Russia: From the Cold War to Today

Jan 23, 2017 | 00:00 GMT
Moscow Red Square Sunset

The Soviet Union collapsed 25-years ago, but Russia today is now reasserting itself on the international stage. To learn more about developments in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union and a look at what’s ahead, Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analyst Lauren Goodrich joins the Stratfor Talks podcast.

Then Stratfor Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst Stephen Rakowski answers one of our listener questions about challenges to economic development in Africa and South Asia Analyst Faisel Pervaiz returns to the podcast to explain how Pakistan’s geography continues to shape that nation’s foreign policy.


Ben Sheen [00:00:04] Hello and thank you for joining us for another edition of Stratfor Talks, a podcast focused on geopolitics and world affairs from stratfor.com. I'm your host Ben Sheen. In this episode we take a close look at Russia, 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. To get a sense of what has and hasn't changed over that time we'll be joined by Stratfor Senior Eurasia Analyst Lauren Goodrich. Then South Asia Analyst Faisel Pervaiz discusses Pakistan's geographic challenges, including how Pakistan's borders, which do not correspond to natural geographic boundaries, shape the country and its relationships with its neighbors. Well, let's begin today with one of your listener questions about Africa. For that I'd like to welcome Stratfor sub-Saharan Africa Analyst Stephen Rakowski. Thanks for joining us on the podcast, Stephen. Miguel writes in to ask about the main factors that hold back Africa in terms of development compared to other regions of the world such as Asia. What are some of the key drivers that you look at in your analysis?

Stephen Rakowski [00:01:03] So, when examining the differences between doing business in Africa and doing it in Asia, several stark differences come into picture. First, Africa's geography is generally difficult. There is a relative lack of quality deep water ports across the continent, navigable inland waterways, and in some areas there is just simply difficult terrain. For example, there are the soil poor savannas of the Sawhill or the dense jungles of central Africa. All of these features combine from the ground up to literally drive up the cost of infrastructure, which remain woefully lacking across the continent. Many of these African countries have to deal with significant power outages, for example, which disrupts business continuity. At the same time, Africa's development of political institutions lags well behind other regions. This dynamic plays out in a chicken-or-egg style cycle. Basically African states often lack funding to build new infrastructure. This is the result oftentimes of mismanagement and poor development, and a lot of that relates to the lack of maturity in African legal or political institutions, which serve to undermine investor confidence. At the same time many African states are incredibly diverse. For example, in Nigeria there are hundreds of different ethnic or tribal groups, and there are countless sub-ethnic or tribal groups in addition to several different religions and several different geographic regions. At the very least this serves to complicate the relations internally, and this contrasts with Japan,

Stephen Rakowski [00:02:35] which is very homogenous. We can't discount the importance of quality deep water ports and numerous inland waterways that are navigable. For example, in North America and Europe there are countless ports for waterways. Water transport is significantly less expensive than by air and also by land, either by road or train. Across Africa infrastructure development lags, and oftentimes the vast majority of the continent is part of this large hinterland, which is far removed from coastal ports. So the very basis of creating that infrastructure is just woefully more expensive in Africa than it is in many other parts of the world.

Ben Sheen [00:03:20] Thank you, Stephen. And if you'd like to submit a question or give feedback on the podcast, reach out to us on 1-512-744-4300, extension 3917, or email us at [email protected] And with me now is Stratfor senior Eurasia analyst Lauren Goodrich to talk about Russia 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. So, Lauren, on December 26, 1991, the Kremlin lowered the iconic red flag that had flown over the Soviet Union for nearly 70 years. Now 25 years after, it appears that Russia is making something of a comeback. What's happened in those intervening years?

Lauren Goodrich [00:04:08] Well, I mean the past 25 years, Russia has returned to the same strategy that it has always has returned to time and again throughout history. This is nothing new and it should have been expected all along, just like the collapse of the Soviet Union should have been expected all along. So Russia has a very dynamic and ingrained strategy throughout history. It is very fragile and weak internally, it's a massive country that cannot defend its borders, and so because of this Russia's strategy dating back I would say even back to Ivan the Terrible has been to hunker down at home, consolidate all your power at home, and then of course resurge out into your borderlands and control your borderlands. And so we've seen the Russian empire do this, the Soviet Union was a brilliant example of controlling its borderlands, in which Russia controlled all the states surrounding it. So what we're seeing now out of Russia is the exact same strategy in that Vladimir Putin, who came to power 17 years ago, which is astonishing to believe, the second longest running leader after Stalin, his first task to order was of course to consolidate at home, to control the country politically, economically, financially and socially in order to just rule the country. This has allowed him to in the past decade to really push back out into its borderlands, and it hasn't been a perfect strategy, of course not. There's been a lot of push back from many states and from many blocs and powers, especially the western powers. But what we have seen is that Putin has successfully

Lauren Goodrich [00:05:46] kept at home consolidated while being able to continually find ways to maneuver through the borderlands in order to keep its influence outside of Russia, and that way the west and other foreign powers can't push into Russia.

