Over the past few years relations between the West (US, NATO and EU) and Russia have dramatically deteriorated. Not since the Cold War have we seen this kind of standoffish behaviour from Moscow and Washington. Much like in the Cold War, this heightened tension has returned the spectre of World War III and the nuclear holocaust such a war would bring. However before we give in to sensationalist claims and fears we should look at the facts. Are Russia and the United States really on the brink of war?
Much of this hysteria has been whipped up by the media as part of its constant search for attention grabbing headlines. In the age of the Internet, many online newspapers have become ‘clickbait’ factories, churning out headlines that shock or attract the reader’s attention and encourage them to click on and read the rest of the article, often with the article being considerably less sensationalist than its headline. Naturally nothing attracts attention more than headlines foretelling an imminent nuclear apocalypse, even if the resulting article only hints at this. This process of looking for sensational headlines has led to the spread of rumour and misinformation. Some weeks ago there were headlines telling of the Russian government issuing advisories to Russian officials abroad to bring their families back home as if preparing for war. Examined more closely and this whole story seems to have little basis in fact and seems to originate with a Russian language news site Znak commenting on the Russian government informally requesting that Russian officials abroad bring their children back to Russia to be educated there so they avoid foreign influences.
Contrary to what you might think, international relations typically follow quite rational patterns of behaviour based on self-interest. That doesn’t mean they always get things right, just because a plan is rational, i.e. thought out, doesn’t mean its logic isn’t flawed, or that the fact available when the decision was taken were the whole picture. However, it does mean that state and non-state actors (NGOs, international organizations, multinationals etc) will not follow actions they know will lead to their own destruction. Whilst it has been criticized extensively over the years, the concept of mutually assured destruction (or MAD) does prevent war, the fact that we all survived the Cold War is testament to this. Ultimately both the West and Russia know that any war between them would inevitably lead to their own destruction and whilst there is a possibility neither side would use their nuclear capability and instead stick to conventional warfare, neither side is willing to take that gamble.
Vladimir Putin is a dictator – there is no denying that. He is however a human being, and thus concerned with his own survival. Like many dictators Putin’s goals are twofold; to preserve his own power in Russia, and to glorify and enrich himself and his allies. Neither of those goals are served by a war with the West. Thus whilst you may hear lots of scary rhetoric from Moscow about the ‘consequences’ of upsetting Russia, it is ultimately only intended for domestic consumption. Russian politics has long been dominated by strong-man politicians: Stalin, Brezhnev and now Putin. Historically rulers in Russia are expected to be strong, masculine, powerful and authoritarian; men of steel who get things done and talk tough. Over the 20th century when Russian leaders have attempted to break this mould or have fallen short of the strong-man ideal, they have been punished for it; often stabbed in the back or otherwise overthrown. Examples range from leaders who tried to do things differently such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Nikita Khrushchev, to rulers who simply fell short of the ideal such as Boris Yeltsin. Thus, in order to ensure his own survival in Russian politics, Putin and his government must maintain a tough stance. In other words, Putin must continue to be seen as a strong powerful ruler who stands up to the evil westerners. It doesn’t matter whether he can back up his threats because he knows the West will never take the gamble of calling his bluff. The Russian people, meanwhile, with few truly independent news sources, will accept whatever he tells them.
Another reason why Putin needs to go out of his way to project a sense of power is that Russia simply doesn’t have much and if the Russian people were allowed to truly feel just how weak Russia was then they would likely riot. Russia is now, and has been for a long time, a paper tiger of a power with a crumbling economy. Russia’s wealth is insanely unequally distributed: the top 10% of earners in Russia control a staggering 85% of the country’s wealth and just 111 billionaires hold nearly 20% of household wealth in Russia. Russia has the tools to become a superpower again, it is resource rich has a large population (a little over 143 million) and is the world’s second largest manufacturer of weapons and munitions. However, all this is undermined by systemic corruption from the top to the bottom of society. It has an economy still dominated by a tiny handful of monopolizing oligarchs and, whilst Putin may have vowed to topple such oligarchs, in truth he simply handed power from one set of oligarchs to another.
Its infrastructure has been decaying and collapsing for decades and, since 2014, punishing economic sanctions from the West have pushed millions beyond the poverty line (as of 2016 around 13-14% of Russians live below the poverty line; that’s some 19.2 million people). Russia is the world’s largest country and 9th most populous, yet has a GDP per capita lower than the majority of western countries with barely a fraction its resources, even cash strapped Greece is higher. It is thus highly unlikely that an aggressive Russian Federation could sustain a war with the West. Whilst it has beenclaimed that Russia’s armies are large enough they could overrun Europe in a matter of days (assuming of course neither side decided to use their nuclear capability), I maintain that they could never sustain such a huge occupation with their weak economy. In order to militarily occupy all or most of European NATO you would be at least occupying an area of almost 5 million square kilometres, that’s greater than Nazi occupied Europe and doesn’t take into account that the population of Europe has grown considerably since the 1940s as has technology. As conquerors throughout history have learned, conquering a country is the easy part, maintaining an occupation is much harder.
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russia that has emerged has been a weak shadow of its former self. It is these feelings of national weakness and humiliation felt in the Post-Soviet Russia that Putin has played upon to maintain and strengthen his power. However instead of offering the people real change and real growth he has instead feathered his own nest and those of his allies. Indeed many of Putin’s inner circle are personal friends of his either from his time in the KGB or from when he was in the government of St Petersburg in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately the United States and the west have helped Putin in consolidating his power this way. The continued existence and eastern expansion of NATO has been seen as a gross humiliation and threat to the Russian people. NATO was founded to fight Soviet communism yet instead of losing its purpose in 1991 it has instead grown. Thus NATO has been, rightly, viewed as an Anti-Russian alliance by Russians and its growth towards their borders has naturally made Russia feel insecure and impotent.
In order to disguise this and make Russians feel strong, Putin has made several military expeditions abroad over the years in order to project Russian military prowess. These include military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine and involvement in the civil war in Syria. In Ukraine he somewhat overreached himself, he underestimated the West’s willingness to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty, however he has been careful to stick to areas of Ukraine with a strong Russian presence and history. In essence he has chosen salami tactics; annexing land slice by slice rather than all at once, pushing to see how much he can get away with.
Whilst no doubt unsettling for those countries unfortunate enough to share a land border with Russia you will note that all the countries he has intervened in are historically in Russia’s sphere of influence and, despite the European leanings of Ukraine’s present government, not part of any major western alliance. This is because Putin is a realist, he knows that whilst the West will protest and pontificate about self-determination and freedom and democracy, its appetite for war is insufficient for it intervene in countries that are technically outside its sphere. Fortunately for countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania they had the good sense and fortune to join big western alliances like NATO and the EU and are thus protected. Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and other former Soviet states however are less fortunate and thus can be exploited as useful demonstrations to the Russian people of Putin’s martial prowess.
Russia’s intervention in Syria is more unusual in that it is a country that, whilst allied to Russia, is far from Russia’s borders. This suggests a movement within the Kremlin from a military policy solely focused on making Russia a regional military power to one more consistent with a global military power such as the Soviet Union. This is consistent with Putin’s increase in defence spending over the past several years though these plans have stalled since western economic sanctions began to bite. I suspect the reason for this shift in policy is a response to the potential geopolitical shift of power in the Middle East following the years of US military involvement in the region and the Arab Spring Revolutions of 2010.
For decades Russia or the Soviet Union and the United States have had their own spheres of influence in the Middle East with Syria generally part of the Russian/Soviet sphere alongside other Anti-Western countries such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and more recently Iran as well. The Iraq War seemingly lost Russia Iraq and the Syrian Civil War had the potential to do the same in Syria. Thus when taken in this context we can see that Russia’s intervention in Syria, whilst atypical for Post-Soviet Russia, is the result of rational self-interest. Furthermore if Russia could resolve the political crisis in the country it would give Putin great acclaim to have done something the West has failed to do, potentially enhancing his prestige back home if not abroad. It would also help solidify Russian ties with Iran (which has an interest in keeping Assad in power) and help rebuild relations with the Post-Saddam Iraq.
The United States is naturally in quite a different position from Russia. It was the ‘victor’ of the Cold War and despite an economic stumbling following the credit crunch 2008, it remains the world’s largest and most powerful economy as well as the world’s largest military force. With the end of the Cold War the United States found itself in the rare situation of being the world’s only remaining superpower. With the opposition seemingly gone some American scholars believed that the world was theirs, that a new American century was ahead, an endless Pax Americana spreading freedom, democracy and the free market across the world. American neo-conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called it ‘the end of history’.
The reality of the Post-Soviet age has proven quite different, however. The role of global peacekeeper has proven far more difficult than they had anticipated and after two decades of involvement in numerous regional wars, mostly in the Middle East and many started by the US itself, the United States today is a power that has lost its appetite for war. Much like it did fifty years ago in the Vietnam War, the United States managed to get itself bogged down in a series of wars that cost it hundreds of lives, billions of dollars, managed to upset and alienate an entire region of the world and ultimately accomplished few if any of its stated goals. Iraq and Afghanistan are arguably not really all that much more stable now than they were a decade ago, indeed in the case of Iraq they are actually considerably worse.
The Obama administration inherited this situation from its predecessors and has pursued a lighter touch than that of Bush. Knowing the American public has developed a poor appetite for US military casualties, he has prioritized a strategy of minimizing these casualties, hence his extensive reliance on air strikes and unmanned drones. It has had other effects too such as his reluctance to get involved militarily in the Syrian Civil War, again focusing on airstrikes against Daesh and half-hearted support for the liberal opposition. It has also meant that US military involvement in Ukraine or any other country where Russia has intervened is extremely unlikely, the American public will never tolerate full scale wars, least of all against an enemy who can actually shoot back on equal footing.
However, much like Putin, Obama and other US politicians are tied up by the need to save face at home and abroad. Although the US populace has no stomach for war, they also expect Russia, the old enemy, to be punished for seemingly annexing and invading another country against all principles of self-determination, freedom and democracy; principles that are still quite important to the Americans’ sense of national identity. Furthermore if the US does nothing then it will greatly upset its NATO allies who have grown to expect American protection and strength against their mutual enemy Russia. As such, Obama cannot simply ignore Russia or he risks being seen as a weak leader and making NATO also seem weak, but neither can he go to war because of MAD because the US public simply has no will for it. Thus he is left with economic sanctions, the fall back weapon of the western powers for when they can’t use force.
We are of course in the process of a Presidential election and it is set to be one of the closest in decades despite Trump being as repellent as he is incompetent. Talk in the media (mostly the right wing media) of Hillary Clinton as a warmonger who would start a Third World War is quite frankly ridiculous and shows a lack of understanding of international relations. A new Clinton administration will be bound by the same needs and limits as that of Obama. It is more likely you will see a continuation of Obama’s foreign policy; continued economic sanctions against Russia and a policy of limited military intervention in Syria against Daesh/ISIL/ISIS. The only other realistic option available to her would be to back down on Syria and/or Ukraine. This would, however, be ideologically untenable (being a liberal) and would also be political suicide since as a female politician in a patriarchal world she has an even greater burden on her to be the strong tough leader than Obama and Putin do. Any show of weakness of her part would be immediately jumped upon by her enemies both in the opposition and in her own party.
In the hopefully unlikely event of a Trump administration, from what little we have heard from him on foreign policy, he will be a classical American isolationist. Prior to the world wars the United States was largely isolationist in regards to global affairs. They shunned alliances or interventions in Europe or anywhere else and instead focused on their own regional goals, mostly in the Pacific. Given his connections with the Putin regime it is likely he will look at thawing relations with Russia, effectively letting them get away with their interventions in Ukraine and elsewhere. As for Syria, that is less clear however given his vague promises to defeat Daesh we can assume some continuation of the Obama regime’s policy there. From his rhetoric China seems to be Trump’s big bad and we can expect a shift in tension with the United States taking a harder stance on China whilst relaxing on Russia.
As I hope I have outlined, war between Russia and the United States is just as unlikely as it ever has been. In fact, thanks to Russia’s weakened position compared to the height of the Cold War it is in many ways even more unlikely. All the tough talk from Putin is intended for consumption by the Pro-Putin faithful back home and I suspect amongst actual diplomats behind closed doors the conversations are less absolute. In future I suspect Russia will become less important as China rises to become the United States’ primary adversary. As for Russia although unlikely to be any time soon unless Putin addresses the gross economic and societal problems within Russia then he is storing up a lot of real problems for the future; there is only so much that smoke and mirrors can do to distract people when they are starving.