The Six Pillars of Russian Weakness
A bizarre bit of analysis recently appeared on the Stratfor website, authored Peter Zeihan. It was entitled “The Financial Crisis and the Six Pillars of Russian Strength.” Zeihan is Stratfor’s Vice President for Global Analysis and a former official in the U.S. State Department, and its purpose is very much unclear. If Zeihan meant to point out the ways in which Russians delude themselves into imagining they are powerful, and to warn the West that Russia is in fact weak but could become dangerous if not immediately challenged, then one could not help but see the article as a bit of brilliance. If, on the other hand, Zeihan actually believes Russia’s government rests on pillars of strength, he is a dangerously deluded madman. Each of the “pillars,” when examined, in fact show not strength but profound weakness and danger of imminent collapse.
Zeihan’s first claim is that it is in Russia’s advantage that “unlike its main geopolitical rival, the United States, Russia borders most of the regions it wishes to project power into, and few geographic barriers separate it from its targets.”
As if he were speaking for the Kremlin, Zeihan writes: “Russia can project all manner of influence and intimidation there on the cheap, while even symbolic counters are quite costly for the United States.” Isn’t the U.S. part of NATO? Isn’t the European segment of NATO, which borders Russia directly, also to be counted as Russia’s geopolitical rival? What allies, by contrast, can Russia rely upon? Is this writer suggesting that if the U.S., much less NATO, had made a force insertion into Georgia similar to what was done in Afghanistan or Iraq, this wouldn’t have changed Russia’s ability to prevail?
Does it indicate “strength” on Russia’s part that it is totally impotent beyond its own borders? Conversely, hasn’t Russia, in fact, been reaching out towards Venezuela and Cuba?
It’s disturbing that Zeihan neither answers these questions nor even seems to be aware they exist, and makes no attempt to explain why he makes this point about geography. Is he trying, as the Kremlin would have him do, to inhibit Western confrontation by instilling fear? Or is he attempting to promote Western confrontation lest Russia become stronger or seek to use its strength again? It is confusion like this that results in bad policy and, ultimately, bloody military conflict.
Next, Zeihan writes: “It is no secret that the Kremlin uses an iron fist to maintain domestic control. There are few domestic forces the government cannot control or balance.”
He seems not to notice that this means there is no legitimacy in the Kremlin’s rule, and no broad-based support for its policies at home or abroad. Likewise, he ignores the fact that the Kremlin is starved for information and self-correction. It is doomed, in other words, do go the way of the USSR. Is that a sign of “strength”?
As well, he totally ignores the vast array of evidence of internal and external disintegration that we publish here on this blog on a daily basis. From street protests in the Far East to infighting within the Kremlin’s own walls, the Russian government is coming apart at the seams specifically because it has crushed opposition politics.
3. Social System
In his very most bizarre point, Zeihan argues it is a sign of Russian national strength that its people are mindless, soulless lemmings:
The Russian state has made it very clear that the productivity and survival of the state is far more important than the welfare of the people. This made Russia politically and economically strong, not in the sense that the people have had a voice, but in that they have not challenged the state since the beginning of the Soviet period. The Russian people, regardless of whether they admit it, continue to work to keep the state intact even when it does not benefit them. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia kept operating — though a bit haphazardly. Russians still went to work, even if they were not being paid. The same was seen in 1998, when the country collapsed financially. This is a very different mentality than that found in the West.
Yikes. How much vodka would a person have to consume in order to conclude that paragraph describes a “strong” country, and in order to forget that the Soviet Union collapsed in spectacular fashion without its enemies needing to fire a single shot?
4. Natural Resources
Next comes a colossal fact error:
Modern Russia enjoys a wealth of natural resources in everything from food and metals to gold and timber. The markets may take a roller-coaster ride and the currency may collapse, but the Russian economy has access to the core necessities of life.
In fact, Russia lacks many of the “core necessities of life” and has to import them from the West. It’s ability to do so on a cost-effective basis is totally dependent on the price of oil, which has now experienced a massive dropoff. As a result, Russians face a crippling double whammy of brutal double-digit price inflation and soaring unemployment.
