Russia Is Just A Paper Bear
It is not controversial to say that U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the 1980s. President Trump’s bizarre affinity for President Putin aside, the U.S. security establishment is squarely at odds with Moscow, while the Kremlin largely opposes American interests. Senator McConnell has, not incorrectly, likened Russia to the Soviet Union, Secretary Pompeo insists the Trump administration is hawkish towards Russia, and the 2018 National Defense Strategy states “long-term strategic competition” with Russia is a principal priority for the Department of Defense.
Vladimir Putin takes a similarly hardline stance towards Washington, which he believes poses an existential threat to his regime. It wasn’t always like this; at the peak of Obama’s Russian reset, 50% of Americans viewed Russia positively, while 60% of Russians said the same of America. Yet, his declining popularity and continued U.S. encroachment forced Putin to reevaluate the United States. He saw U.S. support for the 2011 Arab Spring and the subsequent 2013-2014 Euromaiden revolution in Ukraine as the writing on the wall, foreshadowing a popular uprising at home. Since then, Russia has flagrantly spat in America’s face, interfering with the 2016 election, conducting WMD attacks on U.S. allies, launching cyber attacks on key European partners, annexing Crimea, intervening in Syria, and undertaking the largest military modernization program in decades.
Yet how much of a threat is Russia? Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said Russia poses “the only existential threat to the country right now.” The U.S. Navy plans to reestablish its Second Fleet, which operates in the North Atlantic, to counter Russian aggression; the Navy disbanded the fleet in 2011, believing it was no longer needed. Clearly, the United States is treating Russia as a serious geopolitical foe.
But should we?
Of course Russia is a threat to the United States. But Washington must tread carefully to avoid squandering resources which are more useful elsewhere.
Let’s put Russia in perspective. Last year, its birth rate hit a ten year low, meaning the population declined by over 130,000 in 2017 and is projected to decline by over 260,000 in 2018. By 2050, Russia’s population could shrink by 16%. Russia is also in the throes of an AIDS crisis; over a million Russians have the fatal disease, but only one-third receive treatment.
Russia’s economy is in the midst of a major recession. In terms of nominal GDP, Russia’s $1.283 trillion barely covers half of California’s $2.448 trillion. Per capita, the Russian economy retains a smaller amount of wealth per citizen than that of Greece, a country which has been bankrupt more times than Donald Trump. Its male life expectancy is 65.3 years, which is lower than North Korea’s. 41% of Russians struggle to save enough to buy food and clothes. Its economy is largely dependent on oil, which accounts for almost half of government revenue, meaning the current $70 per barrel is slowly asphyxiating the ailing petrostate, which has no plan for the future. Corruption is rampant, and the ruble is barely worth the paper it’s printed on.
In 2017 Russia spent $66.3 billion on defense; the United States spent $610 billion; altogether, NATO spend $900 billion, accounting for over half of global defense spending. In 2016, Russian defense spending declined for the first time since the 1990s, a trend which will almost certainly continue.
Of course, Russia is strong in other areas. It has robust intelligence services, world-class cyber capabilities, one of the two largest nuclear arsenals, a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and it has successfully controlled its inflation. Yet, if Russian foreign policy is dependent on Facebook’s ad policy, then I wouldn’t consider them a major threat. Compared to climate change, the rise of China, or WMD proliferation, Russia is of little long-term consequence to the United States.