June 6, 2007


Cool it, it's not a Cold War: Washington and Moscow might trade insults, but today's Russia doesn't come close to the old Soviet Union's superpower status. (Rajan Menon, June 6, 2007, LA Times)

Like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC, the Cold War was an ideological contest between two superpowers with dramatically different blueprints for the world. That epic struggle is history. Today's tiffs between Russia and the United States are minor by contrast. If both sides have the will and skill, they can set things right by taking some deep breaths and switching from rhetoric to diplomacy.

Putin's government may reject American-style democracy, but it offers no systematic alternative with global, even regional, appeal. The now-defunct Soviet Union was wedded to supplanting capitalism, but today's Kremlin surely is not. Although Putin has increased state control over the energy sector, Russia's elite hardly reject market principles, let alone capitalism, which has made many of them plutocrats. And Moscow wants to join the World Trade Organization, for goodness sake.

The Cold War was also a contest of raw power. With its gargantuan budget, the Soviet military machine was a formidable foe. But now, Russia's defense expenditures come to only about 8% of America's; in dollar terms, the Pentagon spends almost three-fourths the value of Russia's yearly GNP. Much of Russia's arsenal is aging and shopworn; its conscripts are demoralized, poorly paid and ill-equipped.

Russia can bully weak neighbors, but unlike the Red Army, its military does not menace Europe and it lacks a global reach. Recent increases in its defense spending and the testing of a new ICBM should not obscure these weaknesses.

It's the gap between Russia's self-image (it sees itself as a great power) and reality (it is a regional power at best, and could soon be overtaken by India and China) that explains the anger emanating from the Kremlin. Russian leaders feel "dissed" by the United States, and with anti-American nationalism pervasive in Russia nowadays, Putin's tough talk plays well at home.

Still, predictions of a new Cold War are political hyperventilation.

Except that the USSR wasn't a superpower in military terms either. That was just faulty intelligence from the CIA and political hyperventilating. We could have done them at any time we chose to.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 6, 2007 6:50 AM

On the other hand, supply and demand being what it is, all those out-of-work Sovietologists may well be getting their jobs back.

Cab drivers no more!

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 6, 2007 8:26 AM

Except that the USSR wasn't a superpower in military terms either.

In their May 1 parades, they used to have waves and waves tanks and weapons parading across the TV screen. It turned out the groups that marched off the screen returned to the back of the line and marched over and over again. But that was enough to give the CIA gitters.

May be the CIA knew more than they let on. They raised Soviet threats to guarantee their own jobs and importance.

Posted by: ic at June 6, 2007 2:34 PM

Was there ever a more inept and naive group of "experts" than the Sovietologists (great word BTW)?

Posted by: erp at June 7, 2007 11:46 AM