Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Russian Weakness and the Russian “Threat” to the West | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on February 25, 2022

Russia’s actions in Ukraine are not the actions of a strong state with the capability of extending its power over vast new frontiers. Rather, the Ukraine situation is the result of the West’s refusal to take seriously Moscow’s concerns over extending NATO closer to the Russian heartland. The West’s repeated dismissal of Russian concerns has forced the relatively weak Russian state to take greater risks.

This is what is now at work in eastern Ukraine. But none of this means Russia is a great power in the same league with the US, or even with Western Europe.

Ryan McMaken

The current advocates for US aggression against Russia would have us believe that Russia is some sort of peer of the United States and of Western Europe.

Tom Rogan at the hawkish Washington Examiner, for example, insists that Russia is a “great power,” presumably comparable to the United States in spite of Russia’s small economy.

Moreover, as Ted Galen Carpenter notes, hawks are fond are speaking of modern Russia as if it were pretty much the same thing as the Soviet Union, a state that was considerably larger and more populous than modern-day Russia. Unlike Russia, the Soviet Union was also founded on a totalitarian ideology.

Older readers might find that sort of thing to be plausible. After all, many people over a certain age are still living in the past, in the days of the Cold War, and still imagine the Soviet Union as it was: a state three times the size of the United States with satellite states that extended well into central Europe.

Even then, though, the old Cold Warriors were wrong when they asserted that there was a “missile gap” with the Soviets, and that the Soviet economy was a juggernaut that rivaled the Western market economies. In fact, the missile gap was a fantasy concocted by hawks, and the Soviet economy was a basket case, although the always-behind-the-curve CIA was convinced otherwise. The interventionists were wrong about the Soviets then, and they’re wrong about Russia today.

In fact, if we look at the demographic, economic, and military realities in Russia, we find them to be well behind the US, and well behind the West in general.

Population, GDP, and More

First, let’s look at the only one by which the Russian regime might be considered a peer of the US regime: nuclear arms. In his column for the Examiner, Rogan is careful to ignore nearly every actual metric related to Russia’s population or military spending. Rather, he notes exactly one statistic to bolster his case—that the Russian state has thousands of nuclear weapons.

This is true enough, since Russia has about 6,200 warheads while the US has 5,600. Strategically, however, this difference means nothing. Both the US and Russia have nuclear triads and second-strike capability, meaning both countries possess more than enough for deterrence. Moreover, the point at which a nuclear arsenal reaches deterrent capability is closer to “dozens” than “thousands.” The fact that the US and Russia have thousands of warheads is a legacy of Cold War public relations, paranoia, and domestic political pressure to produce larger arsenals. Russia isn’t “more powerful” because it has more warheads. Both the US and Russia are more than capable of destroying the planet many times over. Nuclear arms are defensive weapons and only become a likely threat when the nuclear power in question is backed into a corner.1

But what about measures of military capability that demonstrate actual offensive “great power” capability?

Certainly, economic and demographic realities are relevant. And if we look at those, Russia is a third-rate power.

For example, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), in 2020 Russia is far behind the US, the EU, and a hypothetical Germany-France-UK alliance. Russia is even behind Germany alone. Specifically, the US and the EU have GDP totals around $20 trillion each. Germany, France, and the UK have a combined GDP of around $10 trillion, and Germany has a GDP of $4.5 trillion. Russia comes in at 4.3 trillion. In other words, Russia’s economy is only one-fifth the size of the economy in the EU and USA, and less than half the size of Western Europe’s big three combined.

Source: World Bank Database.

But this tells a very incomplete story of just how far Russia is behind the wealthy West.

Thanks to decades of Soviet socialism, Russia today is much poorer than its supposed “peers” like the US, Germany, and the UK. For example, the GDP per capita in the US is over $63,000 while it is less than half that ($29,800) in Russia. By the same measure, Russia amounts to only two-thirds of the EU total, and only slightly more than half of GDP per capita in Germany.

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