Politics & Policy

Russia: A Great Power No More

Steps the United States can take to curb Russia’s mischief-making in the world.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea has caught the United States flat-footed and struggling for a response. President Barack Obama responded by warning that “there will be costs” for Russia’s “breach of international law” and “clear violation” of Ukrainian sovereignty. The White House is contemplating economic and travel sanctions, which will raise the costs of Russia’s intervention but won’t persuade President Vladimir Putin to remove his troops.

A White House that beat a hasty retreat in Iraq and is halfway out the door in Afghanistan will not seriously contemplate a military option. Russia borders on Ukraine, and the United States has steadily reduced its troop levels in Europe. The State Department can restrict the travel of Russian elites and sanction their businesses, but similar measures did not succeed in reversing the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Commentators have mimicked President Obama in throwing up their hands. The American press has run front-page stories with headlines like “Few Options on Ukraine.”

An unexplored avenue, however, could prove more effective in the long run: downgrade Russia’s status as a great power. A series of changes to the broader strategic relationship between the United States and Russia would cost Washington little but hit Putin where it hurts the most: signaling to the world that Russia is no longer a nation on a par with the United States and its NATO allies, or even a rising China and India. Washington can achieve these gains without firing a shot or spending a dollar — just through ambitious diplomacy and a vigorous reform of international law.

In terms of raw power, of course, Russia’s great-power status is not up to the United States to determine. Still, the White House has helped mask Moscow’s rapid descent from superpower to oil kleptocracy. Since 1990, Russia’s population has stagnated, falling from 147 to 142.5 million, while the United States has grown from 248 million to 316 million. Russia’s GDP is $2.5 trillion – seventh in the world – thanks to rising oil prices. But Russia’s economy still lags far behind the U.S.’s $16 trillion, China’s $13 trillion, and even India’s $4.9 trillion. Last year, Russian economic growth was 166th in the world and its per-capita income was 77th in the world.

A failing population and a stalling economy has turned the Red Army into a shadow of its former self. Estimates put Russia’s military at about 766,000 troops with a budget of $72 billion a year. With a budget ten times that amount, the United States’ armed forces field 1.4 million active-duty personnel armed with the world’s most advanced weaponry. Russia’s military has not fought a serious opponent since the end of the Cold War and can no longer project power beyond its region. Putin’s dreams of a resurrected Imperial Russia evoke a Potemkin village rather than Peter the Great.

The United States can pull aside the curtain on Russia’s great-power pretensions and begin a reform of the international system that would advance American interests and global welfare. First, the White House should pull out of the 2011 New START treaty, which reduced American and Russian nuclear arsenals to 1,550 nuclear warheads each and 700 deployed nuclear-capable ICBMs, submarines, and bombers. New START ignored the United States’ global responsibilities and the importance of our nuclear umbrella in underpinning international security. The treaty’s constraints on launch platforms impede Washington’s ability to use conventional warheads even in conflicts far from any Russian interest or responsibility. Instead of recognizing the United States’ worldwide alliances and concomitant military needs, the Obama administration tied American nuclear-force levels to those of Russia, which was cutting its arsenal anyway to save money.

Second, Mr. Obama can accelerate American missile-defense programs, which Russia has long opposed because of its inability to keep technological pace. Terminating New START — which was the first nuclear-arms-reduction treaty to link nuclear-weapons cuts and missile defense, although it doesn’t explicitly ban the latter — would only be a first step. The White House could go further and reverse its 2009 cancellation of advanced anti-ballistic-missile systems to have been based in Poland and the Czech Republic. The White House reportedly cancelled the planned systems as part of its notorious “reset” of relations with Moscow. Now that Mr. Putin has shown the costs of cooperation, Mr. Obama could use missile defense to restore faith with our NATO allies and signal American commitment to the security of Eastern Europe.

Third, the United States could end its agreement with Russia on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. In September of last year, Mr. Putin famously saved Mr. Obama from living up to his “red line” against Syrian use of chemical weapons. According to international monitors, however, Syria had destroyed only 4 percent of its stockpile by January; meanwhile, Russian aid has given the Assad regime the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. The United States no longer need keep up the fiction that Russia has cooperated to restore peace and security in the Middle East — it has only thrived on the disorder in Syria and Egypt.

A final American blow against Russia’s political standing would prove the most difficult but also the most lasting. The United States could seek to strip Russia of its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, where it can veto any U.N. authorization for the use of force other than for national self-defense. Russia shares the veto power with the four other nations that were great powers at the end of World War II: the U.S., China, France, and the United Kingdom. Proposals for U.N. reform have sought to expand this group to include powers such as India, Germany, and Japan. But such reform would be moving in the wrong direction. Rather than expand the ranks of “the four policemen,” as FDR called the major allies that defeated the Axis, the U.S. should remove nations that take no responsibility for global stability while using the veto to defend authoritarian allies.

By opposing interventions to stop terrible human-rights disasters, aggression by rogue nations, and WMD proliferation, Russia has turned the U.N. into a defense bar for dictators. Russia has clung to its veto in order to extend its influence and project the image of a great power. The U.S. cannot alter the United Nations Charter on its own. But it can join with its NATO allies to establish a true international alliance to defend the peace and simply ignore the U.N.’s paralysis. A Concert of Democracies could coordinate the use of force by the U.S., NATO, and their Asian allies to prevent great harms to global welfare and stability.

None of these steps will immediately force Russia from Ukraine. But following sanctions that ratchet up Moscow’s economic pain, the U.S. can use diplomacy and international law to shatter Mr. Putin’s image of Russia as a great power. Once Russians realize that they have been wasting resources and suffering wars in a futile pursuit of an impossible goal, they may deprive their current leadership of the support it needs to roil the world.

— John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Point of Attack: Preventive War, International Law, and Global Welfare, to be published next month by Oxford University Press.

John Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.


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