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.

No Longer the Top Banana

We Americans are in denial. We assume that our country is a military superpower. The sad fact is that we no longer are one. We were demoted. The rest of the world largely understands this. The polite ones, like most of the European countries, feel it is kinder not to draw it to our attention. Like a once popular diva, they are content to let the realization slowly dawn on us. Eventually, after performing at enough half-empty concert halls, they know we will figure it out.

Other countries have been observing us warily. They have mostly coped by staying at the far edges of the gorilla cage hoping we would not notice them. Of all the gorillas in the cage though, we were the most fearsome. We looked like we weighed 800 pounds. We thumped our chests, howled and hissed a lot. We liked to kick those lesser gorillas who pouted or spat at us. However, often we would settle down. We could smile nicely and even share our bananas with our friends. Sometimes other gorillas tried to acquire favor by giving us some of their bananas. Occasionally they helped us beat up other obnoxious gorillas in the cage. Who though could predict when we would go through another manic phase? Therefore, most gorillas stayed out of our way. More than once, they looked at us with scorn. They wondered what was it about us that even though we had so many bananas, we could still be such a loose cannon. Now, after watching us get kicked hard in the ribs a few times, falling over and squealing in pain, we no longer look quite so fearsome. In fact, now that we are on the floor of the cage, some are working with the other gorillas to figure out a way to keep us there.

How can this be? The United States has the best-equipped, best-trained and most expensive military in the world. We can move our power anywhere in the world. Our aircraft can slip through radars. Our spy satellites can see basketballs on the ground from hundreds of miles away. Our intelligence services reputedly have computers than can sift through millions of calls per second.

The irony is we lost our superpower status in part by being too good at winning conventional wars. We have outthought and outspent our rivals. There is no nation left in the world, except perhaps foolhardy ones like North Korea that would directly attack the United States. In that sense, we have succeeded. Fear and intimidation may be crude methods of ensuring compliance, but they tend to be effective. Unfortunately, what we largely missed is that we failed to prepare sufficiently for unconventional wars. While we have the ability to defend our own borders from attack, we no longer have both the will and the means to require other regimes to bend to our will.

The recent war between Israel and Hezbollah is a textbook case for our changing times. Israel is the 600-pound gorilla in the Middle East part of the gorilla cage, thanks largely to the many bananas we have given it. If it chooses to do so, it is bye bye Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or any country in that region that threatens its existence. It might come at the cost of using its nuclear weapons and give the country permanent ostracism from the world community. However, as long as it has its nuclear card and other Arab states do not then Israel can win any conventional war against any state in the Middle East.

Of course, these countries are no longer stupid enough to directly wage war against Israel. Instead, they use proxies. Why should Syria put its soldiers at harm when there are passionate paramilitary forces ready to do its dirty work? These forces have no expectation of realizing their ultimate goals in the short term, but they do have tenacity and unbelievable passion. Their method of success is to use the equivalent of Chinese water torture. They are realizing that modern wars are won through attrition. They are realistic and expect that this war will last generations. Yet they are also confident of ultimate success.

Unlike Israel, the United States does not have enemies on its doorsteps. If we had to defend our two thousand mile border with Canada against the threat of rockets, we would be as inept, if not more inept than the Israelis were against Hezbollah. We might even imitate some of their tactics, perhaps by leveling large parts of Montreal and Toronto. It is unlikely though that it would solve our problem. Even if Canada had the will to remove paramilitary groups from its border with us, it is unlikely they would have the means and the people to finish the job. This was the essence of Lebanon’s problem. Its military was too poorly equipped to ensure that Hezbollah could not attack Israel. Not all the Israeli air strikes in the world could coerce them to do something they were incapable of achieving. In fact, the air strikes made Lebanon less capable of restraining Hezbollah.

Fortunately, although Canadians will bitch about us Americans from time to time (and we about them) they do not hate us. We have cordial and even friendly relations. We have a mutually beneficial relationship based largely on trade.

Israel is now uncomfortably awake to its new reality. It is floundering to try to find a solution. It hopes that the presence of tens of thousands of international troops on its border with Lebanon will at least delay the problem. If there is a solution to Israel’s security problem, it cannot be won by arms. It can only happen through political discourse. Given the new dynamics, any viable solution would require significant and probably currently unacceptable conditions from Israel. There is no viable way to neutralize paramilitary forces like Hezbollah until the animus that causes it to work for Israel’s destruction goes away.

The United States was bitchslapped in Iraq. As I warned before the war, we could not succeed with less than half of the forces needed to do the job. While we could have brought sufficient forces to control Iraq, it would have been at the cost of something else. We would have had to leave volatile places like South Korea with a skeleton American presence. Otherwise, we would have had to reinstate the draft. The Bush administration though realized that the draft was not politically viable, since the war with Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity. Even had we the 250,000 or more troops needed for the invasion of Iraq, it is still unclear whether the strife we are seeing there today could still have been restrained. Regardless, we would still be viewed as an occupying Christian army in a Muslim region of the world.

Apparently though our current administration refuses to acknowledge our karmic lesson in Iraq. It prefers delusion, which has had the consequence of immense folly. Worse, we are making noises that show we have learned nothing from our experience. Because now we are working hard to take punitive actions against Iran. We still suffer from the delusion that through coercion we can really keep Iran from having the nuclear program it wants. Naturally, our administration is straining at the leash to find punitive tools to use against Iran. Its bellicose words, which began with our president’s unwise decision to publicly label Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil”, have been consistently harsh. Now, since Iran has refused U.N. nuclear inspectors access to its facilities, we are pushing for economic sanctions and boycotts.

What a stupid and pointless thing for us to do. Not only will it not work, it would simply give Iran a reason to play its oil card. The oil card trumps any sanctions the world community can put in place. Even the most modest reductions in its oil exports are likely to cause enormous spikes in the price of oil. It is like those old Roadrunner cartoons. Iran is playing the roadrunner. We are the coyote. The anvil that we dropped to kill the roadrunner will instead hit us on the head.

You would think by this point we might have a clue. Yet a reduction in oil exports by Iran in response to sanctions is one of the better scenarios. Iran’s navy has convenient access to the Persian Gulf. It could easily put a stop to much of that region’s oil exports. We could of course use our military to try to stop it, but that would simply cause more tremors in the oil markets. It would also likely cause an all out war between the United States and Iran. Like it or not, the international community will accommodate Iran, not the other way around. Our short-term need for steady oil prices trumps any long term concerns about their potential nuclear capabilities. The United States may not like the idea of unconditional talks with Iran on its nuclear program, which Iran is proposing. However, if we were operating with our prefrontal cortex we would be accepting such talks. We simply delude ourselves if we think that tough talk will have any deterrent effect on Iran. Iran has the trump card and we have nothing to trump it.

This shows why we are no longer a superpower. If we were a real superpower, we would have figured out effective ways to counter these threats. We have not. The game has changed. We are just beginning to assess what it might take to deal with these new threats. The effect though is that America has lost its claim of being a military superpower. Arguably, we retain other superpower statuses, such as the world’s economic superpower. Unless, like the Cold War, we can develop effective tactics against these new military tactics, we will never be a military superpower again.