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Russian Strategic Culture in the 21st Century: Redefining the West-East Balance

Isabelle Facon

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This chapter examines the influence of key features of Russia’s strategic culture on its international behavior and discusses the potential for Russia to focus more attention on Asia.

Main Argument

Russia’s strategic culture is deeply rooted in the geographic and spiritual parameters of its history. An important element of this culture has been a search for security through territorial expansion due to an absence of natural physical buffers. This expansionist tendency has been reinforced by a messianic mission tied to Russia’s Orthodox path. These elements have combined to solidify the exceptionalist vision underlying Russia’s claim to be recognized as a great power. Russia’s vast territory, perceived security vulnerabilities, and heterogeneous population have helped entrench a centralized autocratic type of governance aiming to keep internal tensions in check while resisting external pressure through the alternation of defensive and offensive behaviors. These enduring elements of Russia’s strategic culture have resulted in a wavering between feelings of superiority and inferiority toward the West, with this Western-centrism producing relative neglect of the Asian vector of foreign policy; a strong reliance on military tools in national policy; and a continuous balancing between retrenchment and engagement in international affairs.

Policy Implications

  • Prolonged periods of antagonism between Moscow and Washington risk intensifying the pace at which Russia seeks partners outside the West, and especially in Asia.
  • Given the central place that the United States occupies in Russian strategic preoccupations, Washington must strike the right balance between asserting principles, defending interests, and protecting allies while continuing to engage Russia on a vast array of topics.
  • Dialogue and engagement by the United States may ease tension and help the Kremlin take a more relaxed approach on the international stage.