporary Russia and presents a far more robust and accurate assessment of Moscow’s power and influence than most are likely to encounter.

Russia Resurrected is an exceptionally detailed, thoroughly researched look at Russian power and influence—and their foundations: its people, its economy, and its hard power assets.

Question More

To borrow from the media trolls at RT, Dr. Stoner “Questions More”. The greatest contribution of Russia Resurrected: it challenges the assumptions on which America’s view of Russia rests. If Washington and the West only measure Russian power through the same lenses by which it self-assesses national power and judges its use, then the resulting assessment will be fundamentally skewed. Indeed, most believe that Russia plays a weak hand well. Dr. Stoner, by contrast, argues that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage.

Ultimately, the equation by which Russian power is currently, and wrongly, measured skews the predominant analysis. Resting on this shaky foundation, the resulting policy is also wrong. That this is the case should be obvious. The apocryphal quote attributed to Einstein about genius is apt here: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” If we continue to assess Russia’s power through American frames of reference alone, Washington will continuously underestimate Moscow’s ability to act on the world stage. Shockingly, Russia is neither as weak as the West believes, nor is it as strong as Putin likes to portray. The world is decidedly more complex and vastly more interesting as Dr. Stoner describes. Until policymakers understand this, their actions will fail to counter Russian influence and pursue American interests.

Russia is not, as Dr. Stoner presents, a traditional superpower. Its economy is not the size of the United States nor China; its ability to project power is decidedly less than that of the West; and its soft power is a fraction of both that of Washington and Beijing—although the later’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy may be wearing out its welcome. To judge Russia by these metrics is to misunderstand Moscow’s reach and influence globally.

Elements of National Power

Dr. Stoner presents a tour de horizon of where Russia is active and how it is extending its influence and reach. There is not a corner of the globe where Russia is absent, and the Kremlin continues to achieve notable successes in its efforts to establish partnerships and relationships. Russia’s approach to foreign policy and relationships is far more transactional and apolitical than that of Washington. While it of course tilts towards Moscow’s interests, it is not as judgmental or moral in its approach, and that is attractive to many countries. It is far easier to do business with someone who wants to sell you something, especially when that business deal doesn’t come with lectures on political prisoners or democratic transitions.

Russia’s alternative model of authoritarian capitalism (backed by a healthy kleptocracy) is attractive to many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It is a counter to the liberal western international order that has defined the 20th and early 21st century—one seemingly under increasing assault from both within and without. Stability and order, or at least that presented by Putin to the outside world, has become even more attractive with the presidency of Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, and the rise of other populist movements signaling a retrenchment from international engagement. It certainly helps that there is a mystique of Russia’s involvement in these movements, however ephemeral it may have been. Russia has been all too happy to fill the many vacuums from America’s withdrawals that have accumulated over the last four years.

Equally, Russia’s economy and population are not as weakened and beleaguered as is often portrayed. While still reliant on extractive industries for much of its economic activity, it is not as dependent as one would suspect. Indeed, its control over the oil and gas infrastructure is perhaps, far more influential than its production alone. Its exports are far more diverse than just energy: it is the largest exporter of grain—a far cry from its import days—and exports everything from high tech weapons systems (to the benefit of Moscow) as well as raw materials, industrial products, and some high-tech equipment. Despite its reliance on oil and gas, it managed to sustain economic growth even as prices for oil and other resources declined and sanctions targeted portions of Russia’s elite and economy. It is not the post-Soviet Union basket case it once was and that so many believe it remains to be this day. There are of course considerable inequalities in wealth within the country, a high degree of wealth concentration in the hands of a few oligarchs.

On hard power, it is, as Dr. Stoner notes, true that there are significant asymmetries between Russia and both the United States in terms of quantity and quality, but that matters less when one considers what Moscow was able to achieve in both Crimea and Syria. It annexed the former with no response from the West using a deft combination of subterfuge, deception, and special operations forces, and sharpened its power projection capabilities in the latter, buttressing the Assad regime and testing its combined arms capabilities in the real world. Its long-running modernization campaign is beginning to pay dividends. The Kremlin is investing in next-generation military capabilities (e.g., hypersonic weapons and drones) while modernizing its nuclear arms. It retains the ability to deter the United States and NATO while advancing its security aims, albeit in a limited fashion.

