By Spengler (cross-posted from Asia Times Online)
Since the fall of communism in 1991, Washington consistently underestimated Russia. American policy in consequence has crashed and burned repeatedly: in the Ukraine, where the American-backed “Orange Revolution” of 2004 collapsed in favor of an administration friendly to Moscow; in 2008, when America backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempt to incorporate Russian-majority provinces on Georgia’s borders; and in 2013, when Russia trumped American in the Middle East and took the diplomatic lead in the Syrian chemical weapons crisis.
American diplomats have had their heads handed to them by Moscow yet again. If they are so poor, how come they ain’t dumb? Americans play Monopoly; Russians play chess. Russia has found the fault lines in American policy and compensated for its light footprint with superior leverage. In particular, Russia has exploited the timidity of the last two US administrations towards Iran, presenting itself as the purveyor of a solution to problems it helped to create. In terms of technique, Moscow’s performance is praiseworthy, even if its intent is malicious.
Russia, to be sure, is in crisis. But Russia has been in crisis since Peter the Great built modern Russia with one foot in Siberia and the other in Eastern Europe. It is not a nation-state but an empire, badly constituted from the beginning. Russia always taxed its European provinces to support uneconomic expansion in its Far East, a policy that collapsed between the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914-1918 war with Germany. Russia regained its eastern influence in 1945 and lost it in 1989.
Its population has declined from a peak of 149 million in 1992 to 143 million in 2012 and threatens to decline even faster. Russia’s demographics are weak, although it is worth asking whether they are much weaker than in 1945, after Russia had lost 15% of its total population in war, not to mention a great deal of its productive capacity and infrastructure. That didn’t stop the Soviet Union from building thermonuclear bombs and ICBMs and beating America into space. The Soviet economy suffered from the equivalent of arteriosclerosis, but it nearly won the Cold War. Putin’s economy has suffered a string of self-inflicted failures, but that doesn’t remove Russia from the field.
Russia was down but not altogether out after the Soviet Union broke up, and the self-consoling triumphalism that has characterized American accounts of the country has proven a poor guide to policy-making. Ilan Berman’s new volume – really an essay stretched to book length by long appendices – weighs Russia’s recent return to world power status against a projected long-term disaster which, in my view, will not occur within the policy horizon.
“For the moment, the unraveling of Russia is still far from the minds of most observers,” writes Berman, who works for the American Foreign Policy Council. “In fact, Russia’s future looks comparatively bright. While the decade that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 saw a Russia that was humbled and diminished, over the past dozen years it has roared back onto the international stage under the guidance of its current president, Vladimir Putin.” Berman published before Russia grabbed the initiative in the Middle East with a plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which underscores his point.