October 9, 2020
Russia’s Endgame Isn’t What You Think It Is – It’s Worse
You probably don’t realize it, but Russia is getting its way… again.
I’m not talking about a plan to infuse the U.S. water supply with vodka. Or to put a furry shapka on every American’s head this winter. Or to get its guy – whoever that is – in the American White House.
Russia’s agenda today is very different from its Soviet-era aim of global domination with a bread-line flavor… Back then, overrunning the world with its perverted vision of socialism – or annihilating the Earth many times over if that didn’t work – seemed credible enough to be concerned about.
Russia’s aspirations today are a lot more modest… yet destructive in a different way.
Since its days as a superpower, Russia’s three-decade descent toward irrelevance is breathtaking. Today, the country’s gross domestic product (“GDP”) is smaller than that of France or Canada – and on a per-capita basis, its economic output is somewhere between Costa Rica and Malaysia. And it’s falling further behind every day, with average annual economic growth of just 1% since 1990 – compared to a global average of 3.6%.
Russia’s currency has lost more than half of its value relative to the U.S. dollar over the past decade. The market capitalization of its stock market amounts to less than half that of Apple.
With 145 million people, Russia has fewer people than Nigeria, Bangladesh, or Brazil. The country’s most valuable asset is leaving as fast as it can… Around 2 million Russians have emigrated to the west over the past 20 years. (Many of the people I knew in Russia – from living there for nine years from 1996 to 2008 – have long since left.) The average Russian man lives about 12 years less than his counterpart in Spain.
Despite its rapid decline, Russia is still punching above its weight. Russia’s “influence across the world is far-reaching and important,” explained CNBC in February, pointing to its outsized role as a power broker, investor, and meddler throughout Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. As recently as May, U.S. President Donald Trump called for Russia to rejoin the Group of 7 club of industrialized countries.
A tally of mentions in the Financial Times suggests that the world’s business decision-makers (or those who write their newspaper) are deeply preoccupied with Russia… The word “Russia” has racked up 8,347 mentions in the FT over the past three years, compared with 6,247 for India – which has 10 times more people and an economy that’s 70% bigger. Japan, with an economy that’s three times larger, got just 8% more mentions. (By this highly scientific gauge, Donald Trump is precisely 2.45 times more important than Russia, with 20,466 mentions.)
Why Do We Even Still Talk About Russia?
With twice the landmass of the contiguous 48 U.S. states – or 25 times the size of Texas – Russia is big. By dint of occupying one-eighth of the earth’s land surface (and being 70% bigger than Canada, the world’s second-largest country), Russia’s voice is going to be loud, even if it’s the bellow of a wounded bison missing a leg.
Plus, it’s the world’s second-largest oil exporter, and natural gas producer. Perhaps fossil fuels are the new tobacco, and will eventually be taxed and regulated into oblivion. Despite needing to cough up $15 for a pack of Marlboros (hello, New York), there are still around 1 billion smokers in the world… And it will be a long time before today’s wind speed matters more to financial markets, or ordinary people, than the price of oil.
We also can’t forget that Russia is still the world’s largest nuclear power… It can turn the Earth into Mad Max land many times over. You can’t ignore the big guy who’s bristling with guns and knives and nuclear hand grenades.
And there’s yet another reason: Vladimir Putin. Russia’s unrivaled leader since 2000, Putin is a master strategist, both within Russia and on the global stage. And despite Russia’s other advantages, it’s only thanks to Putin that the country has even a faint cry of relevance.
Putin solidified and has maintained power in part by playing factions within the government against each other. Would-be power players who want to earn (or stay in) his good graces do a Tony Soprano to opposition politicians who threaten to gain too much support – or journalists who get too close to the truth.
He’s kept the country’s powerful business moguls in check by making an example of a few who stepped out of line. The threat of 10 years in prison – what happened to one of them – helped motivate the others to keep their Scrooge McDuck moves (and opinions about politics) behind closed vault doors.
To further solidify his position, Putin recently pushed through changes to the constitution to ensure that he can stick around until 2036… Term limits are for wimps. He’s centralized control in himself (it’s called the “power vertical” in Kremlin-speak) to a degree greater than the leader of any other big country in the world.
But Putin’s dictatorial power at home is a liability on the global stage… To most of the rest of the world – except for the likes of China, Brazil, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – Putin’s frosty relationship with democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights loses Russia serious points at the global grown-ups table. And few world leaders are impressed by the manly-man image that the Putin – who stands a Tom Cruise-like 5 feet, 7 inches tall – has cultivated through shirtless horseback riding and tiger hunting photo ops.
