2018 Victory Day military parade in Moscow.
2018 Victory Day military parade in Moscow

Isolation and Reconquista: Russia’s Toolkit as a Constrained Great Power

December 12, 2018
Marlene Laruelle

In 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s famous Munich speech took stock of what Russia considered the failure of the post-Cold War détente with the West, specifically NATO’s eastward expansion and a European security architecture that excluded Russia. Today, almost 12 years later, Moscow is more isolated from its Western counterparts than at any time since the early 1980s, but also the most active and visible on the non-Western international scene that it’s been since then. This is no accident: In the atmosphere of deteriorated trust with the West, Moscow has progressively built a dual strategy of isolation and “Reconquista”—seeing and portraying itself at once as beleaguered and newly triumphant, a beacon of hope for those disappointed with the U.S.-led world order. This dual strategy aims to buy time to cement Russia’s claims to great-power status, or at least to shift the global balance in that general direction, with a relatively well-assessed cost-benefit analysis: low cost for Moscow, but with effective power projection, and an overstretched U.S. already busy in so many other theaters. This strategy has clear disadvantages over the long term, but may be Russia’s best bet for the next five to 10 years.

On one hand, Russia has developed the narrative and associated strategies of a “besieged fortress,” trying to some extent to disentangle itself from Western powers it regards as unreliable. It has accused the West of growing interference in its internal affairs and fears a street revolution that would overthrow the regime. It has interpreted efforts by states once under Moscow’s control to leave Russia’s orbit as a kind of CIA-backed project; conspiracy theories are popular in both public opinion and the establishment. And Moscow has begun to restrict some of the extensive freedoms acquired since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in particular in the internet realm. This positioning has prompted Russia to build its own alternatives to international institutions: securing international payment mechanisms in currencies other than U.S. dollars, creating a national inter-bank transfer system to compete with SWIFT, experimenting with cryptocurrencies, developing national internet servers located on Russian territory that can operate separately from the Domain Name System used worldwide, phasing out Western software such as Microsoft in favor of Russian alternatives to regain “internet sovereignty” and so forth. Russia saw confirmation that such actions are necessary in the latest round of U.S. sanctions against Iran (implemented Nov. 5, 2018): Ignoring its European allies, Washington has unilaterally disconnected Iranian financial institutions from the rest of the world, and Moscow knows it may face a similar fate.

At the same time, Russia has projected itself as a new crusader in a globalized world with fluid rules. This Reconquista is multifaceted, encompassing: the re-conquest of a lost territory with unique symbolic and military value, Crimea; the re-conquest of influence in the “near abroad,” which, notwithstanding a great diversity of local circumstances, has been more difficult than expected due to growing opposition, even by long-time allies such as Kazakhstan; and the re-conquest of its own voice in the world, centered around the notion of conservative values and Russia’s purported identity as the authentic, Christian Europe in opposition to a decadent Gayropa (“gay Europe”) and perverted, hypocritical American society. This Reconquista is far from purely discursive. Russian diplomacy has been impressively active in international institutions, especially the U.N., as well as in regional frameworks from the Council of Europe to BRICS structures. This is complemented by dynamic bilateral relations with Asian and Middle Eastern countries, with advanced fronts in sub-Saharan Africa—Central African Republic, but also Sudan and Eritrea, and even Angola and Namibia—and in Latin America, including obviously Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, but also Argentina.

Will Moscow have to choose between these two positionings—the besieged fortress and the Reconquista? Probably not in the short and medium term. While they may seem to be competing trends, they in fact combine well to help Russia manage its contradictory status in the world. As its economic output accounts for a declining share of global GDP—closer to 1.5 percent than 2 percent—and its military budget, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, equals less than one-tenth that of the U.S., Russia has few claims to great-power status beyond its Soviet legacy of a nuclear arsenal and a seat on the U.N. Security Council. The Russian leadership is not, as many have claimed, blind to these limits on Russia’s international leverage. A close reading of Russian think-tank assessments and ministerial documents show quite a well-calibrated understanding of the limited tools the country has at its disposal, as well as of the contraction of the state budget—and therefore public spending—that will be forthcoming in the next two decades, even if oil prices rise.

Knowing that Russia’s great-power ambitions are greater than its actual capabilities, the Kremlin is skillfully making the maximum use of its limited toolkit, playing on Washington’s weaknesses. First, unable to compete with the U.S. in terms of economic and conventional military power, it has shifted the rules of the game from power to “stake”: Russia’s leverage is to make the stakes higher for the U.S., whose capacity to intervene abroad and police the rest of the world in the name of its liberal values is already overstretched. Moscow was thus able to change facts on the ground in both Ukraine and Syria by guessing when the U.S. would not see the stakes as high enough to respond strongly to the new given. In these efforts, Russia can take advantage of both historical institutional multipolarity (U.N. General Assembly and Security Council) and new institutional multipolarity (BRICS and others). It has also reinvented a low-cost, efficient toolkit for ideological multipolarity both by taking the lead of a “Morale International” that unites illiberal forces and all those dissatisfied with the “liberal world order,” and by reactivating former Socialist allies (Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Vietnam) and some parts of the European left. By denouncing the U.S. as cloaking its realpolitik in idealistic slogans, Russia becomes able to speak to ideologically diverse constituencies all of which see U.S. supremacy as unequal and unfair. Lowering the United States’ status is supposed to increase Russia’s by a kind of automatic “transfilling.”

