The Illusion of Russian Power

2009 – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a “reset” button, while he in turn directed an aide to, “Положить его в круглом файл.”

By Richard L. Wottrich, CEO & Senior Consultant, International Services, DSI Global View LLC, Atlanta USA 

“I am as brave as any other man. Come at me in the form of a rugged Russian bear, an armor-plated rhinoceros, or a tiger from Iran. Take any shape other than the one you have now and I will never tremble in fear. Or come back to life again and challenge me to a duel in some deserted place. If I tremble then, you can call me a little girl. Get out of here, you horrible ghost, you hallucination. Get out!”   Macbeth 

Putin and Russia have been dominating the news cycle recently, as Americans cope with their totally unexpected presidential election. Russian-backed hacking and leaking will no doubt be investigated and utilized as political ammunition until the next election. Meanwhile Russia, having developed cyber tactics that are cheap and effective, has moved on to the upcoming Italian and German elections.

This is nothing new. Putin has continuously been up to mischief during President Obama’s past two terms and before. Russia has backed Assad in Syria and participated in a modern extermination of civilians unprecedented in recent Middle East history, prompting millions of Syrian refugees to flee into Turkey and the EU. Russia previously has annexed portions of Georgia, the Crimea, and is actively waging war in the Ukraine. The EU member states, worried about Russian energy supplies, are playing at sanctions and rationalizing the conflict into a personality cult about Putin.

The tone and tenor for Putin’s more recent antics were set on March 6, 2009, in Geneva, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a plastic “reset” red button that left many wondering where American foreign policy was headed. Russia however immediately filled the U.S. power void and has been influencing events in the Middle East ever since.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said in 2011 that “U.S. responses must make clear to Russia that if it does not return to (nuclear weapons) compliance, our responses will make them less secure than they are today.” The specter of a Russia still maintaining its nuclear arsenal and running nuclear war simulations is far more existentially dangerous than leaking Clinton emails, Trump Administration collusion with Russian operatives, keeping Assad in power, or ISIS murderers. The Obama Administration attempted to shame Putin to “cut it out” rather than meet power with massive power. Taking their cue from Obama, the EU and NATO have done nothing as well. In the face of this past failure of America and the EU to curb Russian aggression, what are we to make of Putin and Russia today?

The Russian Empire claimed the Crimean Khanate from the Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of Aynalıkavak (Küçükkaynarca) signed March 10, 1779. Hence, Crimea has been in the Russian sphere of influence for the last 235 years, minus a few years here and there for world wars and the fall of the USSR in 1991.

Russia’s main naval base is on the Crimean peninsula at Sevastopol. It is the only Russian port that does not freeze over in winter. It affords Russia access to the Mediterranean Sea. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a 1997 treaty with Ukraine allowed Russia to keep its Black Sea Fleet intact (15,000 Russian personnel) and lease the base at Sevastopol until 2042.

Ukraine is a country of 46 million that is very nearly bankrupt. Russia provides the Ukraine with natural gas and money. The Ukrainian navy has 17 vessels. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has 171 vessels (albeit very few combat ready). Hence Ukraine was already under the Russian sphere of influence before its presumed annexation of Crimea.

Sevastopol is the hub projecting Russian naval power globally. The Russian navy historically was actively engaged with Vietnam, Syria and Venezuela (and up until March 2011, Libya) “for logistics and repair services in their principal ports.” During its war with Georgia the Russian fleet staged blockades in the Black Sea. Sevastopol has been supplying the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war. It was offered as a means to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013, as Russia successfully neutered America’s resolve to oust Assad and President Obama’s infamous “red line.”  Syria’s civil war forced Russia to stop using its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus, making the backing of Assad crucial for Russia to regain access to Tartus.

Everyone in Europe knows this. It is a fixture of history. Apparently American administrations have overlooked this fait accompli.

But Macbeth fears the Russian bear [the West, EU, NATO, America, Obama, Trump et al.]. Russia today is a huge and empty Third World country within which an infinitesimal sliver of its population are super rich kleptocrats who stripped Russia of her assets after the fall of the USSR in 1991. Just 110 Russian billionaires own 35 percent of Russian assets. These wealthy Russians keep a substantial portion of their money outside of Russia. Meanwhile, over $20 billion in Russian capital floods the world in circuitous secret money laundering transactions that fund bribery, election tinkering, alliances for Putin cronies and more.

Russia’s ambitions are fueled by its vast oil and gas resources and exports. Its fate is tied to its energy reserves and global energy prices. If America – the world’s largest energy producer – were to allow unfettered development and exports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), crude oil, and liquefied coal it would drive a dagger into Russia’s financial heart. Energy prices fall – Russia’s economy falls.

Russia’s military power is an illusion. Invading the Ukraine, occupying Crimea and flying combat aircraft over Syria was simple. It has its fleet and airbases just a few hundred miles to the north. But Russia’s military is over extended. Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said in Blouin News, “… that while Russia has a huge military, that huge military isn’t just for invading Ukraine. [Russia] cannot afford politically or even economically to assemble more than a fraction of these forces for a war. It cannot denude its other borders, nor strip the North Caucasus of troops. Many are also unsuited to such a conflict, such as the nuclear forces or the Pacific Fleet.” Its Syrian operations have stretched Russian military resources. Recently a reconnaissance ship from the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet has sunk after colliding with another vessel off the coast of Turkey. Many veteran experts on Russian military affairs argue that the power of the current Russian military is commonly overestimated.

At Russia’s soft underbelly lies Islam. Islam is the second largest religion in Russia. Islam is considered one of Russia’s traditional religions, legally a part of Russian historical heritage. Russia’s Muslim population is at roughly 14 percent, or some 20 million people. Muslims populate the North Caucasus residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. A tiny minority of this population are Islamic extremists who have engaged in terrorism that is well documented. Russia must consume substantial resources containing and policing this discontent. Russia’s unprecedented security in hosting its $51 billion 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi demonstrated both this threat and its cost of containment.

Russia is an empty country just emerging from a decade-long decline in its population due to declining birth rates, rising death rates and emigration. Russia had population growth of just 292,000 in 2012 with a population of 143.5 million; a growth rate of just .002 percent. In total, 160 different ethnic groups live within the Russian Federation’s borders. Russia’s population density is 8.4 people per square kilometer (22 per square mile), making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Most of its citizens are densely centered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Over 74 percent of its population resides in cities, making Russia a highly urbanized country. Russia is in reality two major city-states in an empty country – and China sits next door with its 1.4 billion people.

Daniel Pipes had a piece in the Washington Times in 2013 about Southern Russia’s transformation into a Muslim-dominated society. His observations were two-fold:  

  1. Alcoholism-plagued ethnic Russians are said to have European birthrates and African death rates. Their women have on average 1.4 births and their men have a life expectancy of 60 years. In Moscow, ethnic Christian women average 1.1 births.
  2. In contrast, Muslim women bear 2.3 children on average and have fewer abortions than their Russian counterparts. In Moscow, Tatar women have six children and Chechen and Ingush women have 10.

The U.S., EU and NATO have done little about the carnage in Syria. They have done nothing of consequence regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and they will do nothing if and when the Ukraine joins the Russian Federation. America will likely do nothing about Russian cyber warfare, other than turn its NSA-dogs loose on Putin and his cronies. The EU fears Russian energy repercussions. The West fears rather that Russia will be driven into the embrace of China as its energy vassal, but then that has already happened has it not?

Behold the Russian Bear. China can occupy the western half of Russia anytime they wish and Russian can do nothing about it. But Macbeth apparently fears the Bear. Russia’s power is an illusion. I wonder where that reset button is now?

Richard L. Wottrich