By Yu Sui
The pendulum of Russia's influence has been in an upswing for
quite a while as its advantage in energy resources swells and
economic growth picks up pace. The government is so confident that
President Vladimir Putin fired a highly critical salvo at the
United States at the 43rd Conference on Security Policy recently in
Munich. People are wondering these days just how big Russia's
The disintegration of the former Soviet Union left Russia in
very bad shape for a long time. It was able to pick itself up again
only after years of extreme austerity followed by economic recovery
powered by energy resources. Its world influence has grown as a
Energy resources are Russia's major treasure trove. They account
for nearly 50 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), while
exports of oil and natural gas make up 75 percent of its foreign
trade value. The rising oil price in the world market has benefited
Russia immensely, with oil and natural gas exports earning US$139.5
billion in 2006 alone. Its gold and foreign reserves were valued at
US$315.3 billion in early March this year.
Russia has cleared its foreign debt with oil dollars. This is
one reason that Russia is so bullish these days.
Russia's oil and natural gas are mainly exported to Europe, with
oil pipelines continuing to stretch westward. European countries'
reliance on Russian energy resources has made the region a key
market that Russia must secure. Of the energy imports of the
original 15 European Union member states, Russian crude used total
21 percent and Russian natural gas 41 percent.
Now that EU membership has grown to 27, including central and
eastern European countries, the proportion of Russian energy
imports is bound to increase. Europe is increasingly dependent on
natural gas for generating power, making Russia more valuable than
ever. It is likely to supply more than half of Europe's energy
The oil and natural gas pipelines from Russia to central and
western Europe have become lifelines that the European economy
cannot do without. This is another reason that Russia is so
confident these days.
Energy resources are also a formidable weapon for Russia in
international power tussles. It now enjoys the upper hand over
former Soviet republics Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova because of
their dependence on Russian energy resources.
As the first step towards creating an oil and natural gas export
network, Russia is pushing hard for a four-nation economic zone
with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
As some analysts have said, Russia is making energy diplomacy
the core of its foreign strategy in hopes of rejuvenation as a
super energy-exporting empire. Minister of Industry and Energy
Viktor Khristenko announced in October 2005 that Russia would
increase its energy exports to Asia six-fold in the next 10 years,
adding one more reason to Russia's self-assurance.
No wonder Putin proudly stated the other day that the reliable
supply of Russian oil and other energy resources "is a crucial
factor in the stable development of the world economy".
Russia has not relied on energy resources alone to revive its
economy. Its economic structure is continuing to undergo
substantial transformation with domestic demand gaining strength in
driving economic growth.
The containment of oligarchy forces that threatened the central
government's authority for years played an important role as
Russia's influence is still limited since the collapse of the
Soviet Union but has been on a steady rise since Putin became
The international community tends to view Russia as a regional
power, whereas Moscow believes Russia is still a great country in
influence in world affairs.
Despite Moscow's confidence, the first limitation on Russia's
influence is its security strategy. Relatively speaking, the
country has been a giant in military terms but a dwarf
economically. The strategic posture Russia maintained before
regaining strength was essentially defensive. By combining economic
security with military security and by replacing the military power
strategy with that of comprehensive strength, it managed to
integrate its security strategy with development.
In foreign affairs Russia has been working to make more friends
and allies to avoid its past isolation.
Its basic principles are never to allow any of the former Soviet
republics to become anti-Russian fronts and to counter any attempt
by Western allies to surround it. Another aim is to prevent its
becoming a victim of nuclear proliferation.
Somewhat handicapped by weakened national strength and
geographical vastness, Russia has been carefully navigating around
the world power centers to build a favorable balance of power at
the lowest possible cost.
As it regains economic vitality and national strength, Russia
can be expected to gradually adjust its foreign policies and
security strategy toward an equal balance of offense and
Russia's inherited shortcomings also hinder its international
performance. The influential newspaper Kommersant summed up the
situation in an October 12, 2006 editorial: "Acutely dwindling
population, corruption, ill-balanced economic development and a
lack of consistent strategy all prevent it (Russia) from growing
stronger, while rising oil prices, abundant natural resources, a
powerful military, veto power in the United Nations, and China as a
natural ally are helping it become more powerful."
Russia is still among nations suffering from political and
economic instability, an unfavorable environment for investment and
too many risks in economic activities.
With all these constraints combined with those from the
geo-political environment, Russia finds itself still in a rather
Western countries led by the US certainly hate to see Russia
rise again. But they cannot afford to neglect its unique power so
have to cooperate in international affairs. At the same time, they
continue to apply the strategy of weakening Russia's comprehensive
national strength and squeezing its strategic space.
Russia is the only major power in the world that is
self-sufficient in energy. Its proven natural resources account for
21 percent of the world's total, topping the rest of the world not
only in sheer quantity but variety as well. This includes an
abundance of minerals, forest, land and fresh water.
It is estimated that Russia's natural resources command a total
value of some US$300 trillion, of which US$30 trillion is proven.
In comparison, the United States has US$10 trillion worth of proven
natural resources while Western Europe has only US$2.5 trillion.
One of the current challenges for Russian authorities is to turn
the great potential into real power.
Russia's prowess in science and technology is not to be
overlooked, either. Moscow has made the development of science and
technology a priority. It is using the capitalization of human
resources, innovation and high-tech to boost the national economy,
increase international competitiveness and improve its position in
the world market.
Russia is also trying to stop its brain drain by improving
necessary conditions for talent to stay. Some Russian experts
believe the country has soared to an advanced level in such hi-tech
areas as computer software. One indicator, the annual production
value of its information industry has grown by more than 30 percent
in recent years.
In early 2006 Putin issued a presidential decree to establish a
united aviation manufacturing group, saying Russia should play a
leading role in such strategic industries as energy resources and
aviation manufacturing industry. Russia's military strength remains
impressive. The Los Angeles Times once commented that even
though the US is the only remaining superpower, Russia is still
capable of destroying America several times over.
Putin has been pushing military reform since taking office as a
key step towards the ultimate goal of regaining superpower status.
Moscow's military development strategy is gradually shifting from
all-round retreat following former Soviet disintegration to
gradually resuming an overseas presence.
All said, people with a strategic eye are not taking Russia's
future for granted.
The author is a senior researcher with Beijing-based
Research Center of the Contemporary World.
(China Daily April 5, 2007)