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Why Bother with Russia?

 Updated from an earlier version published in May 2017 in

Like a lot of people in North America and Europe, I lived through years and years of paying attention to the Soviet Union, and later, Russia. It always seemed to me that this huge country, with the largest land area in the world, and possessor of nuclear weapons, was and is engaged in a more or less evenly-matched competition with the US and with Europe. I took for granted that Russia had a big economy to (sort of) go along with their big land mass. But then, a while ago, I ran across a visual diagram of the world’s economies on The Visual Capitalist.

The founder and editor of this website, Jeff Fairbanks, took some data from one of the international agencies and turned it into a visual that compared the relative size of the world’s economies. Startling stuff, when shown this way.

Now, there are a lot of countries that have nukes, such as North Korea, Pakistan, India, France and China, yet these seem benign or very far away, so we pay little attention to them, except perhaps for the publicity-seeking North Koreans. Russia has always seemed close and antagonistic. Yet, other than the fact they are in the ‘nuclear club’, do the Russians deserve the attention they get? True, they have meddled in some of their much weaker neighbors and bit off small pieces of land, but the Chinese are eating their lunch in the former eastern Soviet Asian Republics, the ‘Stans’ as they are called. The Russians also sent their only aircraft carrier around to the eastern Mediterranean to launch planes at Syrian rebels who had no anti-aircraft capability. Do these compare with the Soviet threat that launched the Marshall Plan and NATO? in response? I don’t think so.

What the Visual Capitalist diagram showed is that almost a quarter of the world’s GDP is generated by the US. Canada is good for 2.09% and Mexico 1.54%. Russia comes in at 1.8%, right up there with Australia. Australia??!! Mexico?? Where’s the Canadian aircraft carrier? Russia has one, presently tied up at a large jetty/dockyard, which they sent a few years ago to Syria, arriving after a mishap- laden voyage via the Black Sea. Why hasn’t Mexico invaded Belize or Guatemala recently? Again, where’s the Canadian aircraft carrier? 

Also, how can Russia have all these billionaire ‘oligarchs’ with an economy so relatively small? Mexico has Carlos Slim, the broadcasting magnate, and maybe one or two big drug lords, but that seems small potatoes by comparison. Anyway, how does having these oligarchs buying up properties in Florida, Cyprus or London help the Russian economy? Who’s paying to run that Russian aircraft carrier? 

Today, the Russian economy is not exactly a powerhouse. The population has been declining to stagnant and is aging. The main Russian export has been oil and gas, but the drop in world oil prices from $100 per bbl. to $40-$50 in the 2000s was a real body blow. They do have a lot of computer engineers, but they seem to be misplaced, hacking US Democratic Party emails and data rather than producing neat stuff to sell to the world economy, instead of all that relatively cheap oil. 

My guess is that the US has more, and more sophisticated, techies than Russia and that the Russian activity around the 2016 and the 2020 US elections was no more than another one-off surprise attack like Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Very effective—once, but it is not a wise idea in the long run to get those trusting Yankees seriously aggravated. American hackers invented this game of messing around with somebody else’s software in Iran over a decade ago. It may take a couple of years, but I anticipate nothing good for Russian software infrastructure happening after this.

The US weathered Trump’s Administration though burdened with leftover Russian ties, and it remains to be seen whether the nature of these ties is strong enough to cause real irritation. Given latent American anti-Soviet fears and the unpopular strident anti-globalization of the now ex- President, his desire for some kind of rapprochement with Russia is already endangered. Many people are puzzled by it and wonder if the President sees himself as a kind of a wannabe American Putin. Russian aggression against Ukraine and its subsequent defeats there have left it with the general impression that the country cannot do much to its neighbors with much other than use its nuclear weapons, with the probability that others may use them against the homeland in retaliation. 

If the Russian economy is barely larger than Mexico’s and smaller than Canada’s, then why not dump Putin and pivot back to North America? The Russians can’t offer an import market like Mexico can. Check the stats…Canada has as much oil as Russia and it does not have a history of beating up its smaller neighbors, like Danish Greenland. Spanish is easier to learn than Russian. There is also the benefit that Canadian and Mexican ties are more palatable to Americans, since nearly half of their populations live within a couple of hundred miles of these countries.

A Trump defeat at the polls could change the whole situation. Anyone else winning the 2020 election would reorient American foreign policy and leave Russia in a more vulnerable position relative to its neighbors.