The Bear bites back: Russia vs. the World

cropped-56a16c6e21cb5.jpgRussia – State of the Nation | Sam Kwon

Russia is the rough underbelly of geopolitics. A country that is both on the fringes, yet essential to our understanding of the European balance of power as it constantly flirts between reconciliation and shows of force and aggression.

It’s expansive land mass coupled with its dogmatic adherence to remain a uniquely independent entity has it well placed to be a prickly contender for European influence and dominance. Yet to dismiss Russia’s actions over the decade as nothing more than sabre-rattling would hide the Kremlin’s carefully calculated plays, as it’s diplomatic, military and economic forces carefully test and push the limit’s of Western European sensibilities. Of course this is nothing new – one need only look at modern geopolitics to see its intent on display. Her provocative actions consistently draw headlines and criticism, from its unsubtle annexation of Crimea, deployments in Syria and economic wrangling over the Balkans and even build-up of forces along it’s western border. These actions may appear illogical and self-defeating to some, yet for many analysts and historians, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is merely following the historic trend of fierce independence.

Russia’s greatest territorial expanse as the USSR during the cold war, and it’s post cold-war borders.

Understanding Europe’s Bear

Russia is the largest nation in the world. It’s core heartland is located alongside the Volga River within the Volga Basin, which hosts its major cities of Moscow, Kazan and Volgograd. Geographically, this area remains largely devoid of natural barriers, and can be argued to be a compelling factor behind Russia’s historic intent of outward expansion in order to protect its heartland. Such expansion had previously seen Russian Empires reach the Caucasus and Carpathian mountain ranges as a means of acquiring a line of defense from Central-Asia and the West.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 would have a profound effect on modern Russia’s identity, as the country underwent vast structural changes unseen in scale since Lenin’s upheaval in 1917. Its sudden withdrawal and structural collapse, came with the loss of its hard fought ‘barriers of defense’, arguably exposing Russia’s heartland and capital of Moscow. By losing vast swathes of it’s western border, the Kremlin suddenly found itself closer to its rivals than it had been since the empires founding in the 18th century.

File photo of members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic driving a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk
Members of the armed forces of the separatist self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic drive a tank on the outskirts of Donetsk, Ukraine. Photo: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/Files

The new world order

The speed at which Russia’s post-Soviet states broke away and re-integrated into Europe is essential in understanding contemporary Russia’s aggression. The dissolution of it’s territory and sudden loss of it’s strength and influence has a profound effect on Russian people, fueling dissent and unhappiness that enabled Vladimir Putin’s populist government to rise to prominence. As it’s former constituent states turned their backs on Moscow and embraced Western Europe, Russia quickly found itself surrounded by countries that had suddenly joined the European Union (EU) and NATO. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for example have, since their independence in 1991 have become full members of both organisations, which places American-led soldiers right on Russia’s doorstep, and presents just facet of an increasingly complex eastern-European landscape.

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With NATO now on all sides, the Kremlin’s aggressive actions in the Ukraine and reinforcing its sphere of influence around the world is not what some consider to be linked to a ‘Russian ideology’ bent on expansion, rather the invert of this; Russia’s expansive ideology can be understood as a  subconscious desire to protect its own heartland. How does one compare the trends of days past with a remodeled Russia trying to attain a foothold in the 21st century? The answer remains to be seen, yet what is clear are the new techniques Russia employs to assert its authority and expand its sphere of influence. One of these is asymmetrical or ‘hybrid’ warfare in Donetsk and Luhansk for control of Ukrainian territory.

Russia’s continual disruption of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty without declaring all out war is possible under a guise of supporting ethnic minorities achieve self-determination, as many inhabitants of the eastern regions of Ukraine speak Russian, and identity with its heritage. For the Kremlin to intervene in nationalistic debate in this way would not only advance the destabilization of Ukraine, but also stymie its continued integration with the West, despite the election promises of of pro-European president, Petro Poroshenko, who publicly stated his intentions to join both the EU and NATO.

Illustration: Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette

State sanctioned trolls

A less conventional yet equally effective method of Russian absorption has been its utilization of cyber propaganda to silence not only domestic dissenters but also international criticism. Foreign journalists such as Finnish reporter Jessikka Aro, who voice critical opinions of Russian affairs are mercilessly attacked through abusive emails, fake rumors circulated on social media and even Youtube videos vilifying them. These online attackers have been dubbed the ‘trolls from Olgino’. With questionable connections to the government, these semi-professional ‘trolls’ work in digital factories which methodically churning out pro-Russian articles, newspapers and comments from fake accounts.

Such tactics are inherent to 21st century conflict and the Bear has wielded this to its advantage, targeting countries such as Ukraine and Finland to prevent them from joining NATO. Dubbed the ‘information war’ the problem has become so severe that both NATO and the EU have special agencies to combat Olgino’s trolls.

It is undeniable that the increased frequency of Russian intervention and aggression in geopolitics is in alignment with historical trends, yet the modern shell it inhabits its untested with a technique of mitigation yet to be determined by the West. The EU must provide more support for border nations such as the Ukraine. With the failure of its non-aligned status (which was repealed in the Ukrainian parliament), further integration with the rest of Europe remains Ukraine’s best course of action to fend off Russia’s infiltration of its domestic affairs. The EU for its part must treat the Ukraine as a modern case study to act upon, as unlike other Eastern partnership states such as Moldova and Belarus, the Ukraine under Poroshenko genuinely desires stronger ties with the EU.

The EU must therefore capitalize on this political opportunity considering the possible return of a pro-Russian President. Although on an international level continued economic sanctions and further international pressure is continually being placed on Russia. The role of multilateral organisations such as the UN, the EU and NATO remain paramount to facilitating a resolution.

What can we learn from Russia’s new international face? Of course its historical and geographical anxieties have always been an inherent part of its expansionist nature whether at a subconscious level or not. This pattern is clear as one sees its historical trajectory from its humble Imperial beginnings and into the period of the Soviet Union. Repeating this past attitude Russia is engaging in these old practices, albeit with new tactics and methods to spread it sphere of influence and protect its heartland. This presents new and complex challenges for the rest of the EU and NATO, organisations that in theory, should recognize the necessity of their involvement to support border countries such as Ukraine, from a Russian bear awaking from its slumber.

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