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A superpower by default?

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Monday, 13 October 2008

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently warned about an arms race in the Asia pacific region with China the country to watch. But he may have missed out on one key player “bigger” than China: Russia.

With the Wall Street financial crisis, and the US overstretched on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has Russia become a world superpower by default? Let us take note, that it is also parked in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood.

Russia starts in Europe and stretches all the way to the Pacific coast. Its Pacific Ocean Fleet (Tikho-okeanski flot) is based at the city of Vladivostok. The Russian empire ran for centuries and in 1917 transformed into the Soviet Union before falling apart in 1991 with the collapse of communism. As a consequence, many new nations obtained their independence, Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and so on.


From 1948 to 1989, the Soviet Union and the West, that is the United States, Western Europe and Australia, were engaged in an indirect war - known as the Cold War - over ideological control of the world. Wars by proxy were fought in Korea, Vietnam and so on.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear warheads pointed at each other during this tense time. Both the US and Russia still have those nuclear weapons.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia had been in steep economic decline and its society in meltdown. But the economic turnaround came with oil and gas money and a ruthless President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

What does this all mean for Australia’s strategic planners? It means you take Russia seriously. It also means we need to identify what Russia’s strategic goals are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Alarm bells rang when in August of this year during the Beijing Olympics, Russian forces invaded neighbouring Georgia to protect the South Ossetian ethnic group from Georgian persecution.

Georgia recently applied to become a member of NATO a military alliance ironically founded during the Cold War, as a counter to Soviet expansion. Was the Russian thrust into Georgia a simple test to see if NATO would defend it from being attacked? Well, the Russians discovered that NATO and US troops were not forthcoming when it came to upholding Georgia’s sovereignty.


You could say, Prime Minister Putin, like a good chess player, made the perfect move. In fact, if you want to understand Russian thinking, the game of chess is highly appropriate as opposed to the card game of high risk poker, so popular in the west.

Putin during his reign has used the wealth generated by the oil and gas exports to reinvigorate his armed forces. He has also waged a ruthless war to crush Muslim Chechen separatists from breaking away from Federal Russia.

But what drives Russia to play such an important part on the world stage? An excellent examination of this issue is the documentary, For God, Tsar and the Fatherland (2007). The film centres around Mikhail Morozov, former Soviet Army paratrooper turned man of god, who runs a centre for troubled souls. He is a man of influence within Russia’s political elite.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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