The Russian state created at the end of 1991 was heir to a long established tradition of ‘great power’ politics that stretched back beyond the Soviet period and the conflicts of the Cold War to Tsarist times. Russia emerged as a major player in international politics under Peter the Great in the eighteenth century and for the next 250 years expanded its role in the world almost without end. The Russian state was never a major imperial power with overseas possessions (apart from a brief period of colonial expansion across the Bering Straits into Alaska), but it developed into one of the largest land empires ever seen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and struggled first with the United Kingdom, and subsequently with Japan, for imperial mastery over Asia. Russia also played an ever-greater role in Europe, engaging in a series of wars with France, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, dominated Poland in alliance with Prussia and Austria, controlled Finland, and was a major influence on the conflicts that wracked the Balkans and eventually led to the outbreak of World War I. The demise of the Tsarist empire due in part to its shortcomings as a great

power had the paradoxical effect of increasing Russia’s part in world affairs. The Tsarist state had been a regional superpower that dominated its weaker neighbours, but the USSR became a global power. The influence of the USSR was first felt in world affairs through its ideology. The Soviet Union was the first socialist state in the world and was the object of hostile action from all of the other major global powers that objected to the Bolsheviks’ socialist vision. In the eyes of Soviet leaders, international relations were a global struggle between social systems. The struggle of the socialist system to survive helped to mobilize the Soviet population in support of the new state and made it an inspiration to revolutionary and anti-imperialist movements throughout the world. Its support for such movements, and the support that many people across the globe gave it in turn, gave the USSR an influence beyond that which the Tsars had enjoyed. Economic and military strength also played a part in the rise to global influence of the USSR. Stalin’s policies of rapid industrialization and the party-state’s ability to command resources for military development were not sustainable over the long term, but they played a part in enabling the USSR to defeat Nazi Germany and replace it as

the hegemonic power in Eastern Europe, to develop a nuclear weapons capability to match that of the USA, and to launch prestige projects such as its space programme that led the world in the 1950s and early 1960s with the launch of Sputnik (1957) and the first manned space flight of Yuri Gagarin (1961). The USSR achieved a rough strategic parity with the USA in nuclear weapons in the 1960s and had allies in the socialist bloc and amongst what it liked to call ‘progressive states’ around the world, from Cuba to Vietnam, and throughout the Middle East and Africa. Dealing with the USSR and containing its influence was the main foreign policy priority of Western leaders from the 1940s onwards and its opinions and wishes had to be taken account of on most major foreign policy issues.