The Platform

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking at the Kremlin. (Sputnik)

Eastern Europe is again sitting on a massive powder keg. As Russia has started to move its troops towards Ukraine, organize joint military exercises with Belarus, and even launch cyberattacks targeting Ukraine, it seems almost inevitable that the Russian Bear will attack Ukraine. Then again, Vladimir Putin could be simply trolling the international community into making concessions.

As the world fixes its eyes on Russia and its potential invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has also acted swiftly toward protests in Kazakhstan. Russia organized its forces rapidly and successfully controlled the chaotic situation in Almaty within days. The success of its campaign may provide Russia with further leverage in Central Asia.

At the moment, Russia seems formidable on several fronts. There are even comments from high-level European officials claiming that Putin deserves respect and Ukraine will not be able to reobtain Crimea. Meanwhile, other upper-level officials also believe that a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine is inevitable.

However, behind all the aggression and “formidability,” I see Russia differently. The recent swift actions from Moscow do not address Russia’s challenges. In particular, while Russia successfully orchestrated military actions in Kazakhstan and may succeed in a war in Ukraine, Russia is still walking with feet of clay. President Putin’s brinkmanship reveals the weakness of Russia.

It is essential to point out that Russia faces a long list of major domestic issues, such as a declining economy, an aging population, corruption, and an opposition movement that remains influential in Russia. Combining these elements hinders Russia’s ability to project power.

However, these internal issues are not why Russia cannot deliver on the world stage. Rather, it is part of why Russia shows aggression towards neighboring countries. Domestic issues can be swept under the rug by directing public concern elsewhere. It’s a classic case of “wag the dog.”

Russia’s capacity has been shrinking in its sphere of influence, and this is not a new issue. Take Central Asia, for example. Russian cultural influence is declining significantly. Central Asian countries are abandoning the Russian language. Further, Russian-speaking populations in Central Asia are in decline. Also, the economic ties between Central Asia and China are tighter than ever before due to the Belt and Road Initiative. All these events will erode and shrink Russian influence.

Another area of Russian decline is in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Other than Georgia’s active interaction with NATO and the European Union, Turkey has also gained a significant impact in the region. The Turkish-trained Azerbaijan military proved effective during the second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Turkey has also invited Armenia to participate in the Antalya Diplomacy forum. The growth of Turkish power also shows Russia’s diminishing influence in the region.

Further, Russia is not the number one strategic priority for the United States and its allies. In a recent virtual meeting between Biden and Fumio Kishida, Japan’s prime minister, the critical topic of the discussion was China, not Russia. Washington still views China, rather than Russia, as its biggest competitor.

European countries also did not put Russia high on their priority list. At the same time, while the UK is still considering sending troops to Ukraine, it retains a military presence in the South China Sea with naval assets. This further indicates that China is still the main focus of the West.

Furthermore, recent events may reveal a divide between Russia and its principal ally, China. With international isolation starting in 2015, the Russo-Sino relationship grew closer, and Russia needs Chinese support more than ever. However, this new divide could further damage Moscow’s capacity to spread international influences and wage wars in nearby nations.

Some of the recent events indicate cracks in the Moscow-Beijing alliance. China officially called for all parties to remain calm and not further escalate tensions over Ukraine. Russian intervention in Kazakhstan has put the potential clash between the two nations on the table. Russia sees Central Asia as its backyard, and a deeper China-Central Asia economic relationship critically shifts the balance in the region. As China moves forward with its Belt and Road Initiative, and Kazakhstan is the crucial point for the entire project, a more influential Russia in Kazakhstan may not be beneficial to China and could lead to dissatisfaction towards Moscow.

However, I am not calling for abolishing any actions against Russian aggression. Despite Russia’s ongoing decline and the brinkmanship of Putin, no one should underestimate Russia. Russia should still be taken seriously on a tactical level as it retains a strong capacity in executing swift military actions, as was seen in Kazakhstan.

The turmoil and chaos after the collapse of the USSR may have significantly weakened Russia. However, the vast Soviet heirloom will still support the nation as an unavoidable force in global affairs. However, Russia also has significant external limitations to be robust and effective in world affairs. With a shrinking influence in its backyard, a lower strategic priority from its competitors, and the absence of its key ally, Russia truly is a colossus with feet of clay.

Henry Huang is a Research and Communications Assistant at KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan.