NGS Russia consultant, Dr Andrew Monaghan, looks at how Moscow views its place in the geopolitical order against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, and the implications this will have on the Kremlin’s foreign policy strategy, the Russian military, and the national economy over the coming years.
Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 did not mark the start of the war. The roots of the war are instead deep and complex. Front and centre, of course, it reflects a long-term struggle between Kyiv and Moscow – it can be said in some ways to reflect the ongoing shake-out of the fall of the USSR. Although both Russian officials and Ukrainian officials emphasise that the war actually began in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the fighting in eastern Ukraine, in many ways the contest took shape in the mid-2000s. This particularly emerged in the series of protests beginning in late 2004 against fraudulent elections in Kyiv, which became known as the “Orange Revolution” and led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko; growing tension between Kyiv and Moscow was reflected in episodes such as the gas pricing disputes of 2006 and 2008-09 and questions of Ukraine’s joining the Euro-Atlantic community.
But for Moscow, this long-term struggle with Ukraine is just one aspect of a wider contest that has emerged since the mid 2000s. Partly, this was about Russia’s relations with the United States and the Euro-Atlantic community more broadly, which became increasingly fraught over a wide range of policy disagreements – including over Ukraine – and frustrations as well as very obvious divergence in values and governance. More broadly, though, the Russian leadership has long pointed towards the strategic shifts in international affairs, asserting an overall shift of power from West to East, from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific and the emergence of a “post-West” world. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, senior Russian officials were stating that this shift of power was to be underpinned by geoeconomic competition over access to commodities, transit routes and markets, a competition that would intensify into and then through the 2020s, even resulting in war. Speaking in 2014, for instance, Putin stated that ‘changes in the world order – and what we’re seeing today are events on this scale – have usually been accompanied if not by global war and conflict, then by chains of intensive low-level conflicts’.
This view of the emergence of a multipolar world order and a global geoeconomic contest underpinned explicit efforts by Moscow to shape a Grand Strategy both to reinforce state resilience, develop infrastructure connecting different regions, and pre-position Russian capabilities and forge diplomatic and economic relationships across the globe, and it continues to feature prominently in recent official Russian speeches. Late last year, for instance, Putin pointed to the global contest underway not only in Europe, but in Africa and Asia, reflected in the establishment of AUKUS and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as ‘planned provocations’ and ‘sowing chaos’. It is also reflected in Russian strategic planning documents, such as the National Security Strategy, Energy Strategy and plans for the development of the Arctic.
The Future, According to Moscow
Moscow’s central assumptions about the world are set out in its 2019 document Strategic Forecast for the period to 2035. This sets out four scenarios for the evolution of the global situation. These are as follows:
- – the transition to a polycentric world order;
- – the continuation of US attempts to maintain its dominance of a unipolar world;
- – the formation of a bipolar world order around the US and China;
- – the strengthening of regionalisation processes.
The Forecast emphasises the tension between the first two scenarios, and the effort by the US to contain Russia and China and Washington D.C.’s increasing use of both military and economic force (through sanctions) to retain its global hegemony. Noting that a major restructuring of the world economy is underway, the Forecast is essentially pessimistic, suggesting that Russia’s security – as well as wider, global security – is characterised by increasing risks. It is noteworthy that senior Russian officials regularly state that these foresight assumptions are being proven correct by developments over the last three years. In part, this is why Moscow refers to the current situation as being existential.
This, then, is the context of the current war and long-term outlook as far as Moscow is concerned. It is a very different view, it hardly needs to be said, from that widely accepted in the Euro-Atlantic community. For the Russian leadership, what is happening in Ukraine is not primarily a regional, European war with some global consequences, as many in Europe think, but instead a global contest with warfare currently underway in Ukraine. The fighting, therefore, is taking place against a background of economics, and particularly the search for control of maritime trading routes.
Regarding operations against Ukraine specifically, this means two things. First, it means a commodities contest: Ukraine is one of Russia’s major competitors in grain export, for instance. Second, it is reflected in the attempt to enhance control over the Sea of Azov, turning it into an internal sea, and to assert control over Black Sea infrastructure (including Ukrainian coastal and port infrastructure) and trading routes. This is because the Black Sea is an increasingly important export transit route to markets in the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the window onto the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. By striking at Ukrainian grain production and port facilities, Russia is weakening Ukraine’s ability to compete in commodity export while strengthening its own hand. Retaining control of the Crimean peninsula is an essential feature of Russian thinking, since it means retaining control over export routes for Russia’s own goods. This is what Moscow means by “independence and sovereignty”: a loss of control over such a crucial transit route poses a strategic challenge to Russia’s economic development at a time of geo-economic competition.
Of particular significance, though, is the development of the Northern Sea Route. While fighting raged in Ukraine through 2022, for instance, Moscow prepared and then authorised a Plan for the Development of the Northern Sea Route to 2035. As Putin stated, ‘virtually all aspects’ of Russian national security – natural resources, military-political, technological and environmental – are concentrated in that region, and he underlined the need for a ‘maximum’ work effort on current and long-term tasks in the face of disruption caused by sanctions. In this geoeconomic contest, the high north is at once Russia’s strategic reserve and also its “window” onto the 21st century: the Northern Sea Route is not only an East-West corridor linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, but also intended to facilitate North-South connections and trade, linking the Arctic with the Indian Ocean.