Ben Sheen [00:06:01] So, Lauren, I'm curious about some of the echoes we've seen, because clearly after World War II, and Russia, like you said, has sought to assert itself and seeking security through expansionism, and we ended up in this world with these two great power blocs, you know, the west and the United States leading that, and then Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries. You know, when Russia fell apart that ended the period of the Cold War we're somewhat in uncharted territory, whereas now a lot of people are saying we're moving towards another Cold War but one of a slightly different nature. How do you think that's going to play out in the near future?

Lauren Goodrich [00:06:34] Well, we're definitely seeing a world in which Russia is feeling assertive enough to act like its old self. And so we're seeing Russia really push back outside of just its borderlands and to go back onto the international scene and the global theater, intervening in Syria, talking with the Libyans, exacerbating very deep divisions within Europe, and meddling inside the United States. And so we're seeing Russia act as if it's as strong as it was in the Soviet period. But there's a lot of differences when we talk about the Cold War dynamics from the actual Cold War to the dynamics that we're seeing today.

Ben Sheen [00:07:12] Because during the Cold War Russia was this huge military power, and now, last time I checked they couldn't wield as much military might as they did back then.

Lauren Goodrich [00:07:20] Very much so. I mean the Russian military is still formidable, but it's nothing that the Soviet military was, just because the Soviet military was a bloc, and we're not seeing that despite all the alliances that Russia has tried to create militarily. So instead, we're seeing Russia use a lot, different set of tools than the Soviet Union did. Now, this isn't to say the Soviet Union didn't use these tools, it's just it wasn't its primary objectives, and so we're seeing Russia, I mean its greatest tool as of this moment is disinformation and propaganda, and that could be anything from news stories to social media to cyber hacking, and this has become a really big force that Russia is kind of rolling across the world, and not just inside the United States but we're seeing it very deeply, particularly in Europe. Another difference as far as the Cold War dynamics is that, the Cold War really and truly was one bloc versus another bloc. It was the west versus the Soviet Union and everyone had to take sides, and everyone who didn't take sides still was maneuvered within the great game between the Soviet Union and the west. And that's very different now. Now we have a multi-polar world. Of course the United States still dominates the world, but there's no one that can actually rival the United States. And underneath, that next layer down, Russia has a lot of other countries that are on par. The EU as a bloc, China, I would say arguably, to a degree, Turkey and Iran. And so there's a lot of competition for Russia

Lauren Goodrich [00:08:52] in the world, and there's a lot of alternatives to choosing either Russia or the United States, which is very different than what we saw of course during the Soviet period.

Ben Sheen [00:09:01] It's interesting to see some of the ways in which the United States has sought to curtail Russian activity, and certainly after Russia's move to annex Crimea we saw quite heavy sanctions levied from the US and Europe against Russia, which definitely had an economic impact. Like you said, it's interesting to see who Russia's reaching out to now. We certainly see them in play in Syria, Libya most recently, as you said, but also meeting with countries such as Japan to resolve some longstanding disputes over island territories there. Certainly China and India are huge economies that Russia will have to deal with very much in the future.

Lauren Goodrich [00:09:33] Very much so. So I mean this really shows that these countries don't feel like they have to choose anymore. It's okay to be friends with both Russia and the United States.

Ben Sheen [00:09:42] Now, as much as we talk about Russia being on the rise again and being a potent force on the international stage, things aren't exactly peachy back home, are they? What problems is Putin facing specifically in the Kremlin and what problems is Russia going to face in 2017?

