Russia is great. Russia is strong. Russia can annex neighbors at will. Russia has enemies going to great lengths to contain it. Russia can influence and affect the U.S. elections. Some say Russia even has good old-fashioned kompromat on the President. Putin is great and reigns over his country with an iron fist. Nukes are great. The T-14 Armata is great! Russia’s propaganda outlet is flooding us with fake news!
We hear all of this every single day in some way as part of the liberal/conservative agenda to flare up U.S.-Russian tensions. Even Trump thinks Russia is great, although he wants different policy outcomes than the establishment.
But is any of this true? Is Russia actually great?
This is a big question, but I think we can make headway by assessing, individually, Russia’s strengths with a skeptical mind. Afterwards we can take Russia’s unique weaknesses into account.
1. Military Assets
When most of us think “power” we think hard-power. What individual military assets does Russia have? Well, Russia has an excellent military. They make great tanks, lovely firearms, good planes, and the best-and probably only-assault helicopter in the world. Technically they could do very well in a fight, but its improbable to the point of impossibility that they would ever actually wage war against a state of comparable power. Against the United States/NATO Russia would most likely do poorly. Our military hardware is much higher quality, and our personnel is more dedicated, disciplined, and organized than Russia if the stories are to be believed. Russia has done a lot to clean up their act, but if Chechnya is any indication there are still serious issues (granted, we have issues of our own too, although not to the degree that Russia has).
The main benefit of all this hardware isn’t combat though, but rather retail. Russia sells a lot of military hardware to allies, bolstering profits and alliances. Right now they are in the process of upgrading, as they have been perpetually doing for decades. Undoubtedly Russia will pose a greater threat with their new generation of “smart” weapons, but they will be able to make a decent profit. First though they actually have to finish upgrading, which may have to wait until sanctions are lifted and the economy recovers.
Ok, you got me. This is a Russian strength. They have the nuclear triad and enough a-bombs and throw weight to glass the planet, not to mention Dr. Strangelove-style doomsday machine. Lets face it though, you don’t need many nukes. France, China and Great Britain (and Israel) arguably get more utility out of their decidedly smaller nuclear programs, and Russia would have to contend with these powers, in addition to the United States, in the event of nuclear exchange. Nukes are so useful that they, well, useless. Even if the U.S. is far ahead in MIRV and ABM technology, Russia still has enough of a second-strike capacity to stalemate any foe.
One could say that Russia has too much of a second-strike capacity though. Russia maintains a massive arsenal and they are looking to update and even increase their arsenal, undoubtedly at immense cost to themselves. The point of diminishing returns definitely factors into nuclear arsenals. Luckily for Russia, Trump aims to “rebuild” America’s nuclear stockpile, so at least they aren’t alone in wasting money.
According to Trump, Russia has great leadership with Putin at the helm. Most people would probably begrudgingly admit that Putin is smart and that autocratic systems tend towards greater efficiency and consistency in terms of carrying out policy. Putin has a clear vision for Russia and the skills and abilities to guide it.
But I would say a lot of people fundamentally misinterpret Putin and the nature of his power. Firstly, most people falsely believe that Putin has conquest on his mind. In reality Putin is guided by the same cautious, patient logic that Kennan laid bare in regards to the Soviet Union. Putin’s methods for trying to carve out a Russian sphere of influence are based more on soft-power than actual hard power: the threat is a little more technical than we would like to admit.
Secondly, Putin isn’t the all-powerful master of Russia. Stop thinking of Stalin, think of Brezhnev: Putin is a master of managing bureaucracy and people. There are a lot of powerful, disparate interests in Russia, and Putin just happens to be perfectly suited to balancing them and forging a solid policy. Putin is still very powerful, and little happens without his knowledge. Furthermore, I don’t believe some of the more idealistic commentators who believe that Russian elites or the public are looking to replace him. But I do know that Putin has to deal with internal squabbles in his cabinet just as any other president does, and he is worried about some of the unrest in his Russian. Putin’s foreign policy is built out of weakness, not strength.
