BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
“Only nuclear weapons protect Russia from enslavement by the West.” – Vsevolod Chaplin, spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in 2019
Russian antipathy to the West has grown harsher over the last decade. This is not only because of Russian actions since the end of the Cold War but also because of idiotic and arrogant actions on the part of the American, British, and European elite. As both sides have grown colder toward each other and tensions over a variety of issues, ranging from Eastern Europe to the Mideast to Latin America and the strategic domains of space and cyberspace, the Russian elite appears poised to push harder against the United States and its European allies.
The rhetoric of Vladimir Putin and his inner cadre of siloviki has also become nastier toward the West. They have come to view their disagreements with the West as more than just diplomatic rows. Much of the Russian elite believe these rows are existential–civilizational–conflicts in which the very fate of their country is at stake.
And as the US and its allies push the Russians away from itself, Moscow responds by embracing the Alexander Dugin vision of a Russia that is unique and distinct from either the West or its Asian neighbors. It is Eurasianist. Of course, Putin himself has vacillated back-and-forth from too closely identifying with the eurasianist viewpoint. But, the idea of Russia existing apart from–and atop–its Western, Muslim, and Asian neighbors is very evident in the way Putin’s cadre behaves on the world stage.
To many Russian elites today, the United States and the West look like an alien place. Whatever one’s opinion on the matter, it mustn’t be controversial to acknowledge the inherent confusion in the eyes of relatively conservative Russians when they see images propagating from the West of transgenderism, gay rights, and other aspects of what we might refer to as “liberalism” and they might consider as being “insane.” Indeed, this is precisely how many Russians today view the West: as having lost its mind. That’s okay, because we in the West believe Russia today is equally whack.
So, there you go.
Whether serious or not, Vladimir Putin has married his regime to the Orthodox Christian Church in Russia. He has encouraged a return to Russian roots in the aftermath of the nihilistic leveling that Soviet Communism imposed upon the once-mighty Russia for nearly three generations. Russian Orthodox priests, as the above quote from Vsevolod Chaplin indicates, are so entwined in Russian national life today–and are so tethered to the Putinist regime–that their priests now bless Russian nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that are ultimately targeted at American cities.
This is some next-level Iranian-type apocalypticism on display here.
As one observer of Russia told me at a conference recently, “the scary thing about Russia today is that they don’t just hate us as the Soviets did, but many believe we are genuinely evil.” Such attitudes have only been reinforced both by an increasingly authoritarian Putinist regime as well as by circumstances over the last 30 years (please read Peter Conradi’s excellent book on that matter).
Now that the world economy is in free-fall (and is likely to be in such condition for the foreseeable future, unless a cure and/or effective medical management protocol is crafted and made available to the world in short order), Russia stands to benefit most in the near-term from the chaos.
Russia’s Economy Might Be Strong?
Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is used to staring down a bleak future. Indeed, demographically speaking, the Russian Federation is a mess. A petro-economy that is tethered to the constantly fluctuating pulses and rhythms of the world energy market, possessed of an increasingly autocratic leadership under president-for-life Vladimir Putin, with a painfully low fertility rate, the Russian Federation appears to be a country on the brink. In many ways, it is. Yet, in other ways, it is not. Despite my skepticism about the long-term prospects of the Russian Federation in its current configuration, the Putinist regime has made bold moves and taken decisive action to at the very least arrest what was Russia’s seemingly inexorable decline.
Of course, the question of whether or not Putin’s iron fist will be able to reverse what are decades-long negative trends in Russia is another matter entirely. Still, while China is clearly the bigger, longer-term threat to the United States, and while the Left-wing of the United States and much of Europe has been far too obsessed with the Russian Collusion Delusion from the 2016 US presidential campaign, the idea that Russia is not a threat to the United States is foolish, to say the least.
As I have lectured at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C., Russia is a land of centrifugal forces; it is always torn between autarkic centralization and dismemberment along the country’s vast periphery. Or, at least this is how Russian leaders traditionally view their strategic situation.
They’re mostly correct in this outlook, too, by the way.
Russia has been engaged in a long-term series of escalations against the United States and its Western partners. Not all of it has been unprovoked, but much of it has been irresponsible on the part of the Russians (notably their detonation of a random derelict satellite in orbit just to send Washington a message about the coming space war).
As the world reels from the coronavirus outbreak from China, and the global economy grounds down to a halt, the Russian Federation has been eerily silent. Reports indicate that there are hardly any cases of the COVID-19 outbreak. This, as much of the rest of the world–notably countries either with deep ties to or geographical proximity with China–endures a global pandemic event.
Of course, it is more than possible that Moscow is simply lying and downplaying the extent of their country’s coronavirus exposure. We will likely not know for some time. Still, Russia appears unfazed by the outbreak (at least outwardly). After all, President Vladimir Putin has perfectly timed a major geopolitical and geoeconomic move against US ally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in an oil price war right as the coronavirus outbreak slashed global demand and, therefore, led to a recession (which we are in, according to Bank of America).
