August 7, 2017


Russia's Perpetual Geopolitics (Stephen Kotkin, May/June 2016, Foreign Affairs)

Throughout, the country has been haunted by its relative backwardness, particularly in the military and industrial spheres. This has led to repeated frenzies of government activity designed to help the country catch up, with a familiar cycle of coercive state-led industrial growth followed by stagnation. Most analysts had assumed that this pattern had ended for good in the 1990s, with the abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and the arrival of competitive elections and a buccaneer capitalist economy. But the impetus behind Russian grand strategy had not changed. And over the last decade, Russian President Vladimir Putin has returned to the trend of relying on the state to manage the gulf between Russia and the more powerful West.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow lost some two million square miles of sovereign territory--more than the equivalent of the entire European Union (1.7 million square miles) or India (1.3 million). Russia forfeited the share of Germany it had conquered in World War II and its other satellites in Eastern Europe--all of which are now inside the Western military alliance, along with some advanced former regions of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic states. Other former Soviet possessions, such as Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Ukraine, cooperate closely with the West on security matters. Notwithstanding the forcible annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and the de facto occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia has had to retreat from most of Catherine the Great's so-called New Russia, in the southern steppes, and from Transcaucasia. And apart from a few military bases, Russia is out of Central Asia, too.

Russia is still the largest country in the world, but it is much smaller than it was, and the extent of a country's territory matters less for great-power status these days than economic dynamism and human capital--spheres in which Russia has also declined. Russian dollar-denominated GDP peaked in 2013 at slightly more than $2 trillion and has now dropped to about $1.2 trillion thanks to cratering oil prices and ruble exchange rates. To be sure, the contraction measured in purchasing power parity has been far less dramatic. But in comparative dollar-denominated terms, Russia's economy amounts to a mere 1.5 percent of global GDP and is just one-15th the size of the U.S. economy. Russia also suffers the dubious distinction of being the most corrupt developed country in the world, and its resource-extracting, rent-seeking economic system has reached a dead end.

The geopolitical environment, meanwhile, has become only more challenging over time, with continuing U.S. global supremacy and the dramatic rise of China. And the spread of radical political Islam poses concerns, as about 15 percent of Russia's 142 million citizens are Muslim and some of the country's predominantly Muslim regions are seething with unrest and lawlessness. For Russian elites who assume that their country's status and even survival depend on matching the West, the limits of the current course should be evident.

They never get tired of losing nor we of beating them.

Posted by at August 7, 2017 6:34 AM