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Moscow's biggest deception

Janusz Bugajski

11 January 2017, Photo: Vitaly Nevar/TASS



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 Soviet Union.



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