Meddle Me This…
But despite Putin’s efforts – and the country’s other natural advantages – Russia’s glory days are long gone. The best that Russia can do is play spoiler… And it’s been gold medaling at that.
One of the few arenas where the Soviets genuinely excelled – besides waiting in lines and making toasts – was in propaganda. Since well before the 2016 elections were just a glint in Donald Trump’s eye, Russia has been spraying poisonous pixie dust through its propaganda firehose all over the world.
A 2017 study found that Russia has meddled in 27 elections since 1991. Until around 2014, Russia focused mostly on other former Soviet states – in particular, in Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.
Then, Russia’s horizons widened. It intruded in elections in the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, Malta, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. It poked its nose into the Brexit vote in 2015… Italy’s constitutional referendum… the Catalonia independence referendum… France’s elections… and others.
And then there’s the big borscht… Russia’s (supposed) heavy involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections – evidence of which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell characterized as “indisputable” in July of 2018.
Russia isn’t alone in wanting to influence what happens in other countries’ elections. Governments in upwards of 70 countries have orchestrated political disinformation campaigns abroad, to interfere, distort opposing views, and discredit opponents. (Facebook was the most frequently used social network used to spread disinformation.)
But Russia has elevated meddling in other countries’ affairs to an art form…
Russia has pioneered new and unwelcome ways of disseminating propaganda. Russia explored, exploited, and exported a new array of weapons – troll farms, fake news, fake Facebook accounts, leaked e-mails, fake WikiLeak documents, and cyberattacks on voting registration systems, for starters – that today occupy a prominent place in the toolbox of every self-respecting propagandist.
And in terms of bang for buck, propaganda is a lot more effective than your father’s kind of war. Why bother with blood and gore if you can hardwire into the brains of the enemy? The cost of a handful of F-35 fighter jets ($94 million to $122 million per unit) – or Russian MiG-35s ($50 million each) – can fund a lot of Internet trolls, Facebook ads, and other light but lethal weapons in the propaganda wars.
Has Russia’s propaganda worked? Judged by the success of its campaigns (which may not be the best indicator), it doesn’t look like it…
The University of Toronto researchers found that of the 11 cases of Russian interference in the affairs of its post-Soviet world in 1991 to 2014, Russia got its way just four times. In the next three years – when it focused on elections outside the former Soviet Union – the side that Russia was rooting for won in nine of 16 elections.
“It’s not at all clear that Russia’s efforts made any difference,” the study’s authors concluded. And just three election results can be partly attributed to Russian efforts.
But the bigger question is whether Russia cares much about whether Scotland is independent, or Macedonia’s name, or who is elected prime minister of the Netherlands or Sweden… or who is president of the United States.
Except for the rare cases Russia has a direct economic interest (in, say, an oil pipeline), it’s usually indifferent to the outcome of most of the elections in which it inserts itself.
Russia (and Putin) Crave Relevance
It’s a long fall from being a superpower to struggling just to be in the conversation… As Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
The quick way for Russia to get attention – and as any adolescent will tell you, bad attention better than none at all – is disruption. And Russia goes for the jugular, to undercut the foundations of democracy, by de-legitimizing elections and the institutions they support.
“Russian disinformation has evolved from its earlier objective of elevating preferred candidates and platforms to a greater focus on discrediting elections and institutions entirely,” explained U.S.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies in July.
In other words, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses – for Putin’s Russia, success is defined by how much havoc it can wreak… by dragging democracies down to their level.
According to geopolitics media company Gzero…
The Kremlin is less concerned with the outcome of any single vote than with more generally sowing doubts about the integrity of elections and political institutions in the West. So far, it’s working. Until governments in targeted countries find a way to hit the right Russian state officials and their backers exactly where it most hurts, Russian meddling will continue — in the 2020 US elections and beyond.
What’s more, the strategy isn’t going to change. Putin has survived four U.S. presidents – and any number of strategic re-sets, policy shifts, approach redirects, blueprint redesigns, and relationship talks with his American counterparts.
Regardless of who is in the American White House, Russia will continue to sow the seeds of chaos – because if it can’t be on top, it can at least play the spoiler. Meanwhile, Russian meddling, in elections in the U.S. and elsewhere, will become more sophisticated… and more damaging.
That’s bad news for western democracies and institutions – which are already under fire from the inside in many countries.
And if you start to doubt it all yourself – well, Vladimir Putin might be cracking a small smile somewhere deep inside the Kremlin.
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And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Editor, The Chaos Chronicles
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
October 9, 2020