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A superpower by default?

By Sasha Uzunov – posted Monday, 13 October 2008

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently warned about an arms race in the Asia Pacific region with China the country to watch. But he may have missed out on one key player “bigger” than China: Russia.

With the Wall Street financial crisis, and the US overstretched on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has Russia become a world superpower by default? Let us take note, that it is also parked in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.

Russia starts in Europe and stretches all the way to the Pacific coast. Its Pacific Ocean Fleet (Tikho-okeanski flot) is based at the city of Vladivostok. The Russian empire ran for centuries and in 1917 transformed into the Soviet Union before falling apart in 1991 with the collapse of communism. As a consequence, many new nations obtained their independence, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and so on.

From 1948 to 1989, the Soviet Union and the West, that is the United States, Western Europe and Australia, were engaged in an indirect war – known as the Cold War – over ideological control of the world. Wars by proxy were fought in Korea, Vietnam and so on.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads pointed at each other during this tense time. Both the US and Russia still have those nuclear weapons.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had been in steep economic decline and its society in meltdown. But the economic turnaround came with oil and gas money and a ruthless President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

What does this all mean for Australia’s strategic planners? It means you take Russia seriously. It also means we need to identify what Russia’s strategic goals are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Alarm bells rang when in August of this year during the Beijing Olympics, Russian forces invaded neighbouring Georgia to protect the South Ossetian ethnic group from Georgian persecution.

Georgia recently applied to become a member of NATO a military alliance ironically founded during the Cold War, as a counter to Soviet expansion. Was the Russian thrust into Georgia a simple test to see if NATO would defend it from being attacked? Well, the Russians discovered that NATO and US troops were not forthcoming when it came to upholding Georgia’s sovereignty.

You could say, Prime Minister Putin, like a good chess player, made the perfect move. In fact, if you want to understand Russian thinking, the game of chess is highly appropriate as opposed to the card game of high risk poker, so popular in the west.

Putin during his reign has used the wealth generated by the oil and gas exports to reinvigorate his armed forces. He has also waged a ruthless war to crush Muslim Chechen separatists from breaking away from Federal Russia.

But what drives Russia to play such an important part on the world stage? An excellent examination of this issue is the documentary, For God, Tsar and the Fatherland (2007). The film centres around Mikhail Morozov, former Soviet Army paratrooper turned man of god, who runs a centre for troubled souls. He is a man of influence within Russia’s political elite.

He tells his followers:

“Being Russian means belonging to God’s anointed Tsar … There is no such thing as democracy; there is only hierarchy and hierarchical behaviour …”

Watching Australian 60 Minutes reporter Liam Bartlett “confront” a Russian soldier on Georgian soil was humorous because of the fact that the soldier could not care less about the camera being shoved in his face. Perhaps that sums up Russia’s attitude towards the west.

As Mikhail Morozov tells his followers:

“But Satan, the enemy of mankind always needs to stir things up with ideas of paradise on earth … that stuff about freedom, brotherhood and equality …”

Russia has weathered a decade long decline; its people are used to hardships and its military has not been burnt out fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has millions of conscripts to man its armed forces, unlike the US which has a professional volunteer military with limited number of replacements for those killed, wounded or seriously injured.

The US has spent trillions on the war on terror coupled with the Wall Street meltdown and may need to take a rest from being the international policeman.

It looks as though the Russians are in a good position.