Not since the end of the Cold War has a Russian leader received as much wall-to-wall attention from the American media as Vladimir Putin. Whether for the Skripal poisoning, the invasion of Ukraine, military action in Syria, or the ongoing cyber war against the West, there is a tendency in the American media to paint Russia as a multi-front threat to peace and democracy everywhere, and its president as omniscient and ten feet tall (he’s actually 5′7″).
This scare-mongering is misplaced. The fact is, Russia is a weak state pretending to be a strong one.
To be sure, Moscow still has a fearsome nuclear arsenal, but this is its main — some might say only — source of real military influence in today’s world. The country currently maintains approximately 4,300 stockpiled nuclear warheads, down from its Cold War peak of 45,000. Putin has pushed hard to upgrade this force in the last few years, recently unveiling the new “Sarmat” ICBM (nicknamed “Satan 2” by NATO).
But improvement of Russia’s strategic forces has come at a cost to the rest of Russia’s military, which remains more riddled with corruption and fraud than any other comparably sized force in the world. Despite attempts at modernization since 2008, Russia still relies on conscripts serving their mandatory year for at least half of its million active duty servicemen.
To keep up the modernization effort, Russia spends an increasingly large percentage of its GDP on the military: over 5.4 percent in 2016, compared with 3.3 percent in 2008. Over the same time frame, America’s defense spending went down in GDP terms, from a high of 4.6 percent to 3.3 percent in 2016.
Many parts of Putin’s military verge on the decrepit despite the modernization campaign. The Russian Air Force still relies mainly on upgraded versions of attack aircraft designed in the 1970s, for example. And the Russian navy’s only aircraft carrier, the smoke-belching Admiral Kuznetsov, travels with a tugboat because it breaks down so frequently.
Putin financed military modernization at the expense of the budget, but its available cash is running out now. The financial cushion Putin’s administration built starting in 2000 is nearly gone. The Sovereign Reserve Fund, created early in the energy boom years by Putin’s trusted economist, Alexei Kudrin, finally evaporated in January. With few other options, Moscow acknowledged that it might raid a separate account, the National Welfare Fund (intended to pay pensions), to cover its budget obligations. Russia went from an 8 percent budget surplus to a nearly 4 percent deficit in barely four years.
Russian citizens now suffer from the effects of bad policy, profligate spending, endemic corruption, and plain old bad luck, the last resulting from the worldwide fall in the price of oil and gas. And the Trump administration’s recent application of additional financial sanctions will make it harder and more expensive for Russia to borrow money to pay its bills.
This perfect storm of financial tribulations has left an already struggling country weak and its populace restive.
Political, economic, and material conditions in Russia are far from healthy.
The recent Russian presidential election was highly questionable, as Putin won with an unlikely 77 percent of the vote and kept his only real competitor, Alexei Navalny, out of the race. Yet even with these advantages, Putin campaigned mainly on promises he can’t keep. He pledged a “war on poverty,” massive increases in infrastructure spending, a crackdown on tax evasion, and improvements to the country’s health-care system. Any one of these would be a heavy lift given Moscow’s tenuous financial situation, but fulfilling all of these promises is a pipe dream.
Conditions in Russia are far from healthy. According to a recent report from its own Ministry of Health, while residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg live at a level comparable to that of people in Eastern Europe, inhabitants of the rest of the vast country eke out an existence closer to Third World living standards.
Russia’s average life expectancy is 70.5 years, miles behind America’s 79.3 years, and trailing even countries such as Egypt, Bolivia, and North Korea. And the chronic lack of medicine, hospital beds, and functioning equipment (to say nothing of qualified medical specialists outside urban areas) means patients must navigate a Kafkaesque nightmare of a health-care system.
Meanwhile, for a supposed world power, Russia’s economy is surprisingly monolithic. The country exports mainly extracted natural resources and military equipment rather than consumer goods or technology. When was the last time you bought something made in Russia that didn’t come in a bottle?
The only area of commerce in which Russia leads is energy. The country is first in world oil production — barely ahead of Saudi Arabia — and second in gas, just behind the United States. But even that could soon change. The International Energy Agency expects the U.S. to overtake Russia as an oil producer no later than 2019 thanks to strong growth in American domestic shale production.
Increased American oil output could be especially bad news for Russia if it keeps oil prices low. Russia needs oil to be above $68 per barrel to balance its budget, as the country derives much of its revenue from oil exports. The price of oil is a hair above that level now, but there is no guarantee it will remain there over the long run.
And while Russia’s gas exports to Europe reached a record high this year, that also may not last. Western Europe is beginning to realize what Eastern Europeans have known for a long time: Russia uses energy as a weapon. In January 2009, during a pricing dispute between Russia and Ukraine, Moscow’s state gas monopoly, Gazprom, cut off gas to 16 countries for nearly two weeks in the middle of winter. The incident taught EU members that their energy security was far from guaranteed.
There is no moral parity between the U.S. and Russia.
Several European countries — including some NATO members in close proximity to Moscow who know how Putin works, such as Poland and Lithuania — have taken steps to diversify their pool of natural-gas suppliers. Lithuania, for example, built a sea terminal to accept liquefied natural gas (LNG) from ships. Incredibly, American producers started shipping LNG overseas only in February 2016, but the pace of deliveries to Europe will increase as new stateside LNG terminals come online.
Despite being a formidable energy producer, Russia’s overall economy is relatively small for a country with such outsized influence on geopolitics. Russia’s GDP is smaller than that of Italy, France, and South Korea.
Simply put, without its nuclear weapons, provocative military adventures, and vocally wounded national pride, Russia would be Brazil with permafrost: just big and important enough to the world economy to remain globally relevant, but not consequential enough to deserve a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Even China — for its many faults — makes more positive contributions to the international political order than Russia.
It’s long past time we treat Russia with the disregard it deserves. Some concrete steps the United States and its allies could take to further marginalize Russia (besides implementing existing and planned sanctions) include:
- Work with partners to exclude Russia from G20 meetings until a satisfactory resolution of its territorial dispute with Ukraine is reached (precedent exists for such a move: Moscow was kicked out of the G8 in 2014).
- Encourage U.S. gas exporters to develop additional sea terminals to ship American LNG to Europe.
- Step up efforts to provide additional lethal assistance to Ukraine’s military.
What the U.S. should not do — under any circumstances — is attempt another “reset,” such as the one so hilariously attempted by the Obama administration. The logic underpinning a reset flows from the assumption that both parties have erred and are in some state of moral parity; this is demonstrably not the case with Russia.
Nobody forced Russia to send someone to assassinate Sergei Skripal and his daughter (or Alexander Litvinenko, or any of the other dozen-odd Russians who appear to have been murdered in the U.K.). No catalyst obligated Putin to invade Crimea (or Abkhazia, or the Donbas). Moscow could certainly have held on to its base in Tartus, Syria, without actively fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war. But in each and every one of these cases (and numerous others), Putin decided that pushing back against internationally accepted political norms would benefit Russian interests.
Putin regards efforts to extend an olive branch as demonstrations of weakness. Since he took over as de facto czar of Russia, Western nations have been remarkably pliant and conflict-averse. That needs to end.
Calling Putin’s bluff will reveal that he doesn’t have much of a hand to play.