You Don’t Have to Be a Russia Hawk To Care

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. (Alexei Druzhinin/ Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
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I’ve been meaning to write this post for several days. It’s a topic I’ve touched upon at various points over the last six months. But President Obama’s press conference on Friday is a good opportunity to revisit the issue and write it.

You don’t need to a Russia hawk to care about the hacking and electoral subversion story. And vice versa: just because you think the electoral subversion is a big deal doesn’t mean you’re a hawk. After I wrote this post in late July, the post quickly got a lot of favorable attention from the US Russia hawks. That’s fine. I know a lot of these people. And on this issue we have a common concern. But if you’ve been reading me over the years, you know I have a very different view of our interests and the actual threats we face from Russia.

This doesn’t mean I’m very sympathetic to Russia in geopolitical terms. Quite the contrary. I have a fairly dark view of Russia today. But I do not see Russia as the principal threat facing the US today, if indeed there is a ‘principal threat’ facing the US today.

Over the course of recent months, as the Russian hacking story, the more ambiguous ‘fake news’ story and Russian interventions in Ukraine and Syria have joined together in the US public mind, there’s been a common refrain that Mitt Romney, not Obama, had it right in 2012 when he said Russia was the United States principal adversary in the world. I didn’t think that was true then and I don’t now. All the talk about Russia being ‘on the march’ worldwide or challenging US power as the dominant global military or economic power is just plan nonsense.

Economically, Russia is a small country, compared to the role it claims and partly plays on the world stage. As I explained back in August, depending on the way you score GDP, Russia falls somewhere between Italy and Mexico in the size of its economy.

Think about that.

Russia’s economy is substantially smaller than Italy’s. Even though Russia spends a disproportionately large amount of its GDP on its military, no country can maintain a great power military on that economy.

Russia also has a comparatively backwards economy. It is heavily dependent on extractive industries and fossil fuels. For much of the post-war era that’s been a pretty good deal. Now the outlook on the fossil fuel front doesn’t look nearly so good. That’s not just because of global supply glut and the growth of non-fossil fuels which will likely be long-lasting. It is also because reliance on these extractive industries makes the whole economy vulnerable to the instability of global energy and commodity markets. I have various other thoughts about post-Soviet Russia. But the most relevant reality is that Russia is a wounded, diminished and (relative to much of the 20th century) weak state.

If Russia is challenged in terms of ‘hard power’, it’s even more challenged in the realm of ‘soft power’. Russia is viewed in a highly negative light in most countries around the world. It’s biggest foreign backers are rightist parties in Europe, the analogue to Trumpers in the US.

That weakness rather than any national resurgence is the key root of the danger Russia poses toward the US today. Because for all the diminished standing, Russia still has one of the two world class nuclear arsenals and the means to deliver world-ending attacks pretty much anywhere on the planet.

The problem is that nuclear weapons are very hard to use as anything more than a backdrop threat. It is that very weakness, the economic inability to compete with the US or other rising global powers in conventional military terms that has spurred Russia’s hybrid warfare defense doctrine, which I discussed here in August, which calls for a heavy reliance on non-traditional capacities like information warfare, hacking and various kinds of cyberwarfare and subversion. We shouldn’t see the campaign Russia waged against Hillary Clinton in isolation. It’s part of a much broader effort to cyber warfare and other non-conventional military means to defend Russian interests and attack adversaries.

For my part I see Russia as a wounded, diminished and because of that in many ways dangerous state – one that needs to be handled with care and caution. I mentioned a few days ago that in all international relations, the most important questions are really not so much what’s the right or wrong policy but whether you are prepared to handle the consequences of your decisions – in military, economic and human terms.

In this sense I think the US made a number of mistakes in the post-Cold War era basically pushing our web of economic, diplomatic and military alliances right up to Russia’s borders, in some cases inside what many Russians believe are their historic borders. Commitments we’ve made we cannot go back on. That’s what makes the Baltics so dangerous under Trump – not Trump abandoning them to Russia but his erratic and confusing course leading to misunderstandings that could end in war.

In any case, we should be very focused on Russian efforts to subvert our own elections and even more focused on their efforts to subvert elections in Europe, where they have considerably more ability to do so. But their main ability is to aggravate existing tensions and fissures in America and Europe. They are fundamentally the weaker party, trying to sow discord among the states they perceive to be enemies because they have little alternative means of defending themselves.

I am all for the people of Georgia have freedom and self-determination. But are we prepared to sustain the consequences of ensuring that or supporting pro-US regimes right on Russia’s borders? I would say that requires a lot more thought than we’ve given it. Russia today is autocratic, revisionist and illiberal. But the Russians also see themselves as a great power and a great civilization. And we have given them a lot of reasons to believe that we pressed our advantage, to extend our sphere of influence right up to their borders during their period of national weakness. I think we did that for a mix of traditional great power self-aggrandizement and a more myopic belief that no one could reasonably oppose the democracy, stability and affluence we believed and to a significant extent bring in our wake.

Now, here we are. We can resist bad actions by Russia without giving in to hyperbolic interpretations or their power or threats they pose to us.

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