This ideological toolkit is complemented by the use of so-called hybrid warfare—likewise a relatively inexpensive path back to great-power status, although its actual impact remains a topic of debate. Hybrid warfare is low-cost, allows for plausible deniability and is driven by a human and technological capital that Russia has mastered: The country has rapidly caught up with the latest information technologies and has taken advantage of the arrival on the labor market of a generation of young Russians raised on the internet and social media. Some in the West see Russia as a new threat to the liberal order and global democracy, a “hidden hand” behind the anti-liberalism that is sending shock waves through “well-established” and “new” democracies alike, while others, myself included, believe Russia does not have the power to generate instability on the international scene—except in some parts of its “near abroad”—and can only take advantage of those fragilities that emerge for homegrown reasons, especially in Europe. To borrow a metaphor from Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray,” Russia stands as the mirror to the West’s ills, causing already dysfunctional features to reverberate and amplifying many aspects of the West’s own development, excesses, mistakes and failures. Deliberate transgressions and subversions against the international order should thus be understood as part of Russia’s constrained-great-power toolkit.

U.S. domestic polarization around Russia following the 2016 presidential elections and the multiplication of hyperbolic voices denouncing the new threat from Moscow has had at least two effects other than complicating rapprochement: boosting Russia’s stature and, simultaneously, convincing the Kremlin that Russia would do better to invest in long-term strategies that would distance it from the West, and particularly the U.S. As President Donald Trump rose to power, Russia suddenly became an issue for the U.S. political establishment on the same scale as the U.S. has long been for the Russian establishment. The contradiction between a president, Trump, seen as quite favorable to Russia—or at least to its president—and a Congress committed to passing anti-Russian resolutions, with the Democrats now at the forefront of that effort, at first took the Kremlin by surprise. Today Moscow has recovered from its stupefaction and has concluded that there is no longer any hope of inflecting U.S. policy in a friendlier way.

Is the Russian dual strategy of isolation and Reconquista doomed to fail? Probably not. It may seem wobbly and unstable, but it works well enough to have bought the Kremlin some time. Recent polling data suggest Russia’s strategy of regaining visibility on the world stage is succeeding. In an April 2018 Pew survey covering 25 countries, 42 percent of those polled saw Russia as having gained in power over the past 10 years (52 percent in the U.S.), while only 19 percent (mostly outside Europe) saw it as declining. At home, Putin’s dual strategy has also partly won: Nearly three-fourths of Russians think their country’s global role has grown in the last decade (the Reconquista), but they also increasingly believe in conspiracy theories, especially in the idea of outsiders’ being behind Russia’s ills (the besieged fortress). That said, domestic enthusiasm for the Reconquista is slowly and surely lessening, with a growing number of Russian citizens asking the government to focus on improvements at home and not foreign policy.

The regime does not deny the need for political and economic reform, but is trying to postpone making drastic decisions, not only to protect itself from political competitors, but to avoid another state collapse and the social traumas that would inevitably follow. Russian society’s reaction to the recently announced pension reforms and Putin’s attendant decline in popularity—from around 80 to 60 percent, still a number every Western leader would envy—show that the existing social contract cannot be easily renegotiated. For now, however, the strategy of buying time, together with smart management by its financial elites, has allowed Russia to foil some Western pundits’ bleak predictions: Its economy did not collapse within a few months due to the combination of economic crisis and Western sanctions, as some in the Washington establishment had expected. On the contrary, Moscow managed some notable successes, such as increasing oil production and stealing from the U.S. the title of world’s largest wheat exporter.

Short-term successes notwithstanding, Russia’s dual time-buying strategy is a risky one: Without deep transformations of the country’s political and, even more so, its economic fabric the chances for long-term success are low. Demographic trends—including the decline of the Slavic population, population growth among majority-Muslim ethnic groups, depopulation of Siberia and the Far East and so forth—portend in the long-term a Russia whose population and economy will be dominantly located in the European parts of the country, therefore necessitating the elaboration of new mechanisms of peaceful coexistence with its Western neighbors.

Essentially, the Kremlin is gambling with the country’s future: It projects the U.S. will be progressively disengaging from Europe and the Middle East to look toward Asia and the Americas, the EU will have to reform and dissociate itself more from NATO and transatlantic commitment and the Russia that survives until that moment will then be able to reintegrate into the “system” as an equal agenda setter, not an agenda accepter. But in order to achieve its great-power aspirations, Russia will have to invent new ways to reach and secure that status, or contribute to the emergence of a non-Western world order. None of this will be easy and the roadmaps are still unknown. In this context, Russia’s strategy of isolation and Reconquista is probably the only toolkit available to Moscow for getting the most leverage possible out of its current status.


Marlene Laruelle

Marlene Laruelle is a research professor, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, director of the Central Asia Program and co-director of PONARS Eurasia at The George Washington University.

Photo by Kremlin.ru shared under a CC BY 4.0 license.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.