The Russian bear can still roar and claw at the global order but it lacks any power to change it
Throughout his long tenure in the Kremlin, which began in May 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to ensure his country remains a thorn in America’s side.
Consistently vexing the West — whether by annexing Crimea, maintaining ruthless control over Russia’s “near abroad” (the term it uses to refer to the 14 other Soviet successor states), or cozying up to China — Moscow has cut a swath across the international stage.
But in general it has displayed a mosquito-like ability to annoy, rather than the power to directly take on the much stronger West.
Until now, that is. With its suspected cyberattacks against the US government during the past nine months, the Kremlin has graduated from being a mere annoyance to actually wounding the US. It was reported this month that at least six government agencies (including the State Department, Homeland Security, and the Treasury) were hacked, with devastating results.
The cyberattacks display all the hallmarks of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). A backdoor snooping code was added to standard governmental computer updates issued between March and June this year. According to Solar Winds, the company whose software was compromised, about 18,000 US public- and private-sector users downloaded the infected updates, which provided access to their systems. Russian hacker team APT29 — a division of the SVR better known as Cozy Bear — is thought to be responsible.
So pervasive was the infiltration that the unanimous recommendation from experts is that entirely new computer systems will have to be built for the US government, an undertaking that is sure to take years and prove highly costly.
The hacking escapade is just the sort of thing that Putin, with his background in secret-service skulduggery, is particularly good at. But while Russia can still sting, and even inflict serious wounds, the fact that Putin is able to play the Kremlin’s strategic cards so expertly cannot alter the basic fact that Russia remains in decline. Its fundamental political risk choice in the new era is merely a secondary one: whether to persist on its own as a fading, limited great power, or to throw in its lot in a subordinated fashion with the rising China.
As we have said before in these pages, we are living in a new era of loose bipolarity where there two superpowers, the US and China, are clearly vying for global dominance.
However, just below them in terms of importance, other great powers — such as the Anglosphere countries (English-speaking nations with historical and cultural ties to the UK), the EU, India, Japan and Russia — all have extensive room to maneuver and craft independent foreign policies of their own.
The choice for the first four of these powers is to adopt neutralism in the face of the Sino-American Cold War, or tilt toward Washington. For Russia, it is neutralism or an alliance, in one form or another, with Beijing.
A number of structural factors have prevented a formal Sino-Russian alliance from developing. First and foremost, Putin’s Russia — a government whose enduring popularity has always been based around its successful resurrection of Great-Russian nationalism — is loath to play second fiddle to China. Of course, in any Sino-Russian alliance that is how it would have to be, due to the relative power of the two countries. For a long time, this structural reality has kept the two enemies of the US apart.
To put Russia’s decline into context, its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and seven times smaller than that of rising China. Europe has fully 10 times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia. To put it mildly, these are not the characteristics of a rising power. Russia’s hapless economy, its political risk Achilles heel, has doomed the Kremlin’s efforts to reverse the country’s geopolitical trajectory — despite Putin’s undisputed mastery in playing his poor hand of strategic cards as well as he can.
All of this leads me back to my initial political risk assessment: Russia remains a great power, but one that is in decline. It still matters but more for the geostrategic choice that lies ahead of it, rather than for any independent ability to overturn the US-dominated world order.
However, if Russia did decisively throw in its lot with China, it would be the one great power action of our age that would, at a stroke, significantly remake the global structure of the world. Even as Biden’s America corrals prospective allies into its camp — with Japan, the Anglosphere countries, and India likely converts, and the EU possible — the White House must at the same time do everything in its power to prevent a Sino-Russian alliance from coalescing and strengthening.
This means that a continuation of the policy of containing the Russian bear is the way forward. To do so the US and NATO must draw clear lines between alliance and non-alliance countries in Eastern Europe. Those within NATO must be defended and supported to the hilt, and those outside the alliance tacitly left to be what they are in practice now: part of the Russian sphere of influence.
The continuation of this de facto strategy makes it highly unlikely that a Russia obsessed with its status in the world will accept a subordinate role in an alliance with China.
Analytically acknowledging the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of modern-day Russia is, in this larger light, of the utmost geopolitical importance.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com