Moreover, having seen Russia attempt to weaponize its energy resources, a concerted effort is now underway in the West to obviate them, and in any case Russia’s oil reserves are finite and becoming ever more difficult to exploit, as Boris Nemtsov has brilliantly shown in his White Papers (none of which, apparently, Zeihan has ever read).
You have to give anyone willing to argue Russia’s corrupt, creaking military establishment is a source of strength credit for sheer temerity, if nothing else. Zeihan seems not to notice that this “pillar” is basically the same as the “geography” pillar he had already mention, since both deal with nothing more than Russia’s ability to invade and conquer its smaller neighbors, to no apparent purpose other than imperalistic ego salving.
But more importantly, he ignores the fact that Russia’s military establishment embodies weakness, not strength. Zeihan can point to only two examples of Russian military strength: first its nuclear weapons, and second its ability to “impose a new reality” in Georgia. Neither is remotely convincing. The USSR had nuclear weapons and “imposed a new reality” in Czechoslovakia. The USSR toppled and fell without even being pushed much.
Zeihan writes: “While Tbilisi was certainly an easy target, the Russian military looks very different to Kiev — or even Warsaw and Prague — than it does to the Pentagon.” Is it a sign of Russian strength that Russia’s military makes the Pentagon giggle? Is it a sign of strength that Russian policy has driven Ukraine and Poland into the waiting arms of NATO and the EU? Is this writer suggesting that Russia has the military capacity to invade Poland or Czechoslovakia? To stop Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO if the offer is made?
Again, the point of this “analysis” is woefully absent. Is the writer trying to make us afraid of confronting Russia, advising us to allow Russia to rend and destroy in Eastern Europe just as it pleases because we have no other choice? If not, what is his purpose?
To cap off his “analysis” Zeihan writes: “Russia has one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful intelligence services. This domestic and international infiltration has been built up for half a century. It is not something that requires much cash to maintain, but rather know-how — and the Russians wrote the book on the subject.” Yet, an here his “analysis” is at its most shoddy, Zeihan does not give one single example of any victory won by Russia through the use of its intelligence establishment. It is almost as if Zeihan is a page shill for the Kremlin, touting Russia’s mysterious “secret power” and totally heedless of anything like actual facts, hoping he can dupe unwary westerners into submission.
Then comes his conclusion:
Thus, while Russia’s financial sector may be getting torn apart, the state does not really count on that sector for domestic cohesion or stability, or for projecting power abroad. Russia knows it lacks a good track record financially, so it depends on — and has shored up where it can — six other pillars to maintain its (self-proclaimed) place as a major international player. The current financial crisis would crush the last five pillars for any other state, but in Russia, it has only served to strengthen these bases. Over the past few years, there was a certain window of opportunity for Russia to resurge while Washington was preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This window has been kept open longer by the West’s lack of worry over the Russian resurgence given the financial crisis. But others closer to the Russian border understand that Moscow has many tools more potent than finance with which to continue reasserting itself.
First of all, why does Zeihan need to qualify his comment by using the term “self-proclaimed”? What does Russia’s own proclamation have to do with its abiltity to project power beyond its borders or to maintain its regime despite massive economic suffering beyond its parpets?
Then, does he really believe that Russia can maintain a massive military expansion in the face of a devastating economic collapse by depriving the population of basic subsistence and yet remain a “strong” country? Wasn’t it the attempt to do exactly that which obliterated the USSR?
If Russia has “many tools more potent than finance” then why is Mikhiel Saakashvili still in power in Tbilisi? Why haven’t any of the Central Asian states recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Why is missile defense still being talked about in Eastern Europe, and why did Russia back down in Ukraine once again when it attempted to use gas supplies as a weapon? Why is the author so utterly and palpably unable to list specific foreign policy achievements of the Putin regime even during the non-crisis period, much less since August 2008?
The fact is that he ought to be urging us to slam down the “window” our misguided policy has opened, recognizing that Russia is a perilously weak state totally vulnerable to both hard and soft power from the West, but certainly capable of coalescing into a neo-Soviet enemy capable of inflicting years of torment if allowed to do so, exactly what happened with the Bolshevik state of a century ago.