WASHINGTON, March 27, 2014 — During a news conference at the Hague on Tuesday, Jon Karl of ABC asked President Obama, “do you think Mitt Romney had a point when he said that Russia is America’s biggest geopolitical foe?”
Obama replied, “With respect to Mr. Romney’s assertion that Russia’s our number-one geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that, you know, America’s got a whole loft of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness.
“Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades – since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And you know, we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.
“And so my response then continues to be what I believe today, which is Russia’s actions are a problem. They don’t pose the number-one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan, which is part of the reason why the United States, showing its continued international leadership, has organized a forum over the last several years that’s been able to help eliminate that threat in a consistent way.”
Obama is right on some specifics, but he is wrong on the essential point: Russia remains one of America’s greatest challenges in the world — geopolitically, and militarily.
Russia is in fact acting from a position of weakness. While its economy grew strongly over much of the last decade, it remains highly dependent on oil and gas. Energy sales account for 53 percent of the Russian government’s revenues, and they account for 70 percent of Russia’s exports.
Over half of Russia’s oil exports, and 30 percent of its total oil production, go to Germany, the Netherlands, China, Poland and Belarus. Twenty-four percent of its natural gas sales go to Germany, with another 24 percent going to Eastern Europe, 19 percent to Turkey, and 11 percent to Italy.
Europe is dependent on Russian energy, but Russia in turn is dependent on European energy demand. If nothing else, the crisis in Ukraine should make it crystal clear to European leaders that they must find alternatives to Russian oil and gas. When they do, it will be a kick in the teeth to the Russian economy.
It’s already an economy in trouble. Russia’s economic growth has stagnated. The Gaidar Institute expects a maximum growth rate of 2 percent per year over the next four years. It would take very little to eliminate that growth entirely; a substantial cut in European energy purchases from Russia would do it, as would a war in Ukraine.
We aren’t entering into a new cold war with Russia; Russia can’t afford one. It already spends 4.4 percent of its GDP on the military, a larger share than any other country among the top ten military spenders except the United States (also at 4.4 percent) and Saudi Arabia. At about $91 billion ($116 billion adjusted for purchasing power), Russia’s military budget is the third largest in the world, after the U.S. ($682 billion) and China. Expanding military budgets at a time of stagnating growth would be a huge problem for Russia’s President Putin.
Putin’s position in Russia appears strong, but it’s fragile. Russians don’t expect their leaders to protect or expand civil liberties as Americans do, nor do they expect them to champion social justice. They do expect them to provide stability, security, and a gradually improving standard of living.
They also expect them to enhance the national prestige. Russians face the west with a keen sense of their own backwardness, but also a strong sense of their moral superiority. A leader who can impose order, impress Russia’s enemies and rivals, and keep living standards moving up will have fulfilled his side of the contract between ruler and ruled.
Putin’s ability to make the west look impotent over Ukraine plays well in Russia, as did his victory over Chechnya and ruthless suppression of Chechen terrorism in Russia. But if things go badly over Ukraine, if the Russian economy begins to fade, or if military spending begins to bite into the civilian economy, Putin’s popularity will disappear faster than his shirt.
And that is why Obama is wrong. Russia has a relatively short window of opportunity to engage in opportunistic behavior against Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and possibly the Baltic states. Russian military power is still formidable, and Russia remains the only nation able to reduce the United States to a pile of radioactive ash. The threat of decline – economic and military – is as obvious within the Kremlin as without, and Russia’s leaders can be expected to use their power while they have it.
Russia is not simply a regional power. It is a global military power, and with vast energy resources, a potential global economic power. Those resources are declining in relevance, however, and that threatens Russia’s economic foundations. It is in a race either to reestablish the importance of its energy resources through activities in the Middle East and Central Asia, or to more thoroughly develop the rest of its economy before Europe no longer depends on Russian oil and gas.
Russian pride, Russian resentment, Russian ambition and Russian military might make Russia a dangerous adversary. A terrorist nuke in Manhattan remains a theoretical possibility; Russian nukes are a reality, as is Russian willingness to play for high stakes in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
A nation that spans Europe and Asia and has borders that put it in striking distance of every important market and flashpoint from Damascus to Teheran to Pyongyang to Tokyo to Berlin can never be just a regional power.