The recent assassination of former Russian official and opposition leader Boris Nemstov raises questions about the future of Russia. Some analysts see a Russia that is embarked on a dangerous nationalism that goes beyond its president, Vladimir Putin, and threatens its neighbors beyond just Ukraine.
Russia is a country in decline, but it remains a potential threat to the United States and others because it is the one country with enough missiles and nuclear warheads to destroy the U.S., and Russia’s relative decline has made it more reluctant to renounce its nuclear status. Russia also possesses enormous scale, an educated population, skilled scientists and engineers and vast natural resources.
Many futures are possible, but at this point, despite its human and energy resources, Russia is a “one-crop economy” with corrupt institutions and insurmountable demographic and health problems. This decline should not be exaggerated and some analysts believe that Russian reforms will be able to surmount its problems. But under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s post-imperial transformation has failed and Russia remains torn between its historical European and Slavophile identities.
Some might be tempted to rejoice that Russia is in decline and that Putin’s strategy is making their situation worse. But this would be a mistake. Declining countries are often more risk-acceptant and thus more dangerous — witness the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. Moreover, in the long term, the United States, Europe, Japan and the world community have much to gain from a thriving Russia.
This has created a policy dilemma. On the one hand, it is important to resist Putin’s game-changing challenge to the post-1945 norm that states not use force to steal territory from their neighbors. At the same time, it is important to avoid the complete isolation of Russia, a country with which we have overlapping interests in nuclear security, nonproliferation, antiterrorism, the Arctic, and regional issues like Iran and Afghanistan. Financial and energy sanctions are necessary for deterrence of further violations in Ukraine or on other Russian borders, but we also have real interests in dealing with Russia over other issues. Reconciling these objectives is not easy. No one will gain from a new Cold War.
Putin lacks a strategy for Russia’s long-term recovery and reacts opportunistically (and sometimes successfully in the short run) to domestic insecurity, perceived external threats and the weakness of neighbors. Russia has thus become a revisionist spoiler of the status quo seeking to become a catalyst for revisionist powers. Putin’s illiberal strategy of looking East while waging unconventional war in the West will turn Russia into China’s junior partner while cutting off the Western capital, technology and contacts that Russia needs to reverse its decline.
Designing and implementing a strategy that constrains Putin’s behavior while engaging and integrating Russia in the world community in the long term is one of the most important challenges facing America and its allies today.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and author of “Is the American Century Over?”