Russia Leaves its Great Power Illusions in the Ukrainian Mud
Folly of invasion exposes weakness
Is Russia really a great power? Or just in the top ranks of middle powers, like Germany and Japan? The question needs addressing by Asian countries trying to position themselves in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and apparent determination to pursue a war of attrition there following the humiliating failure of its initial assault.
Even in the days of the Cold War from 1950 to 1990, the then-Soviet Union was no power match for the US – except in the fields of nuclear weapons and rocketry. Its population was smaller, its economy much poorer and its influence through soft power and investment minuscule compared with the US.
The same situation applies today yet even more so. Russia is today still by far the largest country in the world after losing chunks of its former empire such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine, stretching from the Baltic to the Bering Strait and girdling more than half the globe. The landmass offers a cornucopia of mineral riches led by oil, gas, gold, and nickel.
Yet while the geography may appear to project Big Power, there are ways in which it is a weakness. The costs of maintaining infrastructure across this landmass are huge for a nation with a population only a little larger than that of Japan and now only a third that of the USA, particularly as most of these live west of the Volga river, often seen as the dividing line between Europe and Asia.
Reliance on mineral exports has also meant that Russia today has a weak manufacturing sector, its resources and expertise continuing to be diverted into military and space sectors to a much greater degree than either the US or China. In recent times, this has been to the great advantage of producers of both consumer and capital goods from elsewhere – notably China and Germany.
Doubtless China sees plenty of opportunities for expanding its economic role as supplier and investor as a result of western withdrawal from Russia, meanwhile offering the best opportunity for Russia to reduce dependence on gas sales to Europe.
With China’s own nuclear and space achievements on top of both its vastly bigger population and proven record of success in manufacturing and in global trade, Putin has succeeded in making it clear how weak Russia is compared to China and how backward in many technologies compared with US-aligned Japan, Korea, and Germany.
Indeed, having Russia as an ally, expressed in the Xi/Putin embrace just before the Ukraine invasion, was supposed to bolster China’s position vis-a-vis the US and its growing challenge to China’s rise. But as the invasion has also strengthened European solidarity with the US, there will be no net gain at all for China.
This explains its desire to appear as a potential peacemaker while toeing the Russian line on disinformation about the realities of the war. It also helps China to present the Ukraine war as a US/Russia surrogate conflict whereas it is Europe which is more concerned than the US, as the sharp turn in Germany’s policy has shown and the alarm in traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland, reflected in a new focus on defense spending and security allies. For the Finns, the Ukrainian resistance is a reminder of their 1939/40 resistance to an unprovoked Soviet invasion which forced Stalin to settle for acquiring 9 percent of its territory, not the 100 percent control via a local puppet to which he aspired. The League of Nations expelled the Soviets for this aggression
Putin’s obsession with Ukraine (which he sees as the jewel in the crown of the empire which was once Russian, then Soviet or Tsarist) has now served to show Russia’s weakness. It is not just the military failures of its partly conscripted and not especially well-equipped army which has showed up the nation, forcing Putin to rely ever more on rockets, bombs, and artillery against civilian targets rather than risk closer combat.
It is not just in having to appeal – at least according to US intelligence – to China for help. Perhaps more than anything it is that Putin has had to make extensive frontline use of Chechen troops. The Chechens, it will be recalled, fought two wars for independence before in 2009 their then-leader Akhmed Kadyrov changed sides in exchange for a free hand to rule. His son Radzan Kadyrov now does the same so Chechens now die for Russia as the price of a brutal de facto independence under the Kadyrovs.
Yet another indication of weakness is Putin’s recruitment of what are in effect mercenaries from Syria, supplied by President Assad, who owes his own survival to massive Russian (and Iranian) military support. Such gratitude saves Russian lives but reflects Putin’s desperate need for allies, especially as he could never be sure of the sincerity of Xi’s embrace.
India meanwhile not only wants to keep on good terms with Russia by appearing neutral on Ukraine but is also concerned not to see Russia become too reliant on China and their semi-alliance not become a direct competitor to the Quad of India, the US, Australia, and Japan. Iran, on the other hand, may, especially if it agrees to rein in its surrogates such as the Houthi in Yemen, look on the cusp of a deal with the US which enables it to export more oil and have some sanctions lifted.
Of course, this would have the Israeli lobby in Washington complaining loudly, but given Israel’s relationship with Russia and its own record of illegal expansionism, this may be an ideal time for the US to create more distance between itself and Israel even as the latter makes friends with some Gulf states. Iran and Turkey both have their memories of Russian imperialism and while staying on the sidelines may not be unhappy to see Russia’s weaknesses exposed.
Putin’s fixation on Russia’s western front blinds him to the reality that Russia’s empire is weakest in the south and east. The mostly Muslim little states in the North Caucasus, including Chechnya, are only loose parts of the empire. Tatarstan on the Volga is only 50 percent ethnic Russian and the Russian minorities in Kazakhstan have been dwindling for years, a slow exodus that will continue – unless perhaps Putin elects next to seize the northeast borderlands where Russians are most numerous.
That might not be difficult but would upset China which is willing to accept that Russians see Kazakhstan as within its sphere of influence but not grab land. If there is to be land grabbing and reversal of empire in the east, the bigger long-term issue for Russia is the lands it acquired from Manchu China in 1860 in the same Convention of Peking by which Kowloon was added to British-ruled Hong Kong. The lands include Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, the largest cities in the Russian Far East.
For now, friendship with China + atomic weapons means that there is scant danger of the reversal of this “unequal treaty,” China’s largest land loss in the 19th century. Meanwhile the danger for the West – and China – is a breakdown of international commerce between the major powers. Globalization was already in retreat due to the pandemic and Sino-US tensions.
Europe in particular needs to tread a path between helping Ukraine resist and tarring all Russia with the Putin brush. There is enough evidence that despite censorship and self-delusion, many Russians are unhappy with the war and would prefer a return to something like the previous status quo.
Some face-saving devices for Russia will be needed but big capital on all sides recognizes that mutual freezing of assets is a zero-sum game in itself, even without counting its secondary negative consequences.