Myth of Russian power

Published: January 5, 2017

President-elect Vladimir Putin speaks in the Russian Geographical Society in St. Petersburg. PHOTO: AFP

It is fair to say that Russia is doing its best to be the biggest thorn to prick the US and NATO in recent years. It is almost as if Russia was offended by how little attention the world was paying to them in the 90s and early 2000s, after the West spent half a century fearing and dreading them. And now they are doing their best to frustrate and annoy “Western interests” wherever they find them.

President Vladimir Putin likes to claim that this is purely defensive, of course. In the wake of the Iron Curtain collapse, the Western sphere expanded substantially into what Russia used to regard as its own back yard, and most of the countries of the Warsaw Pact have been absorbed into NATO and the European Union. So his rhetoric always portrays the West as the aggressor against “natural” Russian interests.

Now, of course, this only makes sense in a world view wherein Russia is still a major power that is a “natural” competitor to the United States. And someone like Putin, a former KGB agent who still nurses a deep nostalgia towards the “glorious past” of the Soviet Union, would certainly like to hope that this is still the case.

Yet this narrative ignores two things.

The first being the fact that the US and NATO did not muscle into Russia’s former satellites, but were rather begged by certain countries to do so. The Baltics, Poland and the Vishegrad countries, Romania, Bulgaria and the rest of the Slavic Balkans were not stolen by the West; they took the first opportunity to flee the Russian yoke that history afforded them. Even the Lithuanians and the Hungarians tried to move out of Russia’s “natural sphere of interest” long before, but ended up facing tragic consequences. Nor did NATO try to muscle into Georgia or Ukraine. Once again, it was people that had enough of Russian domination towards those that tried to choose a different path.

The second narrative is that the only thing that makes Russia a power is the fact that it has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world. If this was not the case, the UK, France or Germany could handle Russia’s military adventurism on their own. And indeed, Russia needs to throw its military weight around because it does not have much else going for it. The old ideological underpinning of empire and communism is gone, replaced instead with crude ethnocentric revanchist nationalism. And the former industrial and scientific might of the Soviet colossus has been reduced to rubble, replaced by a narrow natural resource-driven economy, controlled by a restricted clique of the president’s friends, while independent entrepreneurialism is either quashed through local political corruption or absorbed into the black economy.

In other words, Russia’s economy is in the doldrums, and nobody in Russia is even attempting to address this issue. Rather, even as it is facing some of the toughest economic conditions since the 90s, the state is pumping whatever surplus it can still squeeze out of the energy industry into military spending, with lavish updates of material, a boost to nuclear stockpiles (as if Russia did not already have enough warheads to destroy the planet several times over), and continued operations in Ukraine and Syria.

But the poor state of the Russian military was evident in December 2011, when Russia deployed the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov to the Syrian coast. The US Navy’s Sixth Fleet was forced to keep a close eye on it in case it sank, and a rescue operation was needed to arrest dangerous material floating around or sinking into the sea. In fact, one former US general told me that a single US Super Aircraft Carrier Group could obliterate the entire Russian navy, as their equipment is so dated and technology is obsolete. Such is the sorry state of this once great power.

However, Putin is an extremely talented tactician. With such limited resources, he has done much more than anyone in the West could have expected him to; promoting Russian interests and project power, even as the US has been cautiously withdrawing from international intervention. But that does not change the fact that Russia is dangerously overextended. And as far as we can see, there is nothing to indicate that their situation will get any better any time soon. In these circumstances, Putin’s luck will run out, and sooner rather than later. The major concern for the West is not what Putin goes around doing now so much as what might happen with the inevitable correction occurs. Because anything less than a perfectly orderly transition to a new regime in Russia could spell catastrophe, not only for the country but for the entire world.

An unstable Russia, without a state strong enough to secure its nuclear stockpile, will very quickly bring back to the fore the worst fears of the Cold War.

This post originally appeared here


Azeem Ibrahim

An International Security and Geopolitics Lecturer at the University of Chicago. Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He is the Strategic Policy Advisor to Imran Khan and he tweets as @AzeemIbrahim (

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Robbie Frederick

    Pakistan and Russia is friends?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Good. But China is ready to pump money in Russia and buy obsolete technology for her own ambitious military expansion and enhancement.Recommend

  • Test Test

    Why will China pump in money for Russia? China and Russia are not natural allies by any stretch of imagination and the chinese are good businessmen first. Why would they pump money to Russia?Recommend

  • G. Din

    Yeah, they “is” tentative friends, but not the “deeper-than-the-oceans , higher-than-the-Himalayas” kind.Recommend

  • Rex Minor

    I do not mean to be rude but this article reminds one of college days when a student would write an essay to obtain good marks from the Professor. This sort of imaginative analysis simply provides the opinion of the writer with little similarity with the factual conditions. Facts are that the President elect is looking towards Vladimir Russia for relief from the debts which Mr Obama iis leaving behind. Besides Russia is the only country in the world which can withstand a nuclear strike and be able to launch a devastating nuclear response. It is now becoming the guarantor for the middle east together with Turkey with largest contingent in NATO after USA which is withdrawing its presence from several continents. The author should refresh his studies and take the 21st century view of the geo political environment.