Lauren Goodrich [00:09:57] One of the reasons I believe that Russia is acting so assertively and aggressively on the international stage is not just to challenge the United States and other world powers, and it's not just trying to push its weight around on the international stage, but I really see it almost as a smoke and noise to disguise all the problems that are taking place at home. The Russian economy, though it will see a slight upturn this next year, is still very fragile and fairly hollow. The Russian finances are very tight for the next few years, and I don't expect that to change even if oil does go up. There's also a generational change taking place. As we're marking the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that means there's a generation that is 25 years old in the workforce, college educated, that doesn't remember the Soviet period. And then of course with Putin being in charge for as long as he has been, the political system that he's created over the past 17 years is starting to atrophy. It's starting to show its cracks. And because of this there's an increased paranoia among the elites in the Kremlin on how much longer can we keep this system together? Add in a slew of other problems such as regional divisions, trying to hold together 83, or 85 as Russia likes to say, regions together that are all highly diverse. And then of course there's ethnic tensions. Russia demographically is changing both with the generational change but also with the ethnic makeup. And so all of these crisises are all kind of

Lauren Goodrich [00:11:31] compounding together into almost a perfect storm that we saw very similar to the 1970s, 1980s Soviet period. It reminds me of a system that the elites knew they could not hold together but were just trying to push the collapse as far back as they could. And I think that's what we're seeing right now, which leads us into a really interesting dilemma that the Kremlin is facing in that Vladimir Putin is now facing reelection for his fourth, arguably his fifth if you count his prime-minister-ship, term. And he has created a system that is wholly dependent on him and him alone. Everything rides on his shoulders, and there's no succession plan that the Russian people are prepared for. And so he really is the system, and so in the Soviet period it didn't rely on one man, it relied on a system, a Soviet system. Well, the current system inside of Russia is Putin. And so what happens when there is no more Putin, how does the system even move forward?

Ben Sheen [00:12:34] Well, I think that's a question that will be at the forefront of our thoughts certainly as we look at 2017 and the coming years for Russia. Well, Lauren, thank you for joining me to talk about what we've seen in the 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and certainly looking for the next few years and what the future might hold for Russia. Thank you.

Lauren Goodrich [00:12:52] Thank you.

Ben Sheen [00:13:06] As many of our readers know, geography plays a critical role in Strafor's methodology and help identify the underlying forces that guide decision making and global trends. Geography and the lens of geopolitics are also key to our forecasting process, since they both shape and constrain global developments. In our analysis we always begin with geography and the challenges that different nations face. This week we're joined by Stratfor south Asia analyst Faisel Pervaiz to look at Pakistan's geographic challenges, including how Pakistan's borders shape the nation.

Faisal Pervaiz [00:13:39] Pakistan is located in south Asia and bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, China and India. To the north are the Himalayan mountains which branch off into the Hindu Kush range. To the southwest is the vast Balochistan plateau, which is arid and sparsely populated. In the south is the Thar desert and a 650-mile coastline along the Arabian Sea. The Indus River begins in the Tibetan plateau and cuts through the country's eastern half. The river nourishes the fertile plains of the Punjab, the country's populous core region and its political and economic heartland. Pakistan's primary geographic challenge arises from its borders which do not correspond to natural geographic boundaries. The modern borders of Pakistan were created in 1947 when the nation was carved out of the Muslim majority northwest and northeast portions of India. The countries have fought three wars of independence, and each claims the territory of Kashmir. Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 with India's help. This reinforced the notion within Pakistan that India was an existential threat. Pakistan has long sought to get influence in Afghanistan both to secure strategic depth and to prevent Kabul from falling into New Delhi's orbit. On the west the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, called the Durand Line, has remained contentious since it was created by the British in 1893. Kabul claims that Afghanistan's true boundary runs deep into Pakistan to absorb the Pashtun tribal belt divided between both countries.

Faisal Pervaiz [00:15:22] The mountainous terrain has made the region difficult to govern, ensuring that the border remains porous.

Ben Sheen [00:15:35] That concludes this episode of Stratfor Talks. If you'd like to learn more about Russia, developments since the fall of the Soviet Union and more importantly, where things are headed next, visit us at stratfor.com. We'll also include links to related analysis and show notes, as well as links to our latest forecasts for Africa and south Asia to see how geographic challenges there will shape developments in the year ahead. If you have a question or a comment about the podcast or an idea for a future episode, let us know. You can reach Stratfor Talks at 1-512-744-4300, extension 3917, or email us at [email protected] And for more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting, visit us at stratfor.com or follow us on Twitter @stratfor. Thanks again for listening.

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