Russia, Russia Burning Bright? (Spoiler: Not So Much)

1 October 2015, 2340 EDT

Russia Comp GDP

GDP (PPP) for US, Russian Federation, and Major European Economies

The Russian Federation covers more territory than any other country. It has a large nuclear arsenal, skilled weapons designers, and the world’s fourth largest military budget—after the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. But it maintains that budget—which comes it at roughly 12% of US military expenditures—by spending a larger percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, China, Britain, France, Japan, or Germany. Indeed, if the major European economies boosted defense spending to 3% of GDP—still short of Russia—they would each have larger military budgets.

Of course, military spending is a poor proxy for capabilities. Russia has a larger population than any other European state, along with a big army, extensive air-defense network, and other indicators of martial prowess. But it also has a smaller economy than the state of California, and still cannot indigenously produce much of the high-tech accruement of modern warfare. Moscow can certainly overwhelm many of its neighbors, but it isn’t a political-military juggernaut.

I consider such remarks necessary in light of the current freakout over Moscow’s intervention in Syria, including here at the Duck of Minerva.

Thankfully, a wave of cooler heads have started to push back against the hyperventilations of #resolvefairy acolytes. But the whole notion that Putin is a master strategist, and that whatever goes down in Syria is a result of his outmaneuvering the West in Ukraine, needs a reality check.

Let’s review.

  • In the summer of 2013, Ukraine’s incumbent party—the Party of Regions, under President Yanukovych—played its traditional balancing act but was, when compared to its main opposition, relatively pro-Moscow.
  • Putin initiated a trade war against Ukraine to force it out of its European Union Association Agreement. It worked.
  • Except that it caused a backlash that brought down the government in a (largely) non-violent revolution. The new regime was decidedly less pro-Moscow and more pro-western.
  • Moscow responded, at first, by seizing control of Crimea—an asset from the perspective of Russian nationalism but an economic liability—and its aging naval fleet. In doing so, it violated its obligations under the Budapest memorandum and produced widespread concern among the major European powers.
  • Not content to stop there, Russia initiated a proxy (and not-so proxy) war in Ukraine.
  • This war shows no signs of toppling a the Ukrainian government, and the ‘best’ outcome looks likely to be frozen conflicts by which Moscow might enjoy some additional leverage over a very unhappy Ukrainian government.
  • Meanwhile, western sanctions have compounded the sharp drop in petroleum prices to send Russia into an economic contraction.
  • Russia signed a pretty unfavorable deals with China.
  • Sweden and Finland are contemplating NATO membership.
  • The US has more capabilities deployed directly on the Russian border than, well, ever.
  • It is difficult to really demonstrate that the United States is in any way less secure since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict.

Yes, Putin’s actions have been very bad for people living in Ukraine—and for Russian soldiers deployed there. And we’re not looking at Bush-sized strategic blunders. But you have to set a very low bar in order to see these developments as some kind of magnificent victory for Moscow.

In essence, you have to think that the United States only ‘wins’ when it gets pretty much every outcome that it prefers. In the complex and capricious arena of international politics, that’s rather unrealistic. Indeed, it’s a dangerous way to approach foreign policy.