Winter 2015

Russia - a Bridge Too Far?

Andrew Wood

Russia’s leaders regularly proclaim their country’s immanent role as a bridge between Europe and Asia, while also asserting Moscow’s need to defend itself from the West, led as the Kremlin sees it by an inimical United States. Russian spokesmen point to the potential for rail, road, air and sea corridors through and to the North of their country. Particular attention has been recently drawn to the possibilities raised by the shrinkage of Arctic ice cover. 

A glance at the map, and the existence for some considerable time of regular international flights over Russian territory, lend credence to the idea that there is room for the development of wider and more comprehensive trade routes through Russian territory. The fact is however that the country’s infrastructure has not been built up to cope with such traffic. Initiatives to improve the country’s rail network are launched from time to time, and promises are made to develop its roads. In 2012 President Putin publicised the construction of a trans-Russia highway from Vladivostok to Moscow by driving along a section in the Far East, but it is not clear how far the route has been developed to useful effect since then. The development and updating of the Trans-Siberian railroad is regularly declared to be a priority, but again to little tangible effect so far. The Chinese record in both road and rail building far outstrips that of the Russians in extent and in cost effectiveness. 

Russia has of course a particularly difficult climate, which partly accounts for the heavy costs of infrastructure development. It also suffers from a particularly inefficient and predatory bureaucracy. The economic crisis that has grown since 2008, when the natural resources cushion that had sustained the Putin model over his first two terms in the Kremlin began to weaken, and which now constrains the Russian budget, is a further brake on the development, or even maintenance, of the country’s infrastructure. Since Putin’s return as President in 2012, talk of economic reform with its potential for addressing Russia’s underlying systemic problems has died away, in favour of a centralised state model worked through a restricted group of favoured individuals grouped around him. 

The perceived internal and external security interests of that state have always held pride of place for the Kremlin. Gazprom in its days of glory was seen as an organ of power in Europe, with its pipelines a means of binding European countries to Russia’s will. That pattern was particularly clear in the case of Ukraine. The gas weapon has been weakened over time by the European Union, by the rise of shale gas, by the spread of liquified natural gas, and by Gazprom’s own failures of management, but the idea that commercial transactions are an aspect of what in Soviet times Moscow described as correlations of force is still very much present in the Russian official mind. Declaring for example chocolate to be unsanitary is still a weapon to be used in case of need. The President of Ukraine has after all a personal interest in it. 

Putin’s Russia is committed to the proposition that Great Powers” like, as he sees it, Russia, have a right to spheres of privileged interest. That need not, in principle and in theory, be incompatible with maintaining existing or developing new trade routes. In practice however it has gone along with Russian difficulties in adjusting to the facts of its integration into the global economy. Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU is not incompatible with its economic relationship with Russia, but Moscow has chosen to see it as such because it rules out Kyiv’s subordination to Moscow within the confines of Putin’s prescription for a Eurasian Economic Union. Putin has been more willing to turn a blind though perhaps suspicious eye on China’s success in building up its economic weight in Central Asia, and in providing Central Asian countries with the option of diluting their Soviet inherited dependence on gas and oil pipelines leading to Russia. 

The current Russian government has committed itself to increased military expenditure at the marked expense of its other domestic obligations, such as the health or education of the Russian people, as well as the country’s longer term trading interests. It is difficult to see how Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria can serve to promote Russia as a reliable commercial or political partner. The Kremlin’s focus in both cases has been on changing what Russia regards as an unacceptable world order which gives too much power to the United States. There is under this logic an argument which holds that Russian retention of its military base in Assad’s Syria is an important national asset. Building up Russia’s relationship with Iran, and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East, are among Russia’s ambitions as well. Similar motives underly Russia’s attempts to build up the Shanghai Cooperation Council or BRICS to be more coherent political organisations than at present. None of these efforts have as yet however brought tangible and durable gains to Russia. Moscow suffers from over-reach rather than success in persuading the world that Russia is to be trusted as a major power in the world. 

Sir Andrew Wood is a former British ambassador to Russia and is an associate fellow of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House