Russian soft power is present but much less prominent and recognized internationally. Indeed, while RT and Sputnik news outlets are recognized as state-controlled media entities, Moscow leverages the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian universities to advance its soft power interests, as well. More amorphous elements of soft power, such as Russian global cultural influence a la k-pop or j-pop (Korean and Japanese pop music, respectively), are considerably less than its peers. Where Russia does have an advantage is in its weaponization of information, use of disinformation, and “active measures”. Dr. Stoner goes into this less than other works, such as Dr. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures and Nina Jankowicz’s How to Lose the Information War, and it is an area that merits further exploration, especially in the context of Russian power protection.  

Shaping the Narrative

Russia Resurrected is a dense, detailed, and thoroughly insightful work. It is decidedly oriented towards the policy and analytic community, and one hopes that these communities seize upon this book when it is published. It is a counter to those who only look at Russia through an American or western lens of power and influence. The challenge is, however, in broadening the audience for this book and its message. It is especially challenging to go against the popular (however inaccurate) narrative of a country, and even more difficult when challenging the conventions on Russia.

Russia is ubiquitous in popular media from film, television, and even video games (being the perennial bad guy and girl in the Call of Duty franchise). For the last four years, half of the American public has read or heard about Russia, alleged collusion, and Putin’s perfidy around the world. The other half has been told this is all a hoax. It is a country that is both backward and exceptionally powerful and influential, seemingly glossing over the cognitive dissonance of the two. The average American would be forgiven for thinking that Russia is both all-powerful and surprisingly backward because that is precisely how the political class seems to treat the country. Over the last four years, Russia has been little more than a cudgel with which to beat President Trump, rather than a serious foreign policy challenge—his behavior, of course, has only helped his detractors.

Yet, it is that political class and the ecosystem that surrounds it that should know and do better. Russia is a country that spans 11 time zones, from the Baltic Sea to the Bearing Strait. It goes well beyond Putin’s kleptocracy and associated oligarchs, has a surprisingly robust opposition movement (if beleaguered and constantly under assault from the security services), and as Dr. Stoner shows, a vastly more diverse population and economy than the popular discourse would have you believe.

Understanding this complexity is critical if Washington is to make smarter policy. Russia is neither on the rim of the ash heap of history nor is it an all-powerful behemoth dancing to the whims of the puppet master Putin.

It would be interesting to see Dr. Stoner’s reflections on Putin and Putinism in the long-term, or as Mark Galeotti puts it, the late-stage Putinism. As she notes in the conclusion, Russia is not Putin, yet Putin has made so much of the system and structure beholden to him or responsive to his whims. Will a post-Putin Russia be as inclined to exercise its power abroad to strengthen the internal stability of the regime and state? What happens if there is a decided turn against Russian influence or interests abroad? How will that affect the state? How long will the people of Russia, as Dr. Stoner asks, tolerate the use of Russian state power for the benefit of Putin and the regime, and not the people? These are critical questions for which there are no easy answers.

There is a nuance, depth, and complexity in Dr. Stoner’s book that is to be relished. It challenges assumptions, questions commonly held perspectives, and undermines the popular misconceptions of Russia. It is something that is precisely needed in this environment, especially if Washington is to craft a smart policy towards Moscow, and as a new administration begins to craft its policy towards Russia.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Russia's Power and Purpose in a New Global Order

Photo by Alexander Smagin via Unsplash.

January 9, 2021

Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order | Kathryn E. Stoner | Oxford University Press | February 2021.

I

t seems that every four years, upon the election or re-election of a president, the United States undertakes a new Russia policy. Whether it is a “reset” or “overcharge”, intimate eye-gazing or burger diplomacy, or a strange and unrequited courtship dance, Washington attempts to recreate policy towards Moscow and consistently fails. This is, perhaps, the consequence of the foundations of America’s policy towards Russia—which rests upon outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the country.

Russia Resurrected: Its Power and Purpose in a New Global Order | Kathryn E. Stoner | Oxford University Press | February 2021.

