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Return of the big bad Russian bear

By Paul Dibb - posted Wednesday, 22 December 2004

For more than a decade received wisdom in the West has been that Russia has changed fundamentally and is now a peace-loving European power prepared to keep to itself and live by the rules. If we prove to have been wrong about Russia, much of what has been assumed about global and European security will need revision too.

Moscow's interference in the Ukrainian election, the announcement that Russia will deploy a new type of strategic nuclear missile "that other nuclear states do not have", and President Vladimir Putin's increasingly anti-democratic attitude, all point to a reversion to bad old habits.

Putin has openly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union as "a national tragedy" for Russia. He has launched a bid to reconstitute a "joint economic space" on the ashes of the Soviet Union, taking in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Putin's growing antipathy towards the US is reflected in his accusation that Washington is running a "dictatorship" over global affairs.


The visit to Moscow last week of Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine, to meet Putin looked suspiciously like a Soviet era visit to report to head office for new instructions. The West has been accused of using the Ukraine as part of "a well-planned strike directed primarily at Russia", and to effect "a political takeover of the post-Soviet area". There have even been suggestions in the Russian press that a Viktor Yushchenko presidency in the Ukraine could trigger military intervention.

Bad habits have been evident for some time in the new Russia. At home, the dominance of Kremlin advisers from the former KGB, who now occupy 60 per cent of key decision-making positions, the suppression of dissent in the media, and the jailing (or killing) of political adversaries are all too familiar from the days of the Soviet Union. Overseas, the retention of links with former client states (such as Syria and North Korea), the suspicion of NATO, and the latent fear of China, all reflect abiding Soviet geopolitical concerns.

The days of euphoria over the expectation that a democratic Russia would become a member of the Western strategic community are long gone. Instead, we are now seeing an attempt by Putin to re-establish Russia as a great power.

Most countries are prisoners of their geography and history - and none more so than Russia. There is a deeply entrenched sense of geographical vulnerability in Russia. Invasions by the Mongol hordes, and later attacks by Poland, Sweden, France and Germany have left an acute sense of paranoia.

This was reflected in a statement by Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov last year, which identifies among the main threats to Russian security: "the expansion of military blocs and alliances to the detriment of the military security of the Russian Federation" and "the introduction of foreign troops onto the territories of states, which are adjacent to and friendly toward [Russia]". These are scarcely veiled references to the expansion of NATO on Russia's western borders and the military presence of the US in states of former Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Then there is the question of the re-emergence of Russia's imperial impulse. As Ilan Berman, who is with the American Foreign Policy Council, says in The Washington Quarterly, this concept has been present in Russian political life for centuries, and the end of the Cold War did little to mute it.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn advocated calls for a Greater Russia shortly after the Soviet Union collapsed. Under Putin, these impulses are beginning to be put into practice. As he said in June, Russian officials are "now working to restore what was lost with the fall of the Soviet Union".

Russia's strong economic growth is enabling it to spend more on defence and increase its military presence in what it calls "the near abroad". Russia's real defence expenditure was $US65.2 billion ($86.1 billion) in 2003 - an increase of more than 40 per cent from 2001.

This makes Russia the second-largest defence spender in the world after the US, and ahead of China and Japan. Of course, it would be wrong to assume that Russia is anywhere near repairing the post-Soviet damage to its military. But Russia still has 5,000 operational strategic nuclear warheads and armed forces numbering 1.2 million. And Russia under Putin is re-establishing a military presence in neighbouring countries.

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First published in The Australian on December 10, 2004.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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