December 9, 2013
For the majority of the 20th century, since the end of World War II, the Soviet Union under Russia’s control was considered the major power in Europe and Asia, with the U.S. being the country’s only economic and military equal. However, once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia has fallen from the global stage and has slowly been eclipsed by other regional powers. Almost all the assets that Soviet Russia drew strength from have drastically diminished in value; nuclear warheads are being replaced with cyber and precision strike weaponry; the value of the country’s oil reserves are diminishing as shale gas becomes more widely consumed; and lastly, the country’s education institutes are no longer the global leaders they once were and have fallen from international prominence. Though President Putin has had some recent success in reestablishing Russia as a country of power and influence – Russia successfully brokered a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, has been influential in dictating the UN Security Council, and has recently gained prominence for exerting economic influence over Ukrainian – Mr. Graham and other experts doubt that Russia can enjoy prolonged global influence if it does not reform its domestic, foreign, and economic policies.
Domestically, Mr.Graham believes that the country requires drastic political and institutional overhaul so that it may reemerge as the core of Eurasia. Mr.Graham was clear to state that he is does not advocate for a transformation to a Western styled democracy. Rather, he believes that the country needs to abandon its authoritarian style of rule and work to modernize the country’s public institutions. Currently, there is a clear generational divide between the country’s political leaders and the educated youths who turned out in mass to protest the 2011 presidential elections. These young protesters didn’t grow up in Soviet Russia, are better educated than their predecessors, and grew up with global communication capabilities in a more interconnected world. Their outlooks and aspirations are vastly different than the country’s current leaders, who all grew up indoctrinated in the Soviet worldview. For Russia to progress and compete in the modern world it will need to begin coopting young leaders and providing them with opportunities to experience and influence policy decisions. For Russia to succeed it can’t rely on its historic euro-centric views.
Embracing new views is much needed in Russian domestic policy, but it is absolutely essential that the country embrace new strategies if it hopes to compete economically as well. Situated between Europe and East Asia, Russia could be entrenched in a variety of developing and growing markets. However, due to what Mr.Graham identifies as Russia’s history of heavy Europe integration, the country has almost no ties in East Asia. As it stands now, approximately 50% of Russian trade is conducted with Europe while only 20% goes to East Asian countries. 75% of the foreign direct investment Russia receives is from European sources, and over 80% of Russia’s oil and gas exports are sent to Europe. In short, Mr.Graham sees Russia as far too dependent on the European market. If it wants to achieve strong and lasting growth the country needs to develop commercial ties with East Asian markets, not just focus on its large EU and Chinese partners, and invest in businesses and new initiatives. Mr.Graham sees the Russian lead proposal for the Eurasian Union as a step in the right direction but too narrow in its scope, as it largely focused on ex-Soviet countries and fails to promote any strong economic ties.
If Russia is to succeed in regaining the power and influence it once had, it will need to restructure and refocus its domestic and international policies. The current demonstrations going on in Kiev, along with those seen during Russia’s last presidential elections, demonstrate the vast difference in opinions that exists between the region’s leaders and the youth who grew up after the USSR’s collapse. Russian elites must be willing to look beyond their historical European partners and begin reaching out to developing countries and invest in new markets. This includes working closer with the U.S. to promote economic growth and strengthen its institutions. Mr.Graham noted that there are currently more Russian students and business leaders traveling and working in the U.S. than at any previous time in history. This exchange of people and business can benefit both countries. All that is needed in Russia is the political will to begin enacting policy reforms. The potential for an influential Russia is there, it just needs to be focused and enacted.