There has long been a debate about whether the Russian leadership – in particular the president and his inner circle – has a ‘grand strategy’ for the country. Is there a long-term strategy with grand strategic objectives, or has the focus been solely on maintaining a grip on power? Over the years, a raft of formal policy documents have set out national objectives and ambitions, presenting a strategic vision of the country’s development and future direction. The evidence suggests that Putin has had a clear idea of what he wants to achieve since he came to power in 2000 – indeed, despite enduring surprise in the West at Russia’s actions in recent years, there has actually been remarkable consistency and continuity. The Kremlin’s strategic objectives have focused on stabilising Russia, avoiding instability and chaos, regaining great power status and maintaining its primacy in the former Soviet republics on Russia’s periphery. The ways and means of achieving these ends have been adapted to suit the context and exploit opportunities. Yet, the 2022 invasion of Ukraine has not only undermined these ends; it may well have inflicted irreparable damage on the country’s ambitions.
The isolation of Moscow
One of the most obvious changes is the abrupt rupture in Russia’s relations with the West. Ties have been severed and the country has become increasingly isolated within the international arena, undermining its economic development as access to key markets have been cut off. Prior to the invasion, Russia was deeply integrated into the global economy; now, long-term problems are building up, as sanctions begin to bite.
The unexpectedly poor performance of the Russian armed forces has damaged the aura of invincibility that many in the West had bestowed on the country’s military and its leadership. If Russia is perceived to be weak and unable to protect its position, as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine, other actors may strive to further their own positions, which could lead to a change in the constellation of power across the post-Soviet space. Russia’s aspiration to be accepted as a global great power is dependent upon its ability to prevent strategic rivals usurping its power. After all, if a state is unable to maintain dominance in its own ‘backyard’ it is implausible that it will be able to exert influence on a global scale.
Russia leverages its global influence
Russia’s power within Europe (and the West more broadly), and even vis-à-vis China, may be perceived to be dwindling, but it has continued to seek to build and consolidate relations with the non-Western world, exploiting power vacuums triggered by US and Western withdrawal or inaction. States such as Venezuela and Cuba have been the most vocal in their support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, blaming the US and NATO for the crisis. Vladimir Putin has sought to position Russia as an anti-colonial power, appealing to the Global South to join its ‘’emancipatory, anti-colonial movement’’ against Western ‘colonisers’.
Its growing presence across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere is an attempt to expand its global influence, using a wide range of tools ranging from arms sales to energy deals, diplomacy, and political and military advisers. However, it is unclear how enduring Russia’s relationships are with the Global South: its influence is premised in many respects on Russia’s role as a niche security provider rather than on an enduring Russian presence, with relationships driven primarily by weapons sales and military training.
China is still supporting Russia, but not explicitly. Both have worked together in the UN, using economic incentives to keep Global South countries on side and on the same page regarding toning down human rights provisions in UN peacekeeping mandates, but Russia’s ejection from the UN Human Rights Council means it loses a valuable means to carve out alliances with like-minded states on human rights issues.
The split with the West will not end any time soon
There should be no expectation that the Russian government will change its current course of action. Putin has acknowledged that the war may be protracted and there is determination in Moscow to stay the course in Ukraine. The war is likely to be disastrous for Russia in the long-term, but Russian officials believe they are in a fight with the West and need to fight. Moscow is likely calculating that Western interest and support for Ukraine, as well as its unity, will run out far before its natural and military resources.
This feature is adapted from an article published in War in Ukraine: One Year On - a collection of articles to mark the first year of the war.