The Washington policy establishment’s perspective on Russia does not seem to have evolved much since the post-Cold War, post-Soviet Union-era, and that is a serious problem when it comes to policy formulation. For many, Russia is still a backward country: its economy is wholly dependent on the extractive industries, its people are scrapping a meager existence in their short (and often exceedingly unhealthy lives), its military is composed of Soviet-era holdovers and next-generation vaporware, and its greatest influence globally is seen in the luxury good and real estate markets in London, Paris, and Monaco. It is, in the words of the late Senator John McCain, “a gas station masquerading as a country.” At the same time, for many, Russia’s influence is global, ubiquitous, and perfidious, even upending democracy across Europe and in the United States.

While it remains to be seen what new policy the incoming Biden-Harris administration crafts towards Russia, it is nonetheless an opportunity to look at Russia with fresh eyes—a chance to cast off these tired old clichés. Dr. Kathryn Stoner of Stanford University offers a fascinating look at contemporary Russia and presents a far more robust and accurate assessment of Moscow’s power and influence than most are likely to encounter.

Russia Resurrected is an exceptionally detailed, thoroughly researched look at Russian power and influence—and their foundations: its people, its economy, and its hard power assets.

Question More

To borrow from the media trolls at RT, Dr. Stoner “Questions More”. The greatest contribution of Russia Resurrected: it challenges the assumptions on which America’s view of Russia rests. If Washington and the West only measure Russian power through the same lenses by which it self-assesses national power and judges its use, then the resulting assessment will be fundamentally skewed. Indeed, most believe that Russia plays a weak hand well. Dr. Stoner, by contrast, argues that Russia’s hand is not nearly as weak as it seems. Rather, Russia has managed to recover from its beleaguered post-Cold War position, develop a stronger hand than the West assumes, and more importantly, is increasingly willing to play that hand on the international stage.

Ultimately, the equation by which Russian power is currently, and wrongly, measured skews the predominant analysis. Resting on this shaky foundation, the resulting policy is also wrong. That this is the case should be obvious. The apocryphal quote attributed to Einstein about genius is apt here: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” If we continue to assess Russia’s power through American frames of reference alone, Washington will continuously underestimate Moscow’s ability to act on the world stage. Shockingly, Russia is neither as weak as the West believes, nor is it as strong as Putin likes to portray. The world is decidedly more complex and vastly more interesting as Dr. Stoner describes. Until policymakers understand this, their actions will fail to counter Russian influence and pursue American interests.

Russia is not, as Dr. Stoner presents, a traditional superpower. Its economy is not the size of the United States nor China; its ability to project power is decidedly less than that of the West; and its soft power is a fraction of both that of Washington and Beijing—although the later’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy may be wearing out its welcome. To judge Russia by these metrics is to misunderstand Moscow’s reach and influence globally.

Elements of National Power

Dr. Stoner presents a tour de horizon of where Russia is active and how it is extending its influence and reach. There is not a corner of the globe where Russia is absent, and the Kremlin continues to achieve notable successes in its efforts to establish partnerships and relationships. Russia’s approach to foreign policy and relationships is far more transactional and apolitical than that of Washington. While it of course tilts towards Moscow’s interests, it is not as judgmental or moral in its approach, and that is attractive to many countries. It is far easier to do business with someone who wants to sell you something, especially when that business deal doesn’t come with lectures on political prisoners or democratic transitions.

Russia’s alternative model of authoritarian capitalism (backed by a healthy kleptocracy) is attractive to many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. It is a counter to the liberal western international order that has defined the 20th and early 21st century—one seemingly under increasing assault from both within and without. Stability and order, or at least that presented by Putin to the outside world, has become even more attractive with the presidency of Donald Trump, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, and the rise of other populist movements signaling a retrenchment from international engagement. It certainly helps that there is a mystique of Russia’s involvement in these movements, however ephemeral it may have been. Russia has been all too happy to fill the many vacuums from America’s withdrawals that have accumulated over the last four years.

Equally, Russia’s economy and population are not as weakened and beleaguered as is often portrayed. While still reliant on extractive industries for much of its economic activity, it is not as dependent as one would suspect. Indeed, its control over the oil and gas infrastructure is perhaps, far more influential than its production alone. Its exports are far more diverse than just energy: it is the largest exporter of grain—a far cry from its import days—and exports everything from high tech weapons systems (to the benefit of Moscow) as well as raw materials, industrial products, and some high-tech equipment. Despite its reliance on oil and gas, it managed to sustain economic growth even as prices for oil and other resources declined and sanctions targeted portions of Russia’s elite and economy. It is not the post-Soviet Union basket case it once was and that so many believe it remains to be this day. There are of course considerable inequalities in wealth within the country, a high degree of wealth concentration in the hands of a few oligarchs.

