The world has progressed beyond the need for Russian power
A crumbling, aggressive, dysfunctional petrostate cannot be a balancing force in the world.
Big news seems to be coming fast and furious these days. We’re still waiting on the midterm results, and I already wrote about the crypto crash, so today I think I’ll write about the Ukraine war. In the last few days, Ukraine has taken the key city of Kherson in the south of the country, in a battle that started as a planned Russian withdrawal and is turning into a catastrophic rout.
First, the basic military situation. Kherson city is the provincial capital of one of the four Ukrainian provinces that Vladimir Putin recently claimed ownership of. The city was conquered by the Russians early in the war, but it’s on the opposite side of the very wide Dnipro river from Russian supply lines, so there was always a good chance that Ukraine would take it back. For months now, Ukraine has been hammering at Russian positions around Kherson, using the famous HIMARS rocket launchers and other artillery donated by the West. Finally, taking huge losses, the Russians decided to withdraw to the opposite bank of the river. Here’s a picture of how fast the Ukrainians are recovering territory:
But as happens all too often with Putin’s Russia, the withdrawal was executed chaotically and poorly, allowing the Ukrainians to inflict tremendous casualties on the Russian forces as they try to escape across the Dnipro. Panicked testimonials are now appearing on social media as Russians sit trapped under a hail of Ukrainian artillery. If you want to follow these fast-moving developments, you can follow my Ukraine War list on Twitter.
Anyway, the war is far from over. Russia is still wreaking havoc on Ukrainian infrastructure with missile strikes, other territories might be harder to retake, and Russia can always try more nuclear threats. But at this point one conclusion seems clear — other than the nuclear arsenal it inherited from its Soviet predecessors, Putin’s Russia has nothing that makes it worthy of being called a “superpower”, or even a “great power” at all.
The failure of Russia’s war effort is the clearest proof of how far the country has fallen since Soviet days. Russia has about 3.5 times Ukraine’s population, a far higher per capita GDP, and truly massive stores of equipment and ammo. Before the war, its military was believed to be the world’s third most powerful, and had seemingly proven its mettle by crushing Chechnya, quickly subduing Georgia, and largely pacifying Syria.
And yet against Ukraine, Russia’s vaunted legions have been simply chewed up and spit out. There was the chaotic initial invasion, followed by the quick and humiliating retreat from Kyiv. A few months of stalemate netted Russia a little bit of territory in the east via an enormous expenditure of firepower and lives, but Ukrainian counteroffensives since then have already taken back far more than that, conducting successful offensives in both the northeast and southwest. The Pentagon recently estimated that Russia has lost fully half its active tank force in the war already, and the human toll has been steep as well.
Of course, Russia apologists will tell you that Russia is losing not to Ukraine, but to all of NATO. This is utterly absurd. Yes, NATO sent Ukraine some weapons, but not really that many. For example, the U.S. has donated just 38 of the vaunted HIMARS rocket launchers out of an arsenal of around 400 — and these are operating without the air support they were designed to work with. No fighter jets, no modern Western tanks, no long-range rockets for the HIMARS, no ballistic missiles, none of the top-line air defenses, etc. etc. In fact, many of Ukraine’s weapons are simply captured from defeated Russian units — a fact that some in Russia are starting to acknowledge:
So Russia is getting its butt kicked by a much smaller, much poorer neighbor using a small amount of NATO military surplus equipment. And Russia is getting its butt kicked despite throwing its whole society into the fight. A chaotic and poorly executed general mobilization netted a couple hundred thousand untrained and poorly equipped “mobiks”, many of whom Russia immediately sent to die as cannon fodder at the front. This human wave attack doesn’t seem to have altered the military situation that much, but it has caused an estimated 700,000 men to flee Russia.
In other words, despite all his WW2 throwback rhetoric, Putin is not Stalin, and the army currently getting blasted to bits on the banks of the Dnipro is most definitely not the Red Army.