You see, as the coronavirus exploded in China, demand for oil plummeted. As the disease broke out beyond China’s borders and washed across the world, Saudi Arabia began to panic. The decreased global demand meant that oil output levels of the OPEC member states were far too high. Riyadh believed that a commensurate cut to overall oil production was needed to stimulate higher prices in the face of slowing demand. Russia, a major oil and natural gas producer, disagreed.
Both Saudi Arabia and Russia require relatively high world oil prices for their economies. Moscow disagrees with Riyadh that cutting production would raise praises and artificially stimulate demand. Plus, Moscow senses a pristine opportunity to fundamentally damage America’s oil shale industry–which, despite helping to make the United States a net exporter of fossil fuels is an industry that has been enduring staggering debt woes for about a decade (companies that were once heavily invested in American shale, like Chevron, were seeking to diversify and reinvest elsewhere, such as offshore drilling at the start of the year).
To compound matters, the Russians are keen on killing American shale industry because of sanctions that the Trump administration imposed on Russia’s state-owned energy firm, Rosneft. This cuts back to a point that I made in my recent column at Real Clear Public Affairs about Russia being basically immune to American sanctions. It also harkens back to arguments that both myself and my colleague, Erik Khyzmalyan made in our respective columns at The American Spectator that the United States is great at creating its own enemies (the harder Washington pushes Moscow through sanctions over petty squabbles, the faster Putin runs into China’s waiting arms, potentially creating a mega-alliance on the Eurasian mainland that the West has spent more than a century fearing).
In response to Russia’s unwillingness to work with Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC members in cutting production, Riyadh slashed prices as well as production. Of course, this move hurts both Saudi Arabia and Russia. But the Saudis clearly assume that the Russians will balk and come to the table, finally agreeing to the Saudi desire for production cuts (while acknowledging Riyadh’s greater importance to the world energy markets).
This is a bad calculation on the part of the Saudis.
Ultimately, the Russians are much better positioned to survive–and win–an oil price war in the aggregate whereas the Saudis can only endure for a short period of time.
While the Russian economy is known for its unpredictability, the Putin regime has made moves over the years to shore his national economy up–even reallocating precious funds from Russia’s starving defense sector to debt repayments. The reason for these moves has been to make Russia a stronger economy in the long-term. As the now-deceased Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) famously said of Russia in 2014, that it was “Just a gas station masquerading as a country.”
Putin has striven to change this dynamic.
Key investments in the country’s agriculture sector, Russia has become a key player in the gold sector; it has continued its mining of natural resources, including oil and natural gas, while still diversifying the country’s economy in order to be less reliant on the spastic oil market and to enhance its savings rate. There are still underlying risk factors to Russia that diversification alone might not be able fix, but the Russians are moving with alacrity to at least try to make their economy less vulnerable to the spasmodic nature of the extractive economy.
The Russian economy has been notorious for being an unreliable component of an unstable country. Investors in Russia have not had many places to invest their money over the years–particularly for those Russians who not wealthy enough to open overseas accounts.
For example, the Russian real estate market is a disaster and is not a safe place. Traditionally, Russia’s stock market has also been unstable and unreliable. The Russian currency, the ruble, is weak.
Although, Russian bonds have been strong. Russia’s 10-year sovereign bonds look particularly appetizing–especially compared with American and German bonds. Russia’s 2027 dollar-bonds pay out 4.25 percent whereas Germany’s pays out -0.35 percent and America’s pays a meager 1.8 percent. As James Barrineau told Forbes last year, “[The Russians have] made themselves bulletproof.”
In fact, before the coronavirus outbreak, the Russian economy was expected to outpace the US economy in growth at the start of 2020. It remains to be seen how badly coronavirus will impact the prospects of Russia going forward. Yet, if the coronavirus does end up being as bad in Russia as it has been almost everywhere else, that could destabilize the country and compel it to act even more recklessly as it would under conditions where its economy was more stable and prosperous.
As the world enters into a recession (that could, if a coronavirus cure or management protocol is not discovered and scaled up soon, become a depression), the West–notably the United States–is staring down a debt crisis.
Presently, the run on global markets is starting to affect credit markets. They’re locking up. This, at a time when the US debt-to-GDP ratio is 100 percent. The overall American economy is smaller than the US national debt.
Whereas before, deficits did not matter to the United States. Today, everything risks coming to halt as credit markets seize up, the stock market collapses, and the Federal Reserve prints the dollar in order to prop up the economy and help American workers.