On hard power, it is, as Dr. Stoner notes, true that there are significant asymmetries between Russia and both the United States in terms of quantity and quality, but that matters less when one considers what Moscow was able to achieve in both Crimea and Syria. It annexed the former with no response from the West using a deft combination of subterfuge, deception, and special operations forces, and sharpened its power projection capabilities in the latter, buttressing the Assad regime and testing its combined arms capabilities in the real world. Its long-running modernization campaign is beginning to pay dividends. The Kremlin is investing in next-generation military capabilities (e.g., hypersonic weapons and drones) while modernizing its nuclear arms. It retains the ability to deter the United States and NATO while advancing its security aims, albeit in a limited fashion.

Russian soft power is present but much less prominent and recognized internationally. Indeed, while RT and Sputnik news outlets are recognized as state-controlled media entities, Moscow leverages the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian universities to advance its soft power interests, as well. More amorphous elements of soft power, such as Russian global cultural influence a la k-pop or j-pop (Korean and Japanese pop music, respectively), are considerably less than its peers. Where Russia does have an advantage is in its weaponization of information, use of disinformation, and “active measures”. Dr. Stoner goes into this less than other works, such as Dr. Thomas Rid’s Active Measures and Nina Jankowicz’s How to Lose the Information War, and it is an area that merits further exploration, especially in the context of Russian power protection.  

Shaping the Narrative

Russia Resurrected is a dense, detailed, and thoroughly insightful work. It is decidedly oriented towards the policy and analytic community, and one hopes that these communities seize upon this book when it is published. It is a counter to those who only look at Russia through an American or western lens of power and influence. The challenge is, however, in broadening the audience for this book and its message. It is especially challenging to go against the popular (however inaccurate) narrative of a country, and even more difficult when challenging the conventions on Russia.

Russia is ubiquitous in popular media from film, television, and even video games (being the perennial bad guy and girl in the Call of Duty franchise). For the last four years, half of the American public has read or heard about Russia, alleged collusion, and Putin’s perfidy around the world. The other half has been told this is all a hoax. It is a country that is both backward and exceptionally powerful and influential, seemingly glossing over the cognitive dissonance of the two. The average American would be forgiven for thinking that Russia is both all-powerful and surprisingly backward because that is precisely how the political class seems to treat the country. Over the last four years, Russia has been little more than a cudgel with which to beat President Trump, rather than a serious foreign policy challenge—his behavior, of course, has only helped his detractors.

Yet, it is that political class and the ecosystem that surrounds it that should know and do better. Russia is a country that spans 11 time zones, from the Baltic Sea to the Bearing Strait. It goes well beyond Putin’s kleptocracy and associated oligarchs, has a surprisingly robust opposition movement (if beleaguered and constantly under assault from the security services), and as Dr. Stoner shows, a vastly more diverse population and economy than the popular discourse would have you believe.

Understanding this complexity is critical if Washington is to make smarter policy. Russia is neither on the rim of the ash heap of history nor is it an all-powerful behemoth dancing to the whims of the puppet master Putin.

It would be interesting to see Dr. Stoner’s reflections on Putin and Putinism in the long-term, or as Mark Galeotti puts it, the late-stage Putinism. As she notes in the conclusion, Russia is not Putin, yet Putin has made so much of the system and structure beholden to him or responsive to his whims. Will a post-Putin Russia be as inclined to exercise its power abroad to strengthen the internal stability of the regime and state? What happens if there is a decided turn against Russian influence or interests abroad? How will that affect the state? How long will the people of Russia, as Dr. Stoner asks, tolerate the use of Russian state power for the benefit of Putin and the regime, and not the people? These are critical questions for which there are no easy answers.

There is a nuance, depth, and complexity in Dr. Stoner’s book that is to be relished. It challenges assumptions, questions commonly held perspectives, and undermines the popular misconceptions of Russia. It is something that is precisely needed in this environment, especially if Washington is to craft a smart policy towards Moscow, and as a new administration begins to craft its policy towards Russia.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.