Meanwhile, the country is having trouble producing new weapons (thanks in part to effective Western sanctions), and is pulling increasingly decrepit equipment from old Soviet storage facilities. Where the USSR was an inefficient but vast manufacturing powerhouse, Putin’s Russia is a corrupt petrostate dependent on imports of foreign technology.
In other words, Russian military and economic weakness is now simply a fact of our world. This makes it simply impossible for Russia to serve as a “pole” in a multipolar world order, no matter how much anyone would like it to.
There are a number of people who either believe or hope that Russia will continue to be a force that balances out the power of the United States. On the far right, which has derisively labeled the Ukraine war “World War Trans”, there’s the sense that Putin is a defender of traditional values. The far left, meanwhile, views American power as basically evil and stands ready to support — or at least not to condemn — any power that reduces American hegemony. And some “realists” in the foreign policy community, like John Mearsheimer, view the current war as the U.S.’ fault for failing to yield Russia a Soviet-style “sphere of influence” that includes Ukraine.
The problem with all of this is that Russia is just too weak to play the sort of balancing role that these various groups want it to play. Even if you think the U.S. needs to be balanced, a country less than half our size that uses up the bulk of its weapons and manpower in a failed attempt to conquer a much smaller, poorer neighbor is simply not going to be capable of balancing us.
And that’s OK. The multipolar world will include China, a newly united Europe, and India as poles of power to balance out the U.S.; Russia isn’t needed anymore to keep the system stable.
In fact, Russia is a huge source of instability in the world today. Besides brutally invading its neighbors, it has attempted to meddle in other countries’ elections, sent mercenaries to sow chaos in Africa, propped up the Assad regime in Syria, engaged in a lot of other proxy wars, and shut off gas supplies to Europe. Putin’s Russia is much weaker than the old USSR, but it tries to make up for that weakness by disrupting any powers that might try to gang up and oppose it. Where the USSR was (sometimes grudgingly) a conservative, status quo power during the Cold War, Putin views global chaos as a requirement for a Russian imperial restoration.
Russia’s strategy of constant attack and disruption is slowly eroding its base of allies and friends. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reports on how Russia is losing support and influence in multinational organizations:
Russia’s isolation will be dramatized next week by President Vladimir Putin’s absence from the Group of 20 summit, historically a favorite forum for Russia…Moscow’s effort to seize the high ground of technology has failed miserably…Russia’s other internet initiatives have also stalled…
In April, the [UN] General Assembly voted to suspend it from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. That same month, Russian candidates were rejected for seats on four organizations of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, and Russia was suspended from the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization...Last month, Russia lost an election to retain its seat on the governing council of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
And in a recent vote at the UN, a resolution condemning Russia’s declared annexation of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions passed 145 to 5, with 35 abstentions.
Most of the countries that abstained were poor African countries who understandably don’t want to get involved in any great-power struggle. And one was China, which has wavered back and forth on how much to support Russia in this disastrous war. But one of the abstainers was India.
India has close historical ties with Russia. The USSR was India’s patron during the Cold War, and India’s military still uses a whole lot of weapons that it bought from Russia (though it’s shifting its purchases to the West). To India, Russia long represented an ally who can help defend them against their most powerful rival, China. As Russia has pulled closer and closer to China, that sense of patronage and protection has faded, but strong echoes of the Cold War mentality remain.
But India’s hopes for Russia’s future global role are as futile as the hopes of American leftists, rightists, and increasingly misnamed “realists”. A country as weak and aggressive as Russia is no patron or protector. It is merely a source of chaos — a would-be disrupter of the world order and global economy that have seen India grow increasingly rich and powerful over the past few decades.
The world has simply progressed beyond the need for Russian power, and the faster all the remaining fence-sitters wake up to that fact, the better. Putin’s Russia should be treated as a dangerous, nuclear-armed, dysfunctional rogue state. The goal should be to contain it, and contain the damage from the chaos it causes, rather than to appease it by offering it some facsimile of the great-power respect we showed the old USSR.