There is ‘no need to fear Russia’, which is ‘much weaker than is commonly thought’ says economist Tim Congdon in the British weekly political magazine Standpoint. Claims that Russia is about to ‘overtake the US in power and prestige’ are ‘bizarre’, he says. While the Russian economy is the sixth largest in the world based on purchasing power parity, ‘the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have a combined national output that is at least 15 times (and perhaps 30) Russia’s. … Russia can never outspend the West in weaponry.’ Media talk of the Russian threat, Congdon concludes, is ‘hyperbolic and overstated.’
Congdon’s article contains some typical Russia-bashing accusations. ‘When its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections [???!!!], Russia ignored the niceties and just walked in’, Congdon writes. ‘Russia’s alignment with Assad in the Syrian conflict has resulted in barbarism’, he says. But his basic point is correct. Economically and militarily, Russia is much weaker than NATO. The idea that the Russian government would risk a direct military confrontation, or even seek to wage some form of ‘hybrid war’ against the West, would only make sense if Russian leaders were completely out of touch with reality. The ‘Russian threat’ is indeed exaggerated.
And yet, I think that Congdon is missing something. The Western dominance he speaks of may matter much less than he thinks. Western countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, have spent the last four years trying to overthrow the government of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and also to roll back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For all their enormous military and economic power, they have been remarkably unsuccessful. Assad is stronger now than at any time since the start of the Syrian civil war, and the West’s ‘moderate rebel’ allies in Syria have failed to make any significant advances into ISIS territory. By contrast, in the one year in which its air force has been operating in Syria, Russia has enabled the Syrian government to recapture Palmyra from ISIS and is on the verge of helping it recapture all of Aleppo. In short, despite its vastly inferior power, Russia has been far more successful, and could even be said to have inflicted a ‘defeat’ upon Western strategy.
More generally, Western economic and military power has proven to be useless in transforming the Middle East and Central Asia in the direction desired by policy makers. In the past 15 years, the United States and its allies have spent hundreds of billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars waging wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. They have absolutely nothing to show for it. The Taleban are no weaker than they were 10 years ago; Iraq is a bloody mess; Libya has descended into civil war, which has spread south into Mali; and Assad still rules in Damascus.
What this reveals is that, while raw power matters, it isn’t enough. What’s even more important is how one uses it. In recent years, the Russians have proven to be far cleverer in using their power than the West has. This may even be because their power is so comparatively limited, a fact which has forced them to think before acting. The West, by contrast, has become arrogant; its uncontested military hegemony has encouraged it to think that there are no problems it cannot fix. Its power has thus become a source of danger to itself, rather than a benefit.
Congdon challenges the idea that Russia has used its power wisely. He remarks that it may come to regret its interventions in Ukraine and Syria, which he describes as ‘barmy’. But if so (and there are some good reasons for questioning this judgment), his argument just highlights another point: the relative uselessness of military power in the modern world. Congdon complains that ‘far too many journalists are swayed by military fireworks and glorify aggressors’. It’s a complaint that could just as easily be made about the West as about Russia. We in the West outspend Russia on defence, and we have been waging war in various parts of the globe for years, but it doesn’t do any of us any good. Congdon remarks that ‘Ultimately, the dominance of “the West” … has been based on economics’. This is entirely true, but it’s a point too many of our liberal interventionists and neoconservative strategists have forgotten in their pursuit of military glory. NATO countries spend about a trillion dollars a year on defence, and yet their military endeavours have been repeatedly unsuccessful. If we spent that trillion dollars on something more productive, imagine how much better off we would be!