Russia, the unconquerable giant straddling both Europe and Asia, has always been viewed with suspicion by the West. The home of communism for nearly seventy years, it has done more to influence European politics than almost any other nation. Recently Russia has been flexing its muscles once more, and for the first time since the Cold War, Europe and the rest of the world are beginning to wonder just what is behind its latest aggression. There are many answers to this question, none of which as are as simple as some might like.
Arguably one of the main contributing factors to Russia’s newfound aggression is geography. As any map will demonstrate, Russia straddles two continents – Europe to the west and Asia to the east and south. Combined with its lack of natural defences such as mountain ranges or long rivers, this means that Russia is always at risk from invasion.
Throughout history the Russian government has backed military tactics aimed at counteracting this weakness and ensuring the safety of the Russian state. During the time of the Tsars this was evident in the expansion of the Russian Empire to include parts of the Baltics and the Balkans. Under the Soviet Union this could be seen through the use of proxy states – a strategy now being employed by the modern Russian Federation.
Moscow has long been aware that attempting to garner more territory would do little more than antagonise the populaces of those countries they attempt to include. Consequently, they seek to install regimes friendly to them through covert means, as seen in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. Their fear of invasion has also been heightened by the eastward expansion of NATO, a system originally intended to support only a limited expansion. This has since proved false, and so the Russian Federation has gone into overdrive to prevent its geography playing against it.
Russia has also stepped up its aggression in recent years for economic reasons. Nord Stream 2, a natural gas line linking Russia to much of Europe, is one of the main ways through which the Russian Federation hopes to make up for its struggling economy. A programme which would funnel gas into other European nations is bound to be a big seller, especially if one considers the scale of demand for natural gas in Europe. Consequently a delay in its approval from the European Union and opposition from the United States has frustrated Russia’s economic plans.
As a result the Russians are now looking for other ways to exert their dominance, as can be seen in their invasion of Ukraine, Crimea and their involvement in Syria. Indeed it could be argued that the fear of a Russian net of influence is being used to force the West (particularly the US) to acquiesce to Nord Stream or face a sudden loss of international influence.
Russia and the US have been at loggerheads since the end of the Second World War. Originally it was over the threat of the spread of Communism, but following the collapse of the USSR the once triumphant US has grown worried that its status as the dominant superpower is once again at risk. Since the negative public reaction to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the Americans have been hesitant in committing to foreign engagements, something the Russians have fewer concerns about.
As may be expected, this drove the Obama-era United States into a much more aggressive stance. Tensions over the handling of the Syrian situation have continued to grow under Trump, even amidst the claims that Russia influenced the American Presidential election. Thus the two nations continue to vie for influence, and whilst the US faces tension at home, Russia will continue to try and push its advantage to ensure that it emerges victorious at the end of this latest struggle.
A final and often overlooked fact is that the Russian aggression witnessed over the past few years has been popular with the Russian people. Many have come to see their country’s best interests as represented by a show of strength, not economic growth or any other means typically used to show national robustness. For Russians it appears as though the more power their country is able to project abroad, the more secure they feel.
Russia is a nation with a complex history. To place one motive for expansion – be it economic, nationalistic or geographic – above another would be futile, as each contributes equally to the peculiar makeup of Russian foreign policy. All that can be said for sure is that, having lost its global power status in 1991, Russia is keen to get back on an even foothold with the United States. Now, with its key rival struggling at home and abroad, it may have found its chance to do so.