Similarly, the European Central Bank (ECB) fights hard to stave off total economic disaster with their own stimulus package–all in an attempt to prop up the long-flailing Deutsche Bank, which is one of a handful of banks that is simply “too big to fail.” Or, rather, would cause the biggest shockwave if it did fail. Thus, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to use whatever means necessary to prop the long-flagging bank up…and the ECB is more than happy to facilitate such moves.
Should Deutsche Bank collapse, mind you, the entire banking sector would likely collapse with it, thereby replicating the worst aspects of the Great Depression.
In all of this, Russia appears poised to make a play for greater influence in its “Near-Abroad” at all costs. Should its economy enjoy a better ride through turbulent economic waters than it did during the Great Recession of 2008, then, I suspect that Russia will behave as belligerently as it can. I also think that, should its economy end up faring as bad as anyone else connected to the global economy, Russia still might end up being problematic for the West, if only out of desperation.
We’ve seen this movie before, of course.
A History of Russian Aggression
Any time Russia has come close to economic competitiveness, its military is enhanced while its foreign policy becomes much more belligerent than it usually is. As I have written previously, the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the subsequent 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine was brought on after several years of historically high oil prices allowed for Putin to reinvest that money into Russia’s military. As the Western world teeters not only on the verge of depression but also sets itself up for a severe debt crisis, Russia just might be able to run the proverbial tables on its foes (including us, apparently).
In my forthcoming book due out this Fall from Republic Book Publishers, Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower, I detail how–and why–Moscow might decide to risk what it views as a limited war against the United States and its allies over key territories in Eastern Europe. It has already risked conflict with the United States on more than one occasion in Syria. Its “private” mercenary force, the Wagner Group, also risks conflict with US forces deployed to both Africa and Latin America (notably in Venezuela, where Wagner mercenaries defend Nicolas Maduro and other principal leaders of the Chavismo regime in Caracas). Meanwhile, Russian foreign policy has become inextricably linked to the failing regime in Iran. Moscow has defended Iran’s nuclear weapons program since the 1990s. They’ve sought to limit and prevent US action against Iran.
Although Russia’s fertility rates have been well below the societal replacement level of 2.1 children per women for decades, and most Russian families have little-to-no personal savings; even though there is a dangerous imbalance of women and men in Russia (too much of the former and not enough of the latter), and with the influx of both Muslim emigres from neighboring Mideast and Central Asian states, as well as large numbers of Chinese–both legal and illegal–immigrants, Russia will continue enjoying some capacity to effect changes in its surrounding region for at least the next decade.
Any economic boom, however short-lived in Russia as a byproduct of long-term decisions the Putinist regime has made over the last several years, will goose the Russian engine for expansion in the geopolitical space. We know, for example, that Russia’s population is going through a horrific decline. With fertility rates not able to keep up with replacement levels, by the decade’s end, if trends persist, Russia’s borders will be larger than what their military can adequately defend.
Specifically, their border with Europe–which Putin believes is the most threatening to Russia at present–will be physically indefensible should the Russian military contract along with Russia’s overall population.
Therefore, Russia must within the decade either move their presence deeper into the “narrower” parts of Eastern Europe–extending their western borders from where they presently are to more defensible areas between the Baltic Sea and the Carpathian Mountains, allowing for their smaller force to simply plug the physical gaps–or they will have to leave their borders vulnerable to what they view as NATO aggressors. That is why I believe Moscow would be tempted in a few years’ time to try to take by force what it has been unable to secure in peace.
From our perspective in the West, this is insanity. From a classic Russian strategic perspective, it is not all that insane. In fact, it is quite rational in their view. What’s more, this is in keeping with Putin’s worldview: namely that the international system should no longer be as American-centric as it has been since the end of the Cold War, as other countries and regions have risen to economic and geopolitical prominence necessitating the birth of a multipolar world system as opposed to a unipolar order as led by the United States. Plus, the spate of disagreements between Washington and Moscow have all be helped to ensure that the American victory in the Cold War eventuated into a Cold Peace with Russia, where both powers are yet again engaged in seemingly endless rounds of escalation, and even, nuclear brinkmanship.
The United States has long been able to rely on its dynamic and dominant economy as the source of its geopolitical strength. Russia has rarely enjoyed this. Now, however, even if for a short time, the American economy might be the chaotic pit that Russia’s was and Moscow might enjoy a momentary burst of economic power that would undergird its military aggression.
With Vladimir Putin resolving to remain in power at least through 2024, it should be clear to all that his preferences and worldview will win out over any other competing view (what few there are). Therefore, the West should brace for an escalation of Russian aggression across multiple vectors over the next few years until the United States can either repair itself from the damage of not only the last few months, but the last decade or until the Putinist regime collapses.
One way or the other, the West must watch out for Russia during these turbulent times. If I may evoke John Wayne, Russia is being quiet…too quiet for my liking. This economic crisis might be the jolt it needs to move the geopolitical situation in its favor before centrifugal forces subsume the country.