Russia fancies itself a great global power. Yet the country’s GDP in 2017 was smaller than that of Italy, Canada, even South Korea. To say nothing of how that GDP is generated: Russia is essentially a large gas station that also sells weapons now and again.
Where the Soviet Union was once the second largest industrial power in the world, the country now is basically one large rust belt with the odd military base or pipeline here or there. Okay, that is slightly unfair.
None of the official economic measures account for Russia’s thriving black market, or the revenues the country’s “private sector” generates from cybercrime and other forms of organized crime, such as human and weapons trafficking.
But this “thriving” economy does give the country’s government an important strategic resource: a large pool of very capable hackers who can be called upon the state for its own cyber efforts.
Combine this with the country’s impressive and enduring legacy in intelligence, and the Russian state has at its disposal an information and propaganda machine that can hold up to their US counterparts as well, if not better, than they used to during the Cold War.
So, bizarrely, despite the country having effectively devolved into a de-industrialized mafia state where all the long term economic fundamentals such as education and science have been decimated over the past 30 years, Russia does in fact continue to have the capacity to project power globally, and does enjoy making use of that capacity, as we are seeing in its ongoing efforts to undermine the cultural, social and political foundations of the West.
“Russian state has at its disposal an information and propaganda machine that can hold up to their US counterparts as well, if not better, than they used to during the Cold War”
– Azeem Ibrahim
What is remarkable about these efforts, however, is how short sighted they are. Though Putin did recognize early on that the country’s over-dependence on the gas and oil industry was going to be a major weakness, and did attempt to reform and diversify the economy early in his term, those efforts have long been abandoned.
Whatever income the country still has from oil and gas, Putin is now ploughing into “modernizing” the Russian army, upgrading the nuclear arsenal, financing dubious regimes around the world, and maintaining and expanding the Russian propaganda machine.
As an example of Russia’s investment priorities, consider how the students employed at troll farms are payed respectable middle class incomes, how propaganda outlets based in Western countries employ fresh Western graduates on extremely generous pay packages, and then encouraged to report on current affairs in thoroughly critical and sober ways – just so long as the topic is not Russia, and new local language channels are in the works.
But fossil fuel revenues are not long for this world, and few, if any, of these other “investments” are like to be money-makers in the long run. Meanwhile, the Russian industrial base continues to be hollowed out, education continues to decline where once Russia was a world leader, and scientific and technological innovation has long since dried up in the country who sent the first man to space.
Putin’s star, meanwhile, continues to shine brightly. There are, as have always been, dissidents, but the country in general either supports, or at least acquiesces to his rule, content with the high international profile that the President has given back to their country. Russians feel that they can be proud of their country once more after a decade and a half in the “wilderness”.
Few seem cognizant, or at least concerned, that to maintain this appearance of power, Putin is squandering whatever little economic reserves the country has left, and is transforming the nation into an international pariah.
For his part, Mr Putin does seem to be aware of what he is doing, but seems to have long resigned himself to be a “Sun King”. He will bring “glory” to his country, whatever the cost. Et apres lui, la deluge.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
Originally published in Al Arabiya.