Earlier this month, as Russians marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Empire, there was much talk of an end to what many in Moscow claim was a “parenthesis” that is now closing.
In other words, in 1992 Russia, as the core power in the USSR, ceased to be a superpower but is now regaining that status thanks to Vladimir Putin. The claim that “the Russian phoenix” is rising from the ashes of the Soviet Empire is supported by reference to Putin’s success in annexing Crimea, shaving off a chunk of eastern Ukraine and calling it Novorossiya (New Russia), swallowing 20 per cent of Georgia’s territory, turning Iran into a client state, and emerging as a major player in war-torn Syria.
More importantly, perhaps, Russia’s new status has been acknowledged if not openly endorsed by the Obama administration with the Secretary of State John Kerry musing about “our Russian partners” on a range of issues from the fake nuclear deal with Iran to the tragedy in Syria.
As far as the “Phoenix is back” tune makes some Russians feel better, no harm is done. After all, nations, like individual human beings, need a bit of fantasy to add spice to life. However, there is a danger that taking that kind of talk too seriously could feed the monster of hubris with potentially disastrous consequences not only for Russia but also for the world.
A more sober assessment of Russia’s position might help Moscow avoid making the classical mistake of overestimating its strength. Gauging Russia’s real power has been a challenge for policymakers in Moscow and European capitals at least since the Napoleonic wars.
The French statesman Talleyrand put it this way: “Russia is never as strong as she thinks and not as weak as her adversaries hope.” Russia’s points of strength in terms of geopolitics are obvious.
In territorial size, the Russian Federation, spanning two continents, is the largest nation on earth. In population, Russia is in 10th place, just behind Bangladesh. When it comes to hard power, Russia is only surpassed by the United States. It has enough firepower to destroy the planet several times over.
In the past few years, partly thanks to Obama’s success in preventing the United States from playing a leadership role, Russia has been able to project power at no great task. Russia uses a lot of the little power it has while America, under Obama, is prevented from using even a little of a lot of power it has.
Defeating the infant Georgian army wasn’t too difficult. And carpet-bombing civilians in Aleppo, who cannot retaliate, was even easier. However, the Russian colossus may have a foot of clay. With falling birthrates, its demographic outlook appears bleak. This is important because, throughout history, one condition of rising empires has been a robust demography.
The Russian economy is also in poor shape. Falling oil revenues, the mounting cost of absorbing annexed territories, the vast sums needed to destroy Syria and keep Bashar Al-Assad presiding over the ruins, an unprecedented level of flight of capital, structural corruption, western sanctions and a drying up of Direct Foreign Investment (DFI) have led to a perfect storm of economic meltdown.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates for this year, Russia has the world’s 17th largest economy with a gross domestic product (GDP) estimated at $1.267 trillion, a significant fall since its peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 when oil prices were almost twice higher.
Thus, one theory is that Putin is projecting power in easy places to divert attention from his regime’s domestic woes. One indication of that was the big noise Moscow made about having Assad sign a 49-year treaty to grant Russia permanent aero-naval bases on the Syrian coastline. Only a few mischief-makers in Moscow asked whether there was any guarantee that Assad would still be in power 49 years from now or whether there would even be a Syria.
Putin’s behavior may lead to a change of public opinion in NATO countries, and, perhaps even China and Japan, in favor of spending more on arms. Right now average expenditure on arms for NATO is about 1.25 per cent of the GDP of the 28 members. The new Trump administration wants that increased to 2 per cent. If that happens and Putin tries to match it, in an undeclared arms race, he would have to devote 45 per cent of Russia’s GDP to that particular chorus girl.
Last time something like that happened was in the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev, with the result that the empire collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. Even now, Russian military forces are stretched from the Norwegian frontier to the far-reaches of Siberia in a futile Desert of Tatars for imaginary invaders. At the same time, the Chinese are quietly colonizing Siberia. In 2015 the number of Chinese settlers was estimated at 3.4 million and rising.
Another flaw in Putin’s imperial plan is Russia’s failure to attract any allies apart from the remnants of the Ba’athist regime in Damascus. Even the mullahs of Tehran have refused to enter into a formal alliance with Moscow. Putin has repaid them by vetoing their demand to join the Shanghai Group, a club led by Beijing and Moscow supposedly to combat terrorism.
While Russia has no allies, the US has many, most of them neglected or even antagonized under Obama. Apart from the 27 NATO allies, the US has military accords of various natures with 46 other nations across the globe, and military bases in every continent.
Putin’s dream empire has yet another flaw. Few outsiders, apart from Edward Snowden, would like to settle in Russia or put their money in Russian banks. In contrast, even now thousands of Russians immigrate to Western Europe and North America each year. Those who don’t immigrate send their money to London, Frankfurt, New York and, more recently, even Cyprus.
One suggestion is that western democracies should let Russia have all the rope it wants to hang itself. Rebuilding Syria alone could cost $1.5 trillion. Empire building is a bad habit, and a very expensive one in our times.