Really, did US President Donald Trump surprise anyone with his behavior at the Helsinki summit? His cloying, if inexplicable, adulation of Russian President Putin is already well known. The only uncertainty was how obsequious he would be (answer: a lot).
This is all the more surprising considering how irrelevant and inconsequential Russia is. For the most part, when it comes to international relations, Russia scarcely matters. Moscow has barely a footprint in the Middle East (mainly Syria), and it is nonexistent in East Asia and other parts of the world. Russia has lost influence in India, Venezuela, Africa, and even North Korea. Why do we pay so much attention to what Moscow says and does?
The puny giant
In the first place, Russia is barely a country, let alone a superpower. The most generous economic data give the country a gross domestic product of around US$4 trillion, putting it behind India and Germany, and barely ahead of Indonesia and Brazil. Its biggest industries are extractive, mainly oil, natural gas and minerals. Aside from such commodities and armaments, Russia exports very little. Certainly no one is lining up to buy its cars.
Moreover, to live outside either Moscow or St Petersburg is to flirt with living in the Third World. Most of the country’s wealth is concentrated in and around these two cities. Even in these places, wages are low, living can be hard, and corruption is rife.
Russia’s military: short arms and slow legs
More important (to the West, at least), Russia’s military is a shadow of its former Soviet self. Last year, Moscow spent 3.9 trillion rubles (US$61 billion) on defense, a 17% decline from the previous year. Russia’s defense budget is smaller than Saudi Arabia’s, only slightly more than India or France. The United States spends 10 times as much on its military, and all of NATO Europe around three times as much.
The Russian armed forces have shrunk considerably in the past decades. It is filled out with short-term conscripts – many of whom avoid the draft – and is equipped with military systems that date back to the Soviet era. The air force still relies on equipment developed during the 1970s and 1980s. The Russian Navy has not commissioned a new cruiser or destroyer in more than two decades.
Efforts to modernize the armed forces have apparently come to a standstill. Russia has spent decades trying to develop a fifth-generation combat aircraft, the Su-57, to compete with the US F-22 and F-35 fighters. Recently, however, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said that despite the Su-57 being “one of the best” fighter jets in the world, “it does not make sense to speed up work on mass-producing” the aircraft. Not surprisingly, some see this statement as a prelude to canceling the fighter program outright.
Mainly a nuclear force
Wags used to describe the Soviet Union as “Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons.” Russia today is more a nuclear, rather than a conventional, military force. Over the past 20 years or so, the bulk of Russian military research and development and new procurement has gone to nuclear weapons. New nuclear-tipped missiles include the SS-27 Topol and SS-29 Yars intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Russian Navy’s most recent acquisitions have centered on the Borey-class nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs), equipped with the new Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Indeed, nuclear weapons are the most potent part of the Russian military. Some Russian naval units, such as the Pacific and Northern fleets, have basically transformed into strategic deterrent forces, with SSBNs as their key assets. The Northern Fleet, based in Murmansk, is most critically the home for Russia’s SSBN fleet, which is heavily dependent on Arctic operations for its patrols. Consequently, the most important elements of the Russian buildup in the Arctic region have also been in essence strategic, epitomized by the deployment of several Borey-class SSBNs to the Northern Fleet.
Where Russia matters militarily
Barack Obama once said that Russia was basically a regional power, capable of threatening only its neighbors along its borders. For the most part, this will remain true for some time to come – although that may be no great comfort to countries like Estonia or Ukraine. However, when it comes to critical regions like the Asia-Pacific, Russia’s military clout will continue to be very limited – and so, therefore, will its political influence in the region.
Some Western analysts, such as Zalmay Khalilzad, have mistakenly called for a “strategic reset” for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that would specifically address an “aggressive Russia.” In particular, Khalilzad wants to spend more resources on developing air defenses, precision-strike forces, and “a small, highly capable ground maneuver force” to counter a Russian invasion.
Right direction, but the wrong response, and a money-wasting one at that. Russia is hardly likely to attack the West openly with tanks, aircraft and missiles. The challenge to NATO comes not from Russia’s conventional forces, but its capacities for unconventional warfare.
Hybrid, or nonlinear, warfare is the real threat: asymmetric “non-warfare warfare,” encompassing not direct kinetic assaults, but rather conflicts fought out in the informational, moral, psychological, ideological, diplomatic, and economic battlegrounds.
Such warfare is not a battle for territory but for people’s minds, so-called “influence operations.” Here is where Moscow has been its most successful: in influencing the opinions and thinking of many Westerners that “Russia counts” – that it “has a point” (for instance, in annexing Crimea), and that its interests should be given high priority.
Trump seems to have fallen for this already. And all the new military spending and state-of-the-art weapons acquisitions by NATO is not going to have any impact if Moscow keeps racking up victory after victory in the arena of hybrid warfare.