Russia isn’t a superpower and won’t be one again

Russia’s war in Ukraine has been ghastly but also illuminating. It’s illuminated just how broke and dysfunctional its military is and how endemic the corruption is within it. But it’s also illuminating that the country is no longer a superpower, and likely won’t ever be one again.

There are a number of reasons for this.

First, it’s a corrupt state. If oligarchs can siphon off much of the money that would otherwise go to the state, it deprives the state of the resources it needs to be effective. This is evident in the condition of Russia’s military in the Ukraine war, where much of it equipment is breaking down. Their hardware is generally shoddy because a whole chain of people got kickbacks instead of insisting the stuff they were buying was of quality. Much of their military is corrupt too, but even if they wanted to be otherwise, senior leadership won’t allow them not to be corrupt. You succeed in Russia’s military by being a toady but remaining far enough down in the hierarchy where you won’t be held accountable.

Second, its military is badly managed. Its recruits are for the most part of low caliber and they don’t get the training they need to effectively do their jobs. There is little delegation of authority, meaning local commanders can’t adapt to changing conditions. The pay is poor too and conscripts are rarely of high quality. They also haven’t figured out how to run a military logistics chain properly. And their troops seem to lack many of the basics needed to be effective, like gas for their tanks, regular resupplies and secure phones for communications.

Most importantly, they’ve been priced out of the superpower field. This is essentially how we won the Cold War in the first place: we outspent the Soviet Union because our GDP allowed us to do it. To some extent Russia held on by being clever, such as by developing more effective tactical weapons. But with a GDP less than ten percent of the United States, they simply didn’t have the means to compete forever.

Effectively, China has replaced them as the world’s new superpower. They did it by embracing capitalism, utilizing its abundance of cheap labor and a growing highly skilled workforce that embraced education. This created double digit economic growth year over year, giving them a GDP that is now rivaling that of the United States. This also gave them the resources to expand their military, build aircraft carriers, improve their ballistic missiles and create the infrastructure needed to support a first class military.

Russia embraced corrupt capitalism after it lost the Cold War. It helped improve their dismal GDP, but not enormously. Capitalism was concentrated in assets it already had, like oil and gas, rather than in new and emerging technologies. It did not reinvest its profits in things that matter like China did: infrastructure and education. To the extent Russia can wield political power, it depends on aging technology. Its nuclear warheads are one of its biggest assets, but hardest to wield effectively.

All this is not to suggest the United States is home free. Our political polarization brings lack of unity, which adds to our own governmental dysfunction. We effectively have our own oligarchy in the United States too, and it is creating huge inequality and poverty. The Republican focus on taxes as being bad also means less investments in the future. With enough disunion, the United States can be broken apart. The same is true with many countries rife with sectarian struggles. Russia might succeed in a way through our failures. So far though we keep funding our defense establishment lavishly, and our military remains one that is highly trained and effective.

Obviously, Russia is still capable of causing a lot of conflict, misery and death. But its military mindset is still stuck in the 20th century. It can perhaps nuke Ukraine into submission, but it has forever lost the hearts and minds of its people. It can only succeed by brute force, if it can find the resources to do so, but it is doomed to eventually fail. The war has proven catastrophically unwinnable for them, and any victory would be pyrhhic at best. In the process, it is turning the country into an outlaw state, further depriving them of the resources they will need to thrive in the future.

This war, which is likely to drag on for years, will likely be seen as the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, at least so far.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves land wars are so 20th century and democracies are valuable

A week ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember going to bed feeling upset and morose. I didn’t sleep well. It was a strange reaction to events half a world away, but it’s good to know I was not alone. Lots of Americans are feeling the same way. The invasion of Ukraine has permeated American society the way few events do. It’s woken up pretty much all Americans and they don’t like what they are seeing.

So far Ukrainians have surprised the world by resisting the invasion extraordinarily well. Thankfully, the world is rallying to their side. Almost nobody is rooting for Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump perhaps being the exception. A lot of Republicans are probably rooting in secret, but it quickly became toxic for Republicans not to support the Ukrainians.

I detected a bit of racism in Americans’ support. There was a lot less concern for the indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria, likely because it’s not a predominantly White country. In Ukraine it’s a war of Whites against Whites.

Part of the reason I didn’t sleep well though was because I understood its magnitude. We thought we had won the Cold War in 1991 when the USSR fell, but this feels like it’s back on again. But the real reason for my disquiet was because this was the first major war in Europe since World War II. I literally was not alive during the last one. Like it or not, we’re in a whole new ballgame.

The world’s reaction to the invasion has been heartening. Russia is virtually alone because really there was no valid justification for it. The pretexts for the invasion were laughable: it was to go after Nazis in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s president is a Jew!

When even Switzerland is thinking of sanctioning Russia, you know just how upset most countries are at Putin’s action. It’s hard to see how Putin wins this. He may succeed in occupying the country for a while, but he can’t keep it. Ukrainians won’t allow it and the rest of the world will provide the resources to make sure they can keep at it. If their goal was to keep NATO in check, it’s much likelier now to expand it.

Moreover, the Russian Army has proven staggeringly inept. Their equipment is old, they can’t seem to maintain supply lines and the resources they need to keep it going are being cut off. Much of its army consists of conscripts and clearly many do not have even minimal training. The Russian Army has clearly degraded and is beginning to resemble a Potemkin village.

The invasion has also paradoxically breathed new life into flagging democracies. When they can see on their TV exactly what it means to be ruled by an autocrat, most people accept the systems of government they got. At least it’s familiar.

Until the invasion, Putin has projected the illusion of competence and tenacity. The invasion proves he is incompetent, as it was obviously a fool’s errand to invade in the first place. In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to win a conflict through military means, and a win is almost always an illusion and temporary. It’s why we finally got out of Afghanistan last year and our war with Iraq proved such a debacle. You can’t win a conflict where you can’t win the vast majority of hearts and minds. The last conflict we won convincingly was World War II, in part because Japan was an autocracy, and the word of its emperor was enough to end the conflict. These conditions largely don’t exist anymore.

Democratic values are values increasingly not cherished here in the United States. But this horrible invasion may provide an opportunity for Americans to stay with democracy, despite its flaws. No system of government is more stable than one that represents the view of those who are governed. Through gerrymandering we’ve managed to turn our country into one that resembles Russia’s oligarchy. Unlike Russia though we have an opportunity to change course, if we are smart enough to learn from Putin’s unfolding debacle.