Russia – perhaps more restrained and less powerful than you think?

Debates about the origins of Russia’s intervention into Ukraine have typically taken as given Russia’s position as a muscular, capable regional power, engaged in what Realists regard as power maximization. This perspective suggests the moves by Russia were caused by external forces and NATO’s move east, with conquest of the former Soviet space an inevitable response. Critics of this perspective suggest that Russia’s aggression was motivated either by the price of oil or domestic concerns, but nonetheless with Russian power on display. When we consider the outcomes of past episodes of Russian aggression, however, a very different conclusion appears warranted: the Russian state actually appears to be both a relatively weak and restrained power that struggles to assert hegemony in post-Soviet space.

It may be paradoxical to consider a state restrained when it has (unofficially) sent troops into Ukraine, invaded Georgia (2008), made antagonistic moves toward Estonia (2007) and recently blatantly threatened Denmark with nuclear weapons. The key, however, is to examine how coercive power is actually used, as we do in our soon-to-be released book, “Russia’s Coercive Diplomacy: Energy, Cyber, and Maritime Policy As New Forms of Power.“ In examining Russia’s use of cyber and energy power, we find the state doing almost the least it can do, and often failing to achieve the desired outcomes.

In 2007, Russia showed its capabilities in cyberspace when the Estonian government decided to move a Soviet era WWII soldiers’ grave marker from the center square of the capital Tallinn to the outskirts of the city. Seen as an insult to Russian pride, this action led to a flood of DDoS cyber incidents which bombarded Estonian private and government Web sites, disrupting commerce and government functionality for about two weeks. By 2008, in large part in response to the incident, Estonia became firmly entrenched as the headquarters for NATO’s cyber defense. The grave marker was never moved back into town, and the actions lead to the Baltic state completely removing itself from Russia’s sphere of influence — hardly a success for showing the coercive nature of Russian power.

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