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Dark Knight

    The editor seriously needs to check his facts before jumping into conclusions. About Georgia, you should ask the Georgian citizens who knows well what their soldiers did. They killed their own citizens to blame Russia for being the aggressor when the Russians chased the Georgian army from invading one of the two small countries which border Russia. With American help and their media propaganda, Russia became the aggressors. I could go on but not planning to. Yes, Russia was a regional power and they weren’t even able to give proper food for their army in the early 2000’s. But now they have the best aerospace techs, missile defense systems, ICBM’s, and the list goes on. The Russian economy is getting a hit due to the oil price cut, but it’s blooming slowly. Vladimir Putin always takes the long road and it pays of. It’s gonna do the same to their economy.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Why would China buy obsolete technology? When the best technology is available. From France, England, Germany who will sell arms to anyone
    who has the money to buy…… you understand?
    A hindu, like you, boiling in his hate for Muslims/Pak will write something
    like this. Proves that hindus are mentally not up there,….never were.Recommend

  • Anand

    Spot on! The article written by a security expert that correctly describes the Russian Conundrum. Its China and India with their billion dollar deals, that is keeping Russia alive. The sanctions imposed by USA and EU are so crippling on the Russian economy that it shrank 40%. to reduce to a Mexico-size economy. Most experts believe that Russia without Putin, will stay at the mercy of USA.Recommend

  • Ashutosh Senapati

    Lad you need some history lessons and..and a bit of an update about where India stands now while we speak ..let me educate you first about the feats of your great great ancestors (yep DNA’s dont lie). I did not want to bring religion into it but again who started it..So we invented/discovered..well.. 0(Brahmagupta), pi=3.14(Aryabhatta), Quadratic Equations(Bhaskara II), Speed of light (“Nirmishada”…literally translated into “events occuring within the blink of an eye”), Chess, Yoga and most important of all Democracy (ganas and sanghas) even before Athenians thought about it. Where do we stand now…well…we are now pioneers in Satellite Technlogy, Medicinal Sciences, Information Technology, The biggest disapora in NASA are Indians, we have sent sattelites to mars and probes to moon, reclaiming its lost position in the world and what not. But the question is where are you?Recommend

  • Parvez

    That read less like an academic exercise and more like a teenager gloating ….very American.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Russians had beaten Turk Ottomans in 18th century, French Napoleon in 19th century and Germany Hitler in 20th century with mostly inferior weapons.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    FYI, the Soviet army I world war 2 had the best tank (T-34!), some of the best heavy artillery, and fully automatic assault rifles for soldiers! Your “mostly inferior weapons” is a delusion!Recommend

  • numbersnumbers

    Hmm, in case you failed to notice, India has an active space program going to the moon and Mars, while Pakistan has struggled just to go into North Waziristan!Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Hilarious article. Russia, with its “obsolete” military and “sinking” navy wins more allies and conflicts around the world than US with its 10 times higher military budget.

    Didn’t they also manage to get their candidate in to the white house? That is what the Obama administration is saying, after all. Now THAT. IS. POWER.Recommend

  • Fahim

    Definitely T-34 was a competent tank but word inferior is relative term. Nazi had better Tiger1, Tiger2, Panther/Panzer tanks. Also Nazis had first cruise missile, first assault rifle, first ballistic missile, first fighter jet.Recommend

  • Mike Pilgrim

    The Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany, not the US, not the UK. The US knows it cannot compete, Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, the US could do nothing. Even the Space Station and rockets used to shuttle to the Space Station are Russian. This person wrote a sycophantic article for the US.Recommend

  • Mike Pilgrim

    Adviser to Imran Khan… that is all we need to knowRecommend

  • Ahmad

    Sad but true!

    From PakistanRecommend

  • Sane

    Lately India was the biggest buyer of ‘obsolete’ technology from Russia till the slave changed the master.Recommend

  • Sane

    Very impressed what you say about technology India has. But, why your soldiers are hungry and when they complaint about not having food they are punished. Why you have a largest population of hungry and naked people. Why don’t you give some ‘TECHNOLOGY’ to them also.Recommend

  • Sane

    According to claims made by India, you reached to moon not in AD but in BC. No one can compete with brilliance your nation possesses.

    North Waziristan, we reached to fight proxy terrorist of India and either we killed them or flushed them out. You do not have such courageous soldiers as they are hungry.Recommend

  • vinsin

    I am not a Hindu. Hindu gave Muslims Pakistan because of love not hate. Hindus always helped Pakistan.

    Hindus gave their properties to Muslims of Subcontinent.

    Ask China?Recommend

  • vinsin

    Because of incomplete partition. Hindus do fast so that Indian Muslims can eat non-veg. We are naked and hungry so that Muslims can eat and wear clothes.Recommend

  • vinsin

    India cannot match china in terms of money.Recommend

  • vinsin

    True but because Russia has resources that China needs. Chinese indeed are good businessman but nowadays they also want to be strategists.

    Lots of advantage – to bring Russia close to China, using Russia against India, stopping Russian veto on J&K etc.Recommend

  • vinsin

    When India claimed that? India and North Waziristan has no border. Which proxies are you talking about? Why you allowed them to be in the first place? Where did you flush them out?

    True Indians dont have courageous soldiers and that is good news for Pakistan.Recommend

  • vinsin

    They will not sell. I am not a Hindu. Hindu made binary system and that got used in making computers so that you can comment that they hate Muslims and Pakistan. Hindus created Pakistan and gave their wealth for that too. What Muslims have done for Hindus?Recommend