Russia on the Rise

By Javan Latson

The world was shocked on Christmas of 1991, as the hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time in the Kremlin. After a series of relatively peaceful events throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the Soviet Union collapsed. The U.S. and other nations were optimistic and eager to help the new Russian Federation, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin. Russia could finally be integrated into the world system. The Cold War was over, or so we thought.

Twenty-five years later, the world is watching as Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin and various oligarchs, is morphing into a rogue nation whose actions need to be addressed. It’s time to treat Russia as an international pariah, the same as Gaddafi’s Libya, Iran, and North Korea, for their reckless actions and constant violations of international norms and laws.

Cybersecurity is one of the most pressing issues in our society, and many critical industries are vulnerable to the threat of a cyber-attack. Russia is a major cyber power and has invested a lot of money into computer science and cyber technology R&D, which can be seen in the level of sophistication and inventiveness their hackers display. The Russian government also has utilized and contracted hackers for operations, and turned the blind eye to criminals as long as their attacks serve national interests. These attacks cause billions of dollars worth of damage as seen in a 2007 attack on Estonia, and attacks on major financial companies such as JPMorgan Chase & Co.  The most recent allegation of Russian hacking involves the leakage of emails from the DNC, which has caused speculation that the Kremlin is trying to manipulate the U.S. presidential election. This willingness to conduct espionage and attack critical infrastructure, combined with their technological capabilities, makes Russia a major threat to our allies and us.

Another area of concern is Russia’s constant violation of international law/norms. Putin is taking desperate measures to gain global influence, especially in former Soviet states. Russia treats these countries as client states and uses them as a buffer against NATO.  The Kremlin has used harsh tactics to maintain regional supremacy and to prevent neighboring countries from adopting pro-Western positions. These measures have included cutting gas exports, embargoes, and fueling internal conflicts. The most blatant disregard of international standards can be seen in the 2008 invasion of Georgia following a bid for a NATO membership action plan, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was deposed. All of these actions, including the reckless bombing campaign in Syria and the arming of pro-Russian separatists in the Ukraine, have done nothing but destabilize those regions.  

Tough action against Russia will help drive reforms and prevent future escalated confrontation. Sanctions against Iran crippled their oil industry and greatly damaged their economy, which subsequently increased American negotiating power. Likewise, tough sanctions against Libya pressured the government into making reforms. In the case of Russia, military action would be foolish due to their large army and nuclear stockpile. Russia isn’t Iraq or Panama, and cannot be forcibly coerced. Hurting their wallets, and Putin’s in particular would have the effect of causing them to reevaluate their current policies, especially if the people of Russia are negatively affected by the consequences of their decisions. Putting pressure on the Russians this way could change popular opinion, and the prospect of financial ruin could cause the ruling party to change their policies.

Some don’t believe Russia is a threat to the U.S., and think it’s simply a regional power. This is partially true because it is not as powerful as the Soviet Union was – it is no longer a state that possesses equal parity with the U.S. The decision for the various Soviet Republics to leave hurt because Russia lost significant amounts of territory, access to natural resources, and control of warm water ports. Today, Russia’s global influence comes through membership in the G8 and UNSC. Russia also possesses a nuclear arsenal, strong military, and advanced cyber capabilities which make them a force to be reckoned with. Another argument against taking a stronger stance against Russian aggression is that we should let Putin continue his expansionist policies because eventually, they will cause his end. This sounds logical because over-expansion and financial problems lead to the USSR’s dissolution. However, Russia’s centralized government keeps Putin and his cronies in power, and there isn’t a strong multi-party political system capable of making a significant change in domestic policies. The Russian Federation is no longer a brutal dictatorship like in the days of Stalin, but it’s definitely not a democracy. Also, his approval ratings are currently very high which means that there may not be a change in regime anytime soon. Lastly, the rising price of oil along with growing partnerships with China, Iran, and other Eurasian states may help bolster the economy, but military endeavors in Syria and Ukraine may negate that gain. Stronger sanctions against state-owned energy companies could have a positive impact, as could boycotting the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup, declaring Russia a state sponsor of terror for supporting separatists in Ukraine, and placing a travel ban on chief Russian leaders. These actions could send the necessary message that such behavior from the Russian Federation will not be tolerated and that changes need to be made.  Russia’s actions must be addressed, and how our nation responds to this behavior will be an important aspect of foreign policy for the next presidential administration.

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