Reviews | Russia is a superpower Potemkin
Watch out, Vladimir Putin: spring is coming. And when it does, you will lose a lot of the leverage you had left.
Before Putin invaded Ukraine, I could have described the Russian Federation as a mid-size power punching above its weight partly by exploiting Western divisions and corruption, partly by maintaining a powerful military. Since then, however, two things have become clear. First, Putin has delusions of grandeur. Second, Russia is even weaker than most people, myself included, seem to have realized.
It has long been evident that Putin is desperate to restore Russia’s great power status. His already infamous “Ukraine Does Not Exist” speech, in which he condemned Lenin(!) for giving his neighbor what Putin considers a false sense of national identity, made it clear that his goals go beyond recreating the Soviet Union – he apparently wants to recreate the Tsarist Empire. And he apparently thought he could take a big step towards that goal with a short and victorious war.
So far, it hasn’t gone as planned. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce; The Russian army was less effective than expected. I was particularly struck by reports that the early days of the invasion were hampered by severe logistical problems – that is, the invaders had difficulty supplying their forces with the essentials of modern warfare, especially fuel. It is true that supply problems are common in wartime; Still, logistics is something advanced countries are supposed to be really good at.
But Russia looks less and less like an advanced nation.
The truth is that I was generous in describing Russia itself as a middle power. Britain and France are middle powers; Russia gross domestic product is only a little over half the size of either. It seemed remarkable that such an economically weak state could support a world-class, highly sophisticated military – and maybe it couldn’t.
This does not mean that the force ravaging Ukraine has immense firepower, and that it could well take Kiev. But I wouldn’t be surprised if post-mortems on the war in Ukraine ultimately show that there was a lot more rot in the heart of Putin’s army than anyone realized.
And Russia is starting to look even weaker economically than it was before going to war.
Putin is not the first brutal dictator to become an international pariah. As far as I know, however, he is the first to do so while presiding over an economy deeply dependent on international trade – and with a political elite accustomed, more or less literally, to treating Western democracies as their playground.
Because Putin’s Russia is not an airtight tyranny like North Korea or, for that matter, the former Soviet Union. Its standard of living is supported by large imports of manufactured goodsmainly paid for through oil and natural gas exports.
This makes the Russian economy highly vulnerable to sanctions that could disrupt this trade, a reality reflected in the strong dive the value of the ruble despite a huge increase in domestic interest rates and drastic attempts to limit capital flight.
Before the invasion, it was common to talk about how Putin had created “Fortress Russia”, an economy free from economic sanctions, by accumulating a huge trove of foreign currency reserves. Now, however, such talk seems naive. What, after all, are foreign exchange reserves? These are not bags of money. These are mostly deposits in foreign banks and debt securities of other governments, i.e. assets that can be frozen if most of the world is united in revulsion against the military aggression of a rogue government.
It is true that Russia also has a substantial amount of physical gold detained inside the country. But how useful is this gold to pay for the things Putin’s regime needs? Can you really run a large-scale modern business with bullion?
Finally, as I noted last week, the Russian oligarchs have hidden most of their assets abroad, making them vulnerable to freezing or seizure if democratic governments can muster their will. One could say that Russia does not need these assets, which is true. But everything Putin has done in power suggests that he considers it necessary to buy the support of the oligarchs, so their vulnerability is his vulnerability.
By the way, one enigma regarding Russia’s image of strength before Ukraine was how a kleptocratic regime managed to have an effective and efficient army. Maybe not?
Yet Putin still has one trump card in the hole: irresponsible policies have made Europe deeply dependent on Russian natural gas, potentially inhibiting the West’s response to its aggression.
But Europe mainly burns gas for heating; gas consumption is 2.5 times higher in winter than in summer. Well, winter will soon be over – and the European Union has time to prepare for another winter without russian gas if he is ready to make difficult choices.
As I said, Putin may well take Kiev. But even if he does, he will have made himself weaker, not stronger. Russia is now revealing itself as a Potemkin superpower, with much less real strength than it appears.