IDSA COMMENT

The Re-emergence of an Assertive Russia

August 29, 2007

Russia's decision to resume the Soviet-era practice of sending strategic bombers on long-range flights well beyond its borders, just a few days after concluding an air exercise over the North Pole involving such aircraft, seems to suggest a willingness to challenge US intrusion into its neighbourhood and NATO's continuing eastward expansion. Some 14 strategic bombers took off from seven airfields across Russia, along with support and refuelling aircraft on August 17. These long-range bombers carried out patrol flights in various parts of the world, including over the Arctic, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as over the Black Sea. The flights concentrated on major shipping routes and areas of Russia's economic interest. This Russian move has been considered as a bounce back policy, in protest against US plans to deploy part of its missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland supposedly for guarding new NATO states against missile attacks mainly originating from Iran. The Russian decision to despatch these bomber sorties has been interpreted as Putin's effort to boost Russian military power and show to the world Russia's renewed capabilities. Following as it does other Russian decisions in recent months like missile tests, announcements about not complying with the INF treaty and the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, etc., the resumption of long-range bomber flights has led some analysts to draw similarities with the Cold War era confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Russia considers the deployment of portions of the US missile shield in its immediate neighbourhood as a threat to its own security, mainly because any interception of missiles targeted at eastern or central Europe would definitely take place over Russian airspace, which might prove harmful to its population. Russia has pointed out that interceptors could be fired from US ships, which would result in debris harmlessly falling into the sea. Moreover, the Russian discourse on the issue highlights the point that the US claim of protecting its European allies from Iranian missiles is misleading, given that Iran is at present not in a position to manufacture missiles that can reach Europe. It is felt that the actual American intention in deploying these systems is to keep Russia pegged in. Russian analysts have also expressed the apprehension that the deployment of these systems could also potentially cause a rift between Russia on the one hand and countries of Eastern and Central Europe on the other.

As an alternative, President Putin has proposed the use of the Gabala radar facility in Azerbaijan, which is geographically closer to Iran. Moreover, the radar at Azerbaijan could easily cover the whole of Europe, whereas a similar installation in Eastern/Central Europe might not be able to do this. Negotiations on this proposal are being carried out by a working group of military and diplomatic experts drawn from Russia and the United States.

Russia's muscle flexing seems to be intended to establish a balance of forces as well as to try and show the world its revived military status. It has also sought to do this by participating in a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation military exercise held recently in Chebarkul in the Urals, which could be interpreted as an attempt to demonstrate the greater leverage available to it through its association with China and the other countries of Central Asia. Moreover, through these moves, Russia is trying to indicate that it is no longer a weak, troubled or West-dependent state.

These recent developments represent Russia's transition to a new phase after its decline through the 1990s. But this view is not without its critics. Some analysts point out that Russia still has a long way to go, while others contend that the Russian economic recovery is based on the shallow foundation of high energy prices - the inference being that its assertiveness will wane once energy prices decline. But the fact remains that Russia is going about investing its oil revenues wisely, and thus seems set to sustain its economic growth in the long run. Consequently, its ability to protect and promote its interests in an assertive manner is likely to gather strength. The series of actions that Putin has taken in recent months - the resumption of strategic bomber patrols, advancing claims over the Arctic seabed, and denouncing arms control accords - portend the re-arrival of an assertive Russia in the international arena.