Providence’s Spring 2016 issue of the print edition ran a comparison of two books about Russia, Garry Kasparov’s Winter is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin & the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (published by PublicAffairs) and Bobo Lo’s Russia & the New World Disorder (published by Brookings and Chatham House). The following review of Lo’s work expands upon the print edition’s version. To read the extended review of Winter is Coming, click here. To read the shorter original book comparison in a PDF format, click here. To subscribe to future print edition issues, click here.
Earlier this week the Institute for the Study of War released a map detailing how Russia’s deployment of S-300 and S-400 air defense systems extended the Federation’s anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities beyond its borders. From the Baltic Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, Russia can prevent rivals from gaining air supremacy in these regions, if it so chooses. For Americans who only casually glance at global news, assessing what this deployment means, why Russia behaves the way it does, what influences its foreign policy, or how America should react can be difficult. Helpfully, Bobo Lo’s Russia & the New World Disorder examines how the country’s internal politics and worldview impact its foreign policy choices. A dense and informative work that immensely rewards readers who have the patience to delve deeply, the book also makes the case for why Russia may struggle in the “new world disorder”. If accurate, a Russia that cannot or will not adapt to this looming disorder can create geopolitical headaches much greater than a handful of air defense systems.
Russian Exceptionalism & Global Role
Currently an associate fellow at the Russia & Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and a former deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Moscow, Lo dismisses many popular myths about Russia, whether held by Westerners or Russians. For instance, he rejects the notion that Russia intrinsically needs a strong leader or is unready for democracy. He also rejects the hope that the country would magically change if Putin was no longer its leader (3-4). Instead of accepting common beliefs, Lo examines how a troubled history and vulnerable geography have created a unique, antagonistic mindset that many Russians will hold even after Putin’s rule ends (16-22, 179).
Through this Eurasian (or sometimes “Euro-Pacific”) vision, Russian elites feel a strategic entitlement that requires fellow great powers to respect Russia’s exceptionalism on any issue they deem important (17, 134). This civilizational exceptionalism gives the Federation an exclusive right to influence other countries within its perceived sphere of influence, regardless of how non-Russian residents in those countries may feel. Though Russia can meddle in affairs stretching from Europe to the Middle East and Eastern Asia, its exceptionalism means foreign governments must stay out of its backyard (47-48).
While believing Russia has a natural right to exceptional great-power status, the elites envision a multipolar, polycentric order where they along with other great powers maintain stability through military strength, often times working against each other (39-40). Russia must serve as the balancer between the corrupt, declining West and the rising East—more specifically, between the United States and China (xvi). Through this great-power mindset, smaller countries are irrelevant actors, pawns without their own agendas or agency. Russian elites thus cannot believe countries like Georgia or Ukraine would revolt against Russian wishes without American backing or support.
Most troubling, the elites view geopolitics as zero-sum, with their country either triumphant or humiliated (40-47). Therefore, most Russians believe that either the United States or China will excel in this century, but they cannot both prosper from a mutually-beneficial arrangement (40-41). Win-win settlements or sustainable compromises for crises in Ukraine, Syria, or elsewhere are thus undesirable unless they somehow humiliate the West.
Ignoring Realities of New World Disorder
However, as Lo argues, this Russian outlook—largely based upon a retro-vision of the Concert of Europe in the 1800s—ignores realities on the ground. Globalization has spread technology that has undermined state power. Military strength has also become less effective and can even be counterproductive without soft power (xvii). Yes, countries like China have grown stronger relative to the West, but the rising tide of prosperity and technology has raised all ships, not just China. Many smaller countries, including those within Russia’s perceived sphere of influence, have become stronger and can better assert their own agendas without a great power’s support (53-56).
With small states no longer passive clients to great powers, Lo envisions an “end of followership” as a multitude of actors go in their own directions (62-63). This emerging “new world disorder” will disrupt all existing powers, including the United States, but Russia is especially vulnerable because it has proven unwilling and unable to adapt.
Even though Putin and other Russian elites give speeches about adapting to new geopolitical dynamics, Lo contends that they have found solace in their outdated great-power vision that will ultimately hurt their country (38). For instance, despite talk about a Russian pivot to Asia, they primarily focus on China, not Asia at large (and the pivot has largely been rhetorical). Because smaller Asian countries are not viewed as great powers deserving respect, the Russians mostly ignore them. Still, these countries will have significant influence in the region and could thwart Russian ambitions (137-140). Moreover, because states like China do not share Russia’s zero-sum worldview and would rather trade with the West, Asian elites have often ignored Russia (77-79).
Not by Bullets Alone
In addition to a flawed great-power vision, Lo argues that the military strength central to the Russian worldview is counterproductive without the accompanying soft power that Russia lacks, as the Ukraine crisis demonstrates. Though many Westerners consider Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a genius masterstroke, Lo insists Putin and his elites miscalculated greatly. When Ukraine originally toyed with moving towards the European Union, the Federation could have done nothing. Eventually, Ukrainian elites and European bureaucrats would have grown tired of each other. Putin could have then reasserted himself over all of Ukraine without spending blood and treasure. Now, however, the invasion means Ukrainians will move towards Europe, even when both sides get frustrated with each other (216-217). Russia’s long-term goal to assert influence in its neighborhood has therefore suffered lasting damage.
Moreover, Lo argues global leaders in the new world disorder gain respect not by military action alone but by resolving global problems. Oftentimes though Russia’s goal is not solving geopolitical crises but simply getting to the talks and receiving respect as a great power. Bearing the burden of finding and implementing solutions may not even be in Russia’s interests (xvii, 50, 72, 140). While Russia has proven its ability to break things, it has not proven its ability to fix them on a reliable basis (57, 99, 128-129). In one case where Lo maintains Russia did contribute positively, by helping remove Assad’s chemical weapons from Syria, he says that Russia’s primary motivation was not to promote peace but to constrain the United States (211). In the future, Russia may contribute positively to other global crises while trying to counter the West, but according to Lo’s account, expecting this contribution on a regular basis would be unwise.
Ultimately, Russia & the New World Disorder paints a depressing picture. Because the Russian elites see little reason to change course and believe Putin has been successful, the country will likely reject reforms (203-204). Lo extrapolates, “A Russia that fails to adapt to the demands of the new world disorder will remain backward, in comparison not only with the developed West, but also with a rising non-West. It would be less actor than acted upon, unable to defend its interests against the competing agendas of others” (208). Given this forecast, it can be easy to foresee how—despite its military strengths—Russia could become the “Sick Man of Eurasia”, spreading the contagion of disorder across multiple regions.
If accurate, the book also has implications for how the United States conducts foreign policy in the coming decades. The spread of improved technology could mean that countries once considered weak may thwart America’s interests. Lo could have further explained exactly how the new world disorder would develop, but the proliferation of improved military technology appears to be a reasonable contributor. If more and more countries acquire improved A2/AD capabilities, similar to the Russian S-400 air defense system mentioned in the first paragraph, the United States would be less able to operate in various regions, which would then limit how well America could protect its interests. Even though Russia & the New World Disorder does not address this possibility or what other challenges the United States may face, the new world disorder could have large implications for how the US conducts foreign policy.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and focuses on civil conflict and European politics.
Photo Credit: An officer, in front of the Kremlin checking details at the 2012 Victory Day Parade. By Mariano Mantel, via Flickr.