“Strategy is the central political art,” writes Lawrence Freedman in Strategy: A History . “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.” If this is so, consider the case of a country that is economically smaller than Italy, Australia, or South Korea. Its economy has indeed shrunk over the past two consecutive years, and income per capita sits below that of Malaysia or Slovakia. Male life expectancy is worse than in North Korea. Worse still, the country has been sanctioned by five of its six biggest export markets, and its currency has lost half its value over the past three years alone. And yet, this country — which is, of course, Russia — has somehow succeeded in projecting itself as a great power in virtually every corner of the world stage. But as Moscow turns its attention to South Asia, courting Pakistan and wading into Afghan diplomacy, we should ask whether it has truly created power, or merely spun an illusion.
Reasonable people can disagree on the strategic balance sheet. Territorially, Russia is in the black. It has annexed Crimea, controls a swathe of eastern Ukraine through proxy rebels, and enjoys access to military facilities in Syria, Iran, Egypt, and soon enough Libya. Diplomatically, it has driven a formidable wedge between Turkey and NATO, while deepening ties with Western allies from Israel to Japan. It has also persuaded China to sign an agreement on “global strategic stability”, while the two sides hold naval exercises in the South China Sea.
All this has come at a cost. As long as Russia continues to fuel a Kargil-type war in Ukraine, it will continue to be battered by European and U.S. sanctions. Yet Russia’s trade with Europe is still four times larger than that with China, suggesting that Beijing offers a rather limited safety net. Russian defence expenditure is likely to fall this year and next, with nuclear modernisation taking a larger slice of the budget. Meanwhile, Russia’s ‘victories’ have also prompted the first-ever deployment of NATO forces at the Russian border, without the presence of the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact buffer. Even neutral states are alarmed, with Sweden to reintroduce conscription next year. Meanwhile in Washington, Russia’s audacious election meddling has made it a toxic quantity in Congress and in parts of the administration, making it hard to envisage a grand bargain, even setting aside the serious differences over Iran and arms control.
In short, Russia has gained diplomatic influence at the cost of goodwill and growth, while enmeshing itself in several open-ended wars. But whether or not one judges this trade-off to have been worthwhile, there is a deeper point: influence demands investment. Russia has created power only where it has been able to change facts on the ground, usually by force of arms, and only where larger, richer, and more cohesive Western forces have dithered or abstained.
In Ukraine, Moscow’s initial arm’s-length low-profile intervention faltered until Russian troops flooded in. Russian advisers in Syria, who were present long before 2015, could not stop the rot — until Russian air power showed up. Russia has been flirting with renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar for some time, hosting him aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in January as an eye-catching gimmick. But it is Russia’s deployment of special forces to Libya’s borders this month that’s far more important. In all these cases, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, Russia is a bigger part of the conversation because it has taken risks, and put down chips.
The South Asian game plan
In South Asia, by contrast, Russia’s presence is largely smoke and mirrors. Its flurry of activity in the region is by now well known. Last September, Moscow batted away Indian objections to hold its first-ever joint drills with Pakistani special forces, having earlier agreed to sell four attack helicopters to Pakistan. In next-door Afghanistan, Russia’s moves have been even starker. In December 2015, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, declared that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours”, while both Afghan and Western officials decried Russian support to parts of the insurgency. At the Heart of Asia conference a year later, Mr. Kabulov followed this up by playing down Pakistan’s role and rebuking an Indian journalist who had asked about this. Contrast this to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, who told Congress in February that as long as insurgents’ “senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens ... they have no incentive to reconcile”. Then, in the same month, Russia infuriated Kabul by holding a trilateral summit with Pakistan and China.
Russia’s intentions are plain. In systematically exaggerating the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan, the aim is to weaken the U.S. and discredit what, in actual fact, have been remarkably successful U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism efforts.
Meanwhile, Russia can pose as a powerful regional broker. But a campaign of disinformation, bluster, and summitry can only take Moscow so far in the absence of any actual leverage. NATO countries have 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, while Russia has none. Indeed, even Italy (over 1,037 troops), Germany (980) and Georgia (870) are all more important than Russia on the ground. If the new U.S. administration increases troop numbers in Afghanistan, as seems possible, this will further constrain Moscow’s ability to persuade Kabul to attend similar summits which cut out the combatant powers.
Steady economic slide
Meanwhile, Russia is poorly endowed in other key respects. In economic terms, it is an irrelevance. Its trade with India, Pakistan, and Iran has actually fallen in recent years. Russian aid to Afghanistan is trivially low, and it is no position to offer concessionary terms for significant defence sales to Pakistan. While Pakistan hungrily absorbs Chinese investment and India looks globally for an infusion of capital, Russia has almost nothing to offer, beyond the politically opaque machinations of state-dominated energy companies.
Much more meaningful is Russia’s defence engagement with India. Russian arms sales continue to be a strategic factor in Indian defence policy. One key aspect is the lease of a second nuclear submarine. A second is the sale of the advanced S-400 air defence system. These are significant long-run contributions to India’s subsurface operations and air power, respectively. Russia’s most advanced defence technology is certainly a rare and valuable asset. But these deals provide limited leverage. They are commercially important to Russia’s frail defence industry, and Russia’s market share is being ruthlessly shrunk by Israeli and American competition. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, it is Chinese arms — built on a Soviet legacy, Moscow would note, ruefully — that are cornering the market.
Where does all this leave Russia? To some extent, prestige is itself a currency of power. If Russia appears ascendant, thanks to land-grabs in Europe and air strikes in Aleppo, it will be so. It will be sought by friends, consulted by neutrals, and discussed by all. But these efforts must have some solid foundation. There must be the possibility, if not the promise, of some economic, political, or military effect. In an age of geopolitical uncertainty — the rise of China, the growth of nationalism, and the erosion of U.S. leadership — hedging is prudent. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India all have good reasons to reinforce ties to Russia, though each is differently placed to weather the potential consequences. But even if it had the resources, Moscow’s room for manoeuvre would be very limited. NATO is not going to pull out of Afghanistan entirely, China looms far larger in Pakistan and in the region more generally, and Russia’s Afghanistan-Pakistan gyrations have hardly endeared it to New Delhi. What are we left with? Sound, fury, but not much clout.
Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London