In the last few days I’ve seen about a dozen headlines declaring the start of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. This interpretation of events is very silly, not least of all because it mistakenly implies that everything a foreign leader does in the world is somehow a reflection of either American strength or weakness. This just isn’t so; I know this is hard for some neocon-minded foreign policy analysts to contemplate, but it’s the case that sometimes things happen in the world without regard to the United States at all! (Somehow I bet this won’t be John McCain’s message on Meet the Press, which I just assume he’s on this weekend; it could more accurately be titled, Meet John McCain with guest David Gregory.)
However, the Cold War interpretation is perhaps understandable if you read Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Duma yesterday, announcing his annexation of Crimea. The speech is an extraordinary litany of sophistry, nostalgia, U.S. bashing, misplaced historical analogy, and if I read it right, it’s also an announcement of more menace to come for Russia’s neighbors. A couple quotes and annotations:
–"Unfortunately, what seemed impossible became a reality. The USSR fell apart." Nothing new there; an ongoing refusal to reckon with the human suffering of Soviet Communism, the purges, the famines, the fear and subjugation. No, the real tragedy is that Russia lost a bunch of territory.
–With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, "the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders." Again, the USSR was good because it at least united all ethnic Russians (in abject misery). Does this statement suggest a longer-term goal of incorporating other ethnic Russians into the Russian Federation?
–"After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability." Yes, totalitarianism combined with nukes was super stable for everyone.
This is all bizarre, troubling stuff, but it is not some sort of reactivation of Soviet-style power projection. First of all, to paraphrase Moe Green, Russia just doesn’t have that kind of muscle anymore. Putin’s lament for the loss of US-Russian bipolarity is fascinating. It’s as if he thinks that nothing has changed about the global order in the past twenty-five years other than Russia lost control of a bunch of peripheral territories. I think China would disagree; they’re probably reading this speech and laughing at their poor sad delusional neighbor to the north, thinking it’s still the premier Asian power. In fact, perhaps this meager projection of force reveals more Russian anxiety about the rise of China, rather than whatever fake rivalry it believes it has with the United States.
And not to get all Fukuyama on you, but another problem with Cold War analogies is that it implies some sort of parity on the world stage and parity in terms of delivering welfare outcomes to citizens. This is, well, not quite the case with modern Russia. The old USSR was indeed able to project quite a bit of military and economic power for a while, as well as offer Communism as a genuine (if awful) rival organizing ideology. But Russia lost all those bets. Today, Russia does not provide much of a salutary political/ideological example, to, well, anybody on earth. It has no governing ideology I can discern. It’s primarily a petro-kleptocracy ruled by a mafia clique of oligarchs and former intelligence agents. Journalists and political rivals are murdered and imprisoned without process. Gays are persecuted and the state subscribes to discriminatory retrograde gender norms.
How about outcomes for citizens? Economically, Russia’s GDP per capita $14,300, making it slightly poorer than Estonia and Uruguay. Nearly three-quarters of its total exports rely on digging oil and ore out of the ground. In 2013, Russia ranked 127th out of 175 countries in corruption, tied with Pakistan and Nicaragua.
Since so much of the country’s economic resources are captured for the benefit of the ruling elite, it’s not surprising that Russia is experiencing a quarter century-old public health crisis. Russia’s life expectancy is the same as that of Bangledesh (70 years), with male life expectancy of only 64, tied with Cambodia. It has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, one of the highest alcoholism rates, and the highest AIDS rate in the industrial world, slightly worse than Liberia and Cape Verde.
The point is, rather than being enmeshed in a grand contest with the United States or "the West", Russia’s more befitting geopolitical rival would be a small developing country in Central America or Africa. Putin is allowed to pretend otherwise because his country has nukes, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, and is not shy about using his petro resources as a geopolitical weapon. These are nuisances to be sure, but we elevate Russia far above its weight class with absurd Cold War talk. Putin’s ethnic chauvinism and nostalgia for territorial conquest should be seen for what it is, a rather sad revanchist obsession with past glory, by a dictator with a litany of domestic dysfunctions to distract from.
The U.S. really did win the Cold War, which among other things means Apollo Creed didn’t die in vain.
Relatedly, I bet John McCain is watching this montage on repeat: