By the early 19th century, the Prussian army and its state were also no longer exceptional as they once were: the commanders, generals and strategists were growing old and lethargic, stuck with an obsolete mindset. The Kaiser and his bureaucracy were growing inefficient, incompetent and corrupt, permeating stagnation over the state. Despite the decaying of the nation, it managed to maintain the image of its past glory. As summarized by their legendary general Carl von Clausewitz, “Behind the fine facade, all was mildewed.”
This snapshot from over two centuries ago is now being echoed by a far too often overestimated power: Russia. The image of Putin organizing a world-destabilizing plot in the basements of the Kremlin while simultaneously playing 10-dimensional chess is not uncommon. Since the ascension of Putin to power over 20 years ago, the Kremlin has been steadily building an image of strength and continually projects its minimal power to try to recreate a dual-controlled world with the United States. While such displays might seem real or worrying on the surface, the true Russian government and military is relatively weak and crude, and the country has little influence or leverage across the globe. In short, Putin and his Russia, which roar so loud, are truly nothing more than a paper tiger.
The Russian Economy’s Shortfalls
In the 21st century, soft power is almost exclusively used rather than direct military power in armed conflicts. New, emerging superpowers such as China emanate themselves through economic domination of underdeveloped and vulnerable nations with action such as the Belt and Road Initiative, government contracts with Chinese companies such as Huawei, and diplomatic coercion. This strategy has borne fruit, bringing a nation which was a global pariah until a few decades ago into a global power with long-reaching tentacles; this has led to the strengthening of the Chinese economy, legitimization of its governing communist party, and has provided it diplomatic leverage worldwide without a shot being fired.
That being said, how does the Russian bear compare to the Chinese dragon? Simply put, not well. The entire Russian economy has a nominal GDP of $1.637 trillion, almost 1/10th of China’s and even less than the state of Texas. Russia’s economy is also largely dependent on the exportation of hydrocarbons and has a very poor business environment, meaning that its wealth is highly unstable and not dependent on industry-leading businesses or innovations.
This is quite evident considering how few globally competitive businesses Russia has and how it cannot fund infrastructure development in other countries, unlike China or America. While American businesses permeate all four corners of the globe and Chinese state-funded projects are underway throughout Asia, East Africa, and even sparsely in Europe, Russia can only remain relevant in any country undergoing conflict, which is why it’s relevant in Syria.
The Inept Russian Government and Putin’s Personal Errors
Russia’s economic malaise is not a direct result of anything but Vladimir Putin’s government and the rich oligarchs it serves. Not only does the regime hamper any innovation and economic development through anti-competitive regulations, but has allowed corruption to become so rampant that Russia is now ranked 137/180 on Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index. According to the World Bank, ~48% of Russia’s GDP is lost to corruption. Not only does such corruption immediately impoverish the populace, but also deters long-term economic growth.
Why does this matter in regards to geopolitical strength? Such economic mismanagement and corruption leads to a weakened economy (and therefore less soft power worldwide), makes government management inefficient, wasteful and incapable of overcoming catastrophic issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, and induces internal discontent that weakens the government’s legitimacy and forces them to divert more resources internally instead of beyond its borders. Not to mention, Russia has been experiencing a population decline due to enormous levels of emigration and cannot even remotely outspend the United States in a hypothetical arms race.
This then leads inevitably to Putin himself, who has overseen this decline in the past two decades. While commonly touted as a mastermind and unparalleled strategist, Putin repeatedly blunders and underestimates his opponents. The paragon of these mistakes is his invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in 2014. To countless Russian nationalists, his command to take over the peninsula with “little green men” – a name given to disguised Russian soldiers – seemed like a brilliant move that gave Russia a strategic territory on the Black sea. However, following rounds of sanctions from the United States and the EU, Russia’s economy contracted to half its previous size, impoverishing countless Russian citizens. To combat these sanctions, Putin impulsively enacted his own sanctions on European food-producers, sending food prices skyrocketing in Russia.
Most of Putin’s strongman perception in the United States emanates from Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and hacking into the Democratic National Committee. While impressive, Russia’s cyber capabilities are not as advanced or sophisticated as widely believed back then. Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, the Russian hacking groups believed to be behind the infiltration and leak of sensitive documents, largely relied on a lucky phishing technique and the outdated cybersecurity mechanisms of the DNC in order to hack into their servers.
The Crown Jewel of Putin’s Empire: The Military
Since the beginning of his presidency, Putin has been incrementally investing into modernizing the Russian armed forces in order to bring them to America’s standards. Russia’s military, prior to Putin, had been undergoing decay and neglect after the Soviet breakup. Russia had lost the first Chechen War, won a pyrrhic victory in the second, and an indecisive victory against Georgia in 2008. Not only was its equipment outdated and falling behind its western counterparts, but corruption and incompetence were plaguing the ranks. In the war against Georgia, Russia failed to maintain air dominance for the first two days despite facing an opponent that didn’t really even have an air force, and it failed to effectively gain reconnaissance over Georgian positions, leading to an unfortunately excessive death toll. While certainly not weak, Russia’s military could not stand a chance against Europe or America in armed conflicts.
Following the war, President Dmitry Medvedev, who effectively ruled in Putin’s name, increased modernization efforts and spending by a wider margin than Russia had ever before. Since then, the Russian armed forces have only fought in Syria, winning decisively, albeit against an unorganized foe without modern air defense systems to counter Russian bombers. This victory, while impressive on paper, still shows flaws. Russia suffered several hundred casualties despite only sending its most elite and advanced units, specifically those Putin selectively invested the most in.
In the Donbass War against Ukraine that has raged on since 2014, Russian separatists backed by Putin suffered many defeats and operational failures against the conscript-heavy and underfunded Ukrainian military. While Russia might easily win in a total war against Ukraine, its individual soldiers and battalions have proven to be on-par with Ukrainian ones, suggesting that the Russian military still lags behind us.
That being said, the fear-mongering power of the Russian nation and her people should not keep us up at night, at least not any time soon. Instead of looking in trepidation east at a country with 11 time zones, we should turn our attention toward a new-emerging power with only 1 time zone: China.