Much has been written in recent months of the “existential” nature of the Russian threat. Yet, as I’ve documented here and at my website, the threat is nowhere near as existential as the War Boys in Washington are making it sound.
Russia today is a shadow of its former self. After the Cold War ended, Russia was divided by sectarian violence, political instability, and economic wildcatting. While the old Soviet-era KGB apparatus plotted to regain control over the country (and eventually succeeded), the fact is by the time it catapulted back into power in 1999, with the election of Vladimir Putin, the country had been gutted. Putin and his cadre of former Soviet hardliners—the siloviki—embarked upon nationalist program to “rebuild” Russia in every way (including reasserting traditional Russian dominance in the former Soviet sphere).
To be sure, Russia is militarily stronger and more secure than it has been since the end of the Cold War. Putin began an aggressive military modernization effort in 2008. He’s also successfully reasserted Russia’s dominance over the former Soviet space. In fact, until 2014, Russia’s economy was beginning to flourish, fertility rates began to rebound (mildly), population density increased, and business with the West expanded—all thanks to Russia’s vast energy resources.
Meanwhile, the stronger Putin grew in Russia, the harsher and more centralized his rule became. Putin is undoubtedly a hyper-paranoid old KGB agent who fancies himself the new czar. He is the furthest thing from a committed ally of the West. But that in itself doesn’t make him our enemy. It is also important to understand that Putin is not a Communist. Like his fellow siloviki, he is a conservative, an imperialist, and a nationalist. He doesn’t miss Soviet Communism. He misses the glory and respect the Soviet Union could command.
In short, Putin wants to make Russia great again.
What’s Old is New Again
In fact, Russia today is governed in a way not so different how the old czars ran the country before Lenin and his comrades arrived on the scene. Russia is authoritarian, with very few democratic institutions (and those find themselves under assault). It is increasingly reliant on the classical Russian concept of silnaya ruka—the rule of the strong arm—to guide the country. There are also egregious human rights abuses. And Putin’s critics are completely correct: he does support regimes that are opposed to the United States, such as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and the mullahs in Iran.
But here’s the thing: despite Russia’s military modernization; despite Russia’s antagonism toward its neighbors; and despite Putin’s harsh rule, Russia’s economy, its society, and its native-born population are all in decline (and have been since 2014).
Even Russia’s military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria aren’t quite what meet the eye. In each of these conflicts, the military action was short, sharp, limited, and engaging far weaker foes. Moreover, the Russians have had to move their tactical nuclear arsenal into Kaliningrad—the first time since the Cold War that the Russians have nuclear forces in Europe—as a stop-gap against American and NATO forces currently ramping up in Eastern Europe.
Putin knows that without nuclear weapons he cannot sustain the kind of warfare that the West would wage upon him should he overstep. This is a far cry from the Cold War days, when it was assumed that, behind their nuclear arsenal, the Soviet Union’s massive military would roll over whatever Western defenses remained in Europe. Further, in Syria, the entire world has been shocked at how long he’s managed to sustain combat operations there.
But look at resources involved—mostly Russian special forces and a handful of aircraft. How are the Russians sustaining such complex operations so far from home? They aren’t. Iran is providing logistical support, while doing much of the heavy lifting (alongside Bashar Assad’s troops) on the ground. Plus, Russia has had a naval and air base in Syria since the 1970s, so Moscow always had a far larger capability in Syria than we do.
Even with such a limited commitment, the Russians did exhaust themselves in Syria. Putin in December ordered a temporary drawdown of Russian forces operating in the beleaguered country. Putin claimed it was an attempt to make a deal with the United States, in effect trading Russia’s offensive role in Syria for a more amicable settlement in Crimea. Of course, Washington’s “Bipartisan Fusion Party” wouldn’t dare countenance such a deal since it would deny them their endless ability to engage in virtue signaling at the foreign policy level. They hark back to the proud moments in America’s history when John F. Kennedy (and politicians who Derek Leebaert derisively calls “Emergency Men”) asserted that America would “pay any price and bear any burden” to push back against Soviet Communism.
The same War Party that idolizes JFK today forgets that he ended the Cuban missile crisis by agreeing to remove U.S. nuclear weapons from Turkey. While a desire for a deal over Crimea was a part of Russia’s temporary halt of military operations last winter, there were also real logistical concerns for Putin to consider: his military forces were reaching their operational limits. When Russia did resume operations in Syria earlier this year, Putin and Donald Trump crafted a temporary ceasefire.
In his excellent 2011 book, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story, Dmitri Trenin, a former Soviet intelligence officer who currently runs the Carnegie Moscow Center, says “Russia [has] allowed its military to degrade for almost two decades. What is emerging as a result of the military reform begun in 2008 is a force no longer focused on waging large-scale wars: this is a revolution in Russian military thinking.”
And while we must acknowledge the arguments presented by Russia skeptic Thomas J. Wright in All Measures Short of War, that Russian “hybrid warfare” represents a clear-and-present potential danger for the United States, we must also understand that such asymmetrical warfare is not a sign of military power. It’s how weak forces resist more powerful foes. The only way that it could be a serious threat to the United States would be if the United States foolishly chose to engage in a war against Russia.
The Reality of U.S.-Russia Relations
Now, I’m not a fan of Russia. In fact, I believe Russia is a failing state and that Putin is a petty, tinpot dictator. However, he does have a lot of nukes. He is also sitting on a land of vast—mostly untapped—natural resources. Further, Putin has continuously expressed interest in finding a diplomatic solution to our current woes in both Ukraine and Syria. And despite his support for both Iran and Assad in Syria, Putin has a common interest in squelching jihadist terrorism. There is a basis for a deal to be made here.
Wait . . . a deal with a dictator? Isn’t that “appeasement”? No, not necessarily. Remember, the United States has a history of doing business with dictators around the world. But what about empowering a rival nuclear power? Like . . . China? The same War Party that seems so keen to brawl with nuclear-armed Russia is even more eager to trade with China. China, not the United States or Europe, has benefited more from globalization and “free trade” policies. China’s economic ascendance has allowed it to expand its military, including its nuclear arsenal.
In fact, in many ways, the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party in Washington and New York City created modern day China and the threat it now poses to the United States and its allies. But these Russia hawks continue yearning for trade to be conducted with China (even as the Chinese now prepare for joint military drills in the South China Sea directed against the United States, mind you).
What the hell is going on in Washington?
As Russia “rearms” (and struggles with conducting long-range operations), China has built a truly modern military with both the capabilities and intentions to not only defend against a potential American attack—but to forcibly remove the United States from East Asia. The Russians, while they may dream of ending the European Union and disbanding NATO, do not desire to kick the United States out of Europe. The United States has real shared strategic interests with Putin, despite his desire to end America’s global hegemony (which the Russians cannot do, only the Chinese and America’s feckless leaders in the War Party can bring about such a disaster).
America can do business with Putin—and should—no matter how much of a prickly customer he may be. Ultimately, his true threat to America can be mitigated and dealt with, whereas the threat posed by both jihadists and China is truly existential.
I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Written in the harrowing aftermath of World War I, Eliot told a tale of the moral death of mankind. In a similar way, I suppose, the War Party in Washington is full of “hollow men,” of “stuffed men/leaning together/headpiece filled with straw.” Alas. In the case of Russia, it is a politically hollow nation; a straw man state pretending to be something more. And its leader, the would-be czar, Putin, is nothing more than a “paralyzed force” desperately yearning to maintain both his own and Russia’s relevance.
Russia is not an existential threat. It presents us a great diplomatic and economic opportunity—if we can overcome our elite’s Russophobia and press our inherent advantages over Russia.
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