The dire situation in Ukraine threatens to awaken many sleeping dogs. Among them is the potentially violent question of how Russia relates to Europe; that is, whether it is content to be a peaceable neighbour with a diminished geopolitical status, a respected part of Europe itself, or else a threat to Europe.
Out of these three scenarios, the first is both the most desirable and yet also the most unlikely.
Russia has always regarded itself – if for no greater reason than its gigantism – as a global Superpower, forever equal to both Europe and America.
The problem here is that no respected observer (inside the country or out) would accord Russia this kind of status economically, militarily or culturally.
While I’m far from in agreement with the US analyst who (in reference to Moscow’s reliance on gas revenue) memorably defamed the country as “Saudi Arabia with trees”. I can’t say I don’t understand the point-of-view. Abroad from the wealthy Moscow mega-region, Russia is almost uninhabited. Those who do dwell east of the Urals meanwhile are typically old, infertile (by choice and age) and threatened by endemic alcoholism.
The best (and indeed only) thing Moscow can do, in a vast country with a shrinking population, is to put the land to work instead, extracting every mineral and value contained within it and selling it to the West and China.
So far, this has proved a workable strategy.
Russia today is hardly poor and much of the influx of Western money has been redirected into creating an impressive native arms industry. Russia’s military currently boasts several indigenously designed 4th generation fighter jets, accurate and effective anti-sattelite missiles, and (lest we forget) cutting-edge nuclear arms too.
But this situation could change.
Even if the current EU and Obama administrations seem reluctant to do so, the succeeding regimes will almost certainly begin to invest in the huge reservoir of shale gas buried beneath both North-America and Europe. Some analysts predict that between them, there is enough energy to eventually stop American reliance on Middle East oil. More to the point, it could also end European reliance on Russian energy.
The loss of the European market would be a catastrophe for Russia, and would almost certainly initiate huge geopolitical consequences.
Perhaps it is that dire prognosis which motivates Russia’s drive to secure an empire that will, at a later date, be impossible to construct.