Learning the Skills of Being a Regional Power
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

The economic crisis is obviously having a strong impact on
global politics, but nobody is venturing to predict what the new
alignment of forces will be. Most likely, all countries will have
to economize, rein in their ambitions and set more realistic

With Russia, the crisis has caused a striking contrast between
the grand intentions Moscow declared several months ago and the far
more limited possibilities available to it today.

The economic crisis served as a catalyst to a process that had
already been set into motion. It was clear that the United States
had passed the peak of its global influence after the military
campaign in Iraq. In absolute terms, the United States will remain
the leading player on the world stage for several decades to come,
although its traditional leadership role has begun to diminish. It
is no coincidence that President Barack Obama has spoken so much
about renewing U.S. values. As compared to former President George
W. Bush, whose administration used force to promote U.S. interests,
Obama will rely more on multilateral cooperation and international
institutions to pursue his goals.

Washington will definitely try to strengthen its ties with
Europe that were frayed by the Bush presidency. But the European
Union is not ready to participate in Washington’s many geopolitical
projects around the globe, and this decreases the continent’s
political worth for the United States. The crisis only exacerbates
the problem of finding partners and allies to help shoulder the
burden of military involvement in the world’s conflict zones. The
upcoming NATO summit will likely demonstrate the contrast between
the desire the United States and the EU have to strengthen their
political unity and their inability to find shared missions.

Europe is not inclined to make sacrifices for U.S. interests in
distant regions, such as Southern and Eastern Asia or the Far East.
And as for neighboring territories such as the Middle East, North
Africa and some parts of the former Soviet Union where Europe has
direct interests, the EU and the United States are occasionally
even rivals.

It is possible that losing the status as the United States’ main
privileged partner will put Europe in an awkward position. On the
one hand, some leading European states would like to play an
independent role in global politics and not remain under the aegis
of the United States. On the other hand, Europeans have grown
unaccustomed to taking a prominent role. What’s more, no single
European state is capable of complete independence, and although
the European Union possesses remarkable potential as a whole, it
has been unable to formulate a unified political course because of
the diversity of its constituent states.

The focus of U.S. economic and strategic interests is gradually
turning toward Asia. The crisis has once again demonstrated the
tight interdependence between the United States and China. But this
is not the kind of mutual dependence that grows into a strong
partnership. As one U.S. commentator aptly put it, this
relationship is closer to the Cold War concept of mutually assured
destruction —only this time in economic terms. Any rash or
ill-conceived economic move by either country could prove fatal to
both sides, and this prevents a serious conflict.

Many people believe that the crisis will cause a regionalization
of the global community. In other words, it could lead to a
strengthening of separate centers of power. For example, China
would become one such center, spreading its influence across
Eastern and South Eastern Asia as well as the EU. These centers
could also be considered new poles in the 21st-century multipolar

But in that paradigm, the arrangement is asymmetrical. Of all
the major powers, the United States is the only one that over the
next decade would not be satisfied with becoming a regional center
with its own sphere of influence. Europe, China, India, Russia,
Brazil, Iran, South Africa and Japan all have that potential, but
not all would necessarily succeed in that role. The U.S. position
as the dominant global power among numerous regional powers of
varying strength is an advantageous one, but it requires

Russia is the natural center of power among the former Soviet
republics. Most of them are going through serious economic
recessions, but they have no need to turn anywhere else but Moscow
for assistance. The list of those that have already applied to
Russia for aid in one form or another includes Kyrgyzstan, Armenia,
Belarus, Ukraine and nations belonging to the Eurasian Economic
Community. Other neighboring states will probably make similar
requests in the months ahead. The amounts of money that Moscow has
promised in aid have not put a serious dent in its reserve fund,
but the temptation to offer more money as a way of strengthening
Russia’s geopolitical standing has been thwarted by the crisis. All
the same, the resurgence of Russia’s influence in neighboring
countries with which Moscow has strong historical and cultural ties
is consistent with the overall global tendency toward

Over the past several years, Russia has shown that it can’t
always derive geopolitical dividends from money invested in its
allies. As a rule, the result runs opposite to the intended
outcome. Instead of Moscow strengthening its position and relations
with its neighbors, the result is often mutual resentment that can
even degenerate into conflict. Ukraine is a two good example of

The problem is more likely that in the 17 years since the
collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has not defined exactly how it
views its «sister republics.» Are they just ordinary foreign states
or close allies? Are they ungrateful turncoats that aspire to
prosper at Russia’s expense? Or are they national entities that
have yet to prove themselves fully as independent states?

Moscow still has all of the prerequisites needed to play a role
among the former Soviet republics analogous to that played by
London in the British Commonwealth. But to achieve this, Russia
will first need to feel that it can act as a patron that is able to
give without expecting immediate rewards and to show magnanimity,
tact and restraint. For a major power, there is nothing worse than
getting entangled in a petty spat with its smaller neighbors. From
the outside it very much resembles a high-pitched shouting match in
a communal apartment over who left the dirty dishes in the

A genuine superpower knows how to skillfully show nobility and
respect toward smaller nations. When dealing with stronger nations,
it also knows how to use reasonable power mechanisms when matters
of vital national interest are at stake. Unfortunately, Russia has
often gotten everything backwards: It applies pressure where
magnanimity or self-composure is required (for example, in
Ukraine), and it demonstrated passivity where active participation
might have served better (for example, in the «frozen

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