Vladimir Putin’s government thrives in
the world of social media conspiracies and mass disinformation. In
this “information war,” lies and deception are credible means to
achieve strategic ends, including bombast about one’s own strength.
In stark reality, Russia is a declining power that disguises its
accelerating internal decay with a strategic external offensive
against the West. In order to protect American interests, the
incoming U.S. administration needs to conduct a comprehensive and
dispassionate review of Russian conditions and capabilities.
Russia’s newly issued national security
and military doctrines create the illusion of “the rebirth of a
superpower.” According to these documents, Moscow’s policy must
focus on the “the consolidation of the position of Russia as one of
the influential centers of the contemporary world.” But contrary to
its ambitions, Russia’s condition is rapidly plunging. Through a
combination of low fossil fuel prices, failed economic
diversification, industrial ossification, infrastructural decay,
official corruption and Western sanctions, state revenues are
declining, living standards falling, regional disquiet mounting and
social conflicts intensifying.
Moscow depicts itself as one of the
global “poles of power,” together with the United States and China.
However, the size of Russia’s economy is comparable to that of Italy
and steadily contracting, while the U.S. and China continue to grow.
Russia’s population is less than that of Nigeria or Bangladesh and
its GDP per capita ranks 66th in the world. Low oil prices and
international sanctions have contributed to crippling Russia’s
economy and its Reserve Fund is projected to run out in 2017. The
World Bank has warned that the poverty rate is rising sharply and
increasing numbers of Russians facing destitution.
Russia’s longer-term prospects look even
bleaker. Demographic problems include a shrinking population with
high mortality, low fertility and high emigration of the best
educated. Russia’s population has dipped from 148 million after the
breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to only 140 million
today. The UN estimates that this total will fall to around 130
million by 2025 and a steadily increasing percentage will be neither
Russian nor Orthodox Christian. Life expectancy among Russian males
stands at about 60 years, or 15 years less than the norm in
industrialized states and lower than in many African countries.
Even in the military arena where Russia
traditionally prides itself, conditions are unsettling. A massive
program to modernize the military has brought mixed results. The
overhaul has included building new bases, conducting frequent
military exercises, and updating equipment. However, because of the
revenue squeeze military expansion is slowing down. Corruption is
rampant and many troops are demoralized and unpaid. Increased
defense spending has also come at the expense of education, health
care and infrastructure.
Due to the economic crisis and
international financial sanctions, Moscow’s military spending levels
simply cannot be sustained. The defense budget will continue to
shrink and the modernization program is likely to grind to a halt.
Even the lifting of Western sanctions, in retaliation for Russia’s
attack on Ukraine, would have little visible impact on state
revenues. Over the coming decade, Russia’s military will fall even
further behind that of the US and China. Without its nuclear arsenal
the country’s global relevance would rapidly evaporate.
Even as Russia sinks economically and
demographically, its ambitions continue to expand. When the Kremlin
cannot provide bread to its citizens it offers circuses. Moscow’s
response to the country’s decay is to adorn disguises and deflect
attention outwards. Such camouflage is pursued through a sustained
campaign of global disinformation, regional subversion and military
engagement. This helps create an illusion of limitless strength with
Russia posing as an indispensable power in various crisis points,
including the Middle East.
Despite Russia’s economic downturn,
during the election campaign President-elect Donald Trump painted
the country as a major power on a level with the U.S. and as a
potential global partner. Similar sentiments were expressed by all
U.S. administrations since the end of the Cold War when first
assuming office and each President was quickly disillusioned.
In reality, Moscow creates the illusion
of strength by weakening, dividing, and confusing its Western
opponent. It views Trump as a transactional businessman who will
overlook Russia’s aggression in the wider Europe as long as this
does not impinge directly on U.S. economic interests. Putin has no
strategic interest in helping the West defeat international
terrorism because jihadism weakens Western resolve and distracts
Washington’s attention from Moscow’s attacks on its neighbors. The
Kremlin will help Trump only as far as it can benefit from the
propaganda of cooperation.
It is time to start preparing for the
next stage of the geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia
rather than dealing with yesterday’s conflicts or deluding ourselves
about a golden new era of collaboration. Russia confronts serious
internal decay and a new time of turmoil is fast approaching that
will have global reverberations and affect U.S. interests. The more
extensive the decline, the more likely that the Kremlin will engage
in foreign interventions to deceive and mobilize its citizens. To
avoid sudden surprises and possible military confrontations, the
Trump administration must devise ways to manage Russia’s
deterioration and limit the impact of its external aggression rather
than propping up a failing state that is following the path of the