Russia has posed a danger to the West for two centuries. In the 19th century, it sought warm-water ports in a southward push to the Mediterranean Sea. Seeing this push as a threat to the maritime lifeline of the British Empire, Queen Victoria sounded the alarm: “Above all else, the Russians must not get out!” In a similar vein in the Cold War of the 20th century, Washington fashioned a foreign policy of containment that formed the NATO Alliance to block the communist Soviet Union from marching across Europe after the defeat of Germany in World War II. With the end of the Cold War in 1989 and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, this historic threat momentarily dissolved into the turmoil of domestic Russian politics.
In the last decade, however, the Russian bear has burst out of its cage, and seems to be on a rampage. It has swallowed up Crimea and fomented a civil war in the Ukraine in violation of a 1995 international agreement. Further, it has recently deployed a new generation of nuclear cruise missiles that were banned by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. In defiance of Queen Victoria, the Russians have militarily intervened in the conflict in Syria on the side of the barbaric Assad regime that runs at cross purposes with Washington’s own military intervention in Syria. Not since the Cuban Missiles Crisis of 1962 have U.S. and Russian military forces directly confronted each other where an untoward incident could trigger a potentially ungovernable spiral. To top it off, the Russian foreign minister is calling for the creation of a post-Western world.
Lest we think we are being sucked into the vortex of another Cold War — or worse — we should take a breath. Despite these immediate and admittedly serious threats; the Russians are a fading danger in the long run. The Russian bear, today, is a pale shadow of its former Soviet self.
During the height of the Cold War, the former Soviet Union boasted the world’s second largest economy with an industrial base larger than that of the United States. It had a larger population than America, and was outbuilding the United States in its armaments. Its overall military forces were twice as large. The inventory of greatest disparity lay in main line battle tanks: 55,000 for the Soviets compared to 11,000 for the Americans. By the late 1980s, however, the Soviet economy ground to a halt. This obliged Moscow to liquidate the Cold War on American terms in order to shed its economically ruinous military skin.
Since this collapse, the trajectory of Russia has been ever-downward. Now Russia’s military forces are half that of the United States, as is its population of 150 million. In this decline, though the American tank count is down to 2,300, the Russian numbers have plummeted to 2,500. For power projection overseas, the United States has 400 military bases in 80 countries, while the Russia has just 12 in 10 countries. Having once boasted the world’s largest defense budget, Russia now spends less on defense than Saudi Arabia.
Economically, the picture is even more ominous for Moscow. The United States remains the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $18 trillion, as Russia’s GDP languishes at a mere $1.3 trillion. From No. 2, Russia has fallen to No. 12, behind such countries as Brazil, India, and even South Korea. This picture becomes downright bleak in a strategic matchup with the 28-member NATO alliance. Arrayed against Moscow are the 900 million people in NATO with its combined GDP of a staggering $40 trillion. Any major or prolonged stand-off with the U.S. or its allies simply cannot be sustained by Russia. Putin’s bluff, bluster and machinations will run their course.
In thinking beyond the current Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, it is time to repudiate Queen Victoria’s call to isolate Russia and think of a pathway to bring Russia into the Western tent, as was envisioned by the first Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the 1990s. Despite the current confrontational policies of the Russian government, there is no reason for any hostility among the peoples of Russia, Europe and the United States. Just as Americans are justly proud of the exceptionalism of its democracy; Russians, historically, pride themselves as defenders of the Eastern Gates of European civilization against the barbarian hordes. When the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was Russia that picked up this fallen mantle with the triumphal paean: “Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands (Moscow), and there will be no fourth.” The world will surely be a better place if the Athens of Washington joined histories with the Rome of Moscow for a common tomorrow.