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.

  • 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

  • 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