By Stephen Kotkin
For half a millennium, Russian foreign policy has been characterized by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities. Beginning with the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, Russia managed to expand at an average rate of 50 square miles per day for hundreds of years, eventually covering one-sixth of the earth’s landmass. By 1900, it was the world’s fourth- or fifth-largest industrial power and the largest agricultural producer in Europe. But its per capita GDP reached only 20 percent of the United Kingdom’s and 40 percent of Germany’s. Imperial Russia’s average life span at birth was just 30 years—higher than British India’s (23) but the same as Qing China’s and far below the United Kingdom’s (52), Japan’s (51), and Germany’s (49). Russian literacy in the early twentieth century remained below 33 percent—lower than that of Great Britain in the eighteenth century. These comparisons were all well known by the Russian political establishment, because its members traveled to Europe frequently and measured their country against the world’s leaders (something that is true today, as well).
History records three fleeting moments of remarkable Russian ascendancy: Peter the Great’s victory over Charles XII and a declining Sweden in the early 1700s, which implanted Russian power on the Baltic Sea and in Europe; Alexander I’s victory over a wildly overstretched Napoleon in the second decade of the nineteenth century, which brought Russia to Paris as an arbiter of great-power affairs; and Stalin’s victory over the maniacal gambler Adolf Hitler in the 1940s, which gained Russia Berlin, a satellite empire in Eastern Europe, and a central role shaping the global postwar order.
These high-water marks aside, however, Russia has almost always been a relatively weak great power. It lost the Crimean War of 1853–56, a defeat that ended the post-Napoleonic glow and forced a belated emancipation of the serfs. It lost the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, the first defeat of a European country by an Asian one in the modern era. It lost World War I, a defeat that caused the collapse of the imperial regime. And it lost the Cold War, a defeat that helped cause the collapse of the imperial regime’s Soviet successor.
Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most analysts had assumed that this pattern had ended for good in the 1990s, with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the arrival of competitive elections and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But the impetus behind Russian grand strategy had not changed. And over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the trend of relying on the state to manage the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West.
Picture: Johnbod (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons