Eastern Europe Still Endures Russian Influence

Sean Para, Columnist

The U.S.-Russian relationship has changed dramatically in the past year and a half. After more than two decades of cooperation, the old foes have returned to their previous antagonism. The cause — the Ukraine Crisis and ensuing war in the Donbass — continues to smolder and drive the two powers apart. Russia also has influence in several other key regions, with Syria as the one most commonly making headlines. Russia’s weight on the international field is too great to ignore, and the U.S. should change its current isolationist attitude to one of limited engagement.

Russia is not the power it once was. During the Cold War, the Soviets had the second-largest economy, by far the largest landmass and one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world. The USSR led one of the two blocs into which the world was divided. From the days of Peter the Great in the 1700s until the famous October Revolution of 1917, Russia spent two centuries as one of Europe’s leading powers. Nowadays, Russia holds influence over certain regions but no longer has the strength to compete one-on-one with the U.S. It has a relatively small economy, falling behind the U.S., China, Japan, Germany, Great Britain and France. It no longer leads a major military bloc or intervenes far afield.

Despite these limitations, Russia is undoubtedly a great power in the traditional sense. There are several reasons for this. First of all, Russia’s military strength is far greater than the size of its economy would suggest. It is a nuclear power, a major badge of status and an important factor in any military action. It has the fourth-largest military by number of personnel and the fourth-largest military budget, spending less than only the United States, China and Saudi Arabia. Since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia has been modernizing its military, preparing well-trained and highly-equipped elite units that have been used in the recent “hybrid warfare” strategy one can see in Ukraine. Russia also retains one of the five permanent seats on the United Nation Security Council, a holdover from the Cold War that gives the country a huge amount of influence in the U.N. Although Russia’s economy is small, its huge amount of natural resources, specifically hydrocarbons, gives it a crucial level of influence over its neighbors.

Russia still projects influence in several crucial regions despite no longer being a superpower in the traditional sense. Russian intervention played a major role in the Ukraine conflict — its putatively clandestine intervention served as a blatant reminder of the overwhelming military dominance Russia has in the post-Soviet space. Having supported the pro-Russian uprising, commitment to the “People’s Republics” of Eastern Ukraine has been backed by repeated, if small, military interventions. Recent Russian actions in Syria in support of the Assad regime highlight Moscow’s dedication to the survival of the Syrian dictatorship; the Putin government has sent arms, weapons systems and financial support. Recently Russia has been constructing a military base by the port city of Latakia in the Assad government’s heartland.

Russian involvement in the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts makes dialogue with Moscow necessary. Putin does not want to see endless death and destruction in either country. His interventions serve to protect what he sees as crucial Russian interests in strategic zones that cannot fall under Western dominance. If Washington were to engage with Putin about both conflicts, it is possible that the two rivals could come to agreements that protect both of their interests as well as end the incredible amount of destruction and suffering we have seen in both countries. Agreements such as these have a long historical precedent and are certainly in the realm of possibility. Ignoring Russia’s interests while Moscow pours money and military assets into these conflicts will only result in further stalemate.