The war is having important consequences, therefore, not only reshaping infrastructure and transit routes, but also reshaping Russia’s role on the international stage. It is a war for Russia’s independence and political and economic sovereignty in a changing world order. It is a war about the future shape of the world order. One of the most interesting consequences of this is Russia’s emergence as a maritime power. Traditionally, Russia is seen as a continental, land power, but Moscow has explicitly invested considerable effort and resource through the 2010s into making it a leading seafaring nation. This is not only in terms of increased effort in shipbuilding and port development, but also the deployment of Russia’s maritime capabilities into all the regions across the world. The war in Ukraine is only emphasising this. Western sanctions imposed on Russia since 2014 have driven increasing trade with states in the Indo-Pacific region. The significant extension of those sanctions in 2022, including in hydrocarbons, has only underlined this. The war is therefore simultaneously both reflecting the importance to Moscow of dominating the Black Sea for trade routes and increasing its dependence on controlling those same routes for reaching new markets for its commodities.
Given this picture, what might we expect from the more immediate future? Looking ahead even across the short term during a time of war is fraught with more than the usual difficulties: the “fog and friction” of war make for complex surprises. “Expect more of the same” is a risky call, therefore, though it offers a useful starting point for thinking through what to expect from Moscow for the first quarter of 2023.
In terms of the fighting, the Russian military command has re-emphasised their intent to ‘liberate Donetsk’, and Moscow is likely to keep up the strikes on infrastructure across the depth of Ukraine. The appointment of Chief of General Staff Gerasimov as the overall commander of the “special military operation” on 11 January suggests a broadening of the scope of activities and a raising of the level of military effort. The Russian military appears to be moving substantially more forces into position, and Russian military analysts and social media anticipate intensified campaigning, even an offensive.
In December, Putin said that a second wave of mobilisation ‘at that time’ ‘does not make sense, nor is there any need for it’. But Russian social media anticipates another substantial draft in January, and indeed there are signs of drafting having continued since the first wave supposedly ended in October. As important as a draft, however, is the question of Russia’s economic mobilisation. So far, Moscow has been reluctant to mobilise the economy as a whole, instead shifting only the defence industry onto a war footing. It may be, though, that the leadership enacts other “creeping mobilisation” measures to support the more substantial state effort that is already underway, perhaps in the shape of wind-fall tax, echoing the one imposed on Gazprom last year.
The question remains about what happens if Moscow decides officially to escalate the “special operation” and call it a “war”. Although it would represent a major escalation, a wider general mobilisation cannot be fully discounted if combat operations do not achieve intended goals and the limited (so far) economic measures prove insufficient to support the increased effort.
If the attempt to subjugate Ukraine will continue, more broadly Moscow will also seek to pursue its interests in the global contest. In December the Russian Security Council discussed the updated version of the Russian Foreign Policy Concept. Long under preparation, this document may (at last) be published in the first quarter of 2023. Though it will formally update the 2016 version including some changed international conditions, especially the sharp deterioration in relations with the Euro-Atlantic community, it is unlikely to offer any substantive change in Moscow’s overall strategic direction indicated in recent statements by senior officials and other published strategic planning documents. Instead, it will likely (further) reinforce the codification of both the contest between the West and Russia, and Moscow’s view of the world as being in flux towards a more multipolar world order with the shift of power from West to East as a “Pacific 21st Century” emerges.
At the same time, Moscow will continue actively to press its case and seek to garner support from states across different regions of the world. If December saw two important meetings between Russia and China, followed up this month at the Foreign Minister level, the first quarter is likely to see further efforts to build diplomatic support. This will be particularly visible in the Middle East and North Africa, likely including planned visits to Africa (the Maghreb) by Foreign Minister Lavrov (his second tour of the continent in less than a year), and other measures shaping towards the second Russia-Africa summit to be held in July.
Much will happen that is beyond Moscow’s control, both in Ukraine and further afield. Moreover, Moscow is likely to face challenges in implementing its ambitious strategic agenda, whether because of limited resources or the array of problems within the Russian state system itself. So, there will be more setbacks and failures. But Moscow is committing to its war aims, and pursuing its wider effort to drive a “post-West” shift in international affairs and establish a “multipolar world order”. The Russian leadership has embarked on a geo-economic contest that it expects to last for much of the 2020s.
Dr Andrew Monaghan is an expert in Russian strategy making and futures/foresight thinking. He is a consultant for NGS, producing bespoke analysis for clients on Russian geopolitics and geoeconomics. He is also a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., and a Non-Resident Associate Fellow at the NATO Defence College in Rome. He is the author of Dealing with the Russians (2019), and his latest book is Russian Grand Strategy in an Era of Global Power Competition (2022). His book The Sea in Russian Strategy will be published this year. To discuss bespoke analysis on Russia, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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