Russia has a lot of oil, timber, and natural gas. They don’t export much else, but their resources do give them a lot of leverage over neighbors. Smart neighbors would just switch away from natural gas though, leaving Russia high and dry. To a certain extent resources cause more problems, as they make economic diversification difficult. Medvedev was unable to modernize the economy during his tenure. With oil prices low and sanctions Russia has experienced some pains recently, although Trump’s administration promises a reversal of fortunes.
Russia is also riddled with corruption. Putin and his supporters grow enormously wealthy, meanwhile the average Russian is struggling to make ends meet. This does not spell either success or stability, forcing the Kremlin to reassess its priorities.
Russia has a pretty substantial population, and the Russian people are historically extremely hardy. However, their population isn’t exactly the healthiest. The national disease, alcoholism, has taken a grim toll on families and the birthrate of Russia is pitiful. Russia has failed to address either of these issues and a miracle solution is unlikely to crop up any time soon.
6. Soft Power
Soft power refers to a nation’s ability to influence other countries through indirect means. Here Russia’s national orientation is a double-edged sword. Their corruption, human rights abuses, and reputation carry little sway among the West or Western leaning countries, and their status as the Soviet heir scares neighbors throughout Eurasia. On the other hand, the fact that they are a powerful rogue* state that stands up to the West with endless whataboutisms makes them a poster-child of illiberal democracies. Russia meshes well with certain historical allies (i.e. Syria), other “rogue” states (Iran), and other nationalist regimes (Turkey). Putin’s example provides a modern for other anti-Western leaders so, in this way, Russia is actually more powerful. Ironically, for all their military hardware, soft power is much more promising.
Beyond this anti-West nationalism though, Russia really lacks a broad ideology that made the Soviet Union so much more dynamic (this article by Reddaway has a section dealing with this-he claims that Russia merely has an “amorphous patriotism,” hardly meaningful in comparison to the Soviet Unions lofty ideological goals). Russia’s soft power is only in play when the United States and Russia are at odds: without tension with the West Russia’s soft power evaporates).
The Final Count
So what does Russia really have going for it. Most of their assets are either useless, inflated, or offset by other liabilities. Russia isn’t really as “back” as we would like to think they are; Russia just redecorated itself and wants us all to buy the facade.
With our fears allayed we must ask: who would have us believe that Russia is a threat? What agendas are at play here?
For the liberals/conservatives: They want to drum up Western support against Russia, inflate the defense budget, and use the threat from Russia to levy pressure against Putin and his allies. I think these policy goals are really a mixed bag. On the one hand Russia would make a great ally in the war against terror, and we cannot deny that Russia has a sphere of influence. On the other hand though Russia is a highly corrupt, anti-democratic regime that tramples on human rights and shows blatant disregard for human rights. Of course, America has plenty of “allies” who are un-democratic, so the ideological justifications for our foreign policy (and fear mongering) don’t hold water. The Russian threat has also been inflated especially to help enervate Trump; while Russia certainly lent him a hand, their influence is being unduly overblown.
For Trump its about critiquing the Obama camp. He believes that Russia is strong and that Russia has many great assets-That they would make an ideal ally! He set his position up to be diametrically opposed to the establishment’s stance on Russia, and also because him and Putin share nationalistic claims to power. With Trump ensconced in power we may expect détente with Russia, although it may not come smoothly.
Lest we forget, the Kremlin is also encouraging as much awe as they can. Putin wants to drum up patriotism and a fortress mentality because it means higher approval from Russians. High ratings, combined with grandiose great power politics, distract everyone (foreign and domestic) from the real problems facing Russia. Putin smartly realizes that if Russia ACTS like a great power and is SEEN as such by foreign countries that Russia will effectively BE a foreign power. At the end of the day the calculus doesn’t matter: power is in the eye of the beholder.
*I hate the designation of “rogue” states. I firmly stand by the definition that all great powers-Russia, the U.S., China, etc-are rogue states. To quote Thucydides: “the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must.” Surely other states, such as Iran, Israel, and N. Korea, can also be considered rogue. Either way, rogue is a purely relative term to describe anyone who deviates from international norms or consensus.