If Russia looks strong, remember it’s weak

They were digging the dead children out of the rubble of a school just south of the city of Idlib in Syria yesterday, as the Admiral Kuznetzov aircraft carrier and the Russian fleet entered the Med on their way to help to bomb some more Syrian towns. Could their ships, the Russians asked the Spanish government, a member of Nato, stop, as they have in the past, and refuel at the Spanish naval base at Ceuta?

Yesterday we also carried a report on the publishing by Russia of images of their brand new intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-28 Sarmat, which according to the Russian defence ministry could obliterate an area “the size of Texas or France”. But just in case the inhabitants of Laredo or Lyons feel a bit paranoid about this, it should be pointed out that the Russians could just as well have said “the size of Spain”.

The point is not the payload, it is, if you like, the great big multiple war-headed phallic symbol. We reported the words of a nuclear weapons specialist at the Royal United Services Institute, Igor Sutyagin, when he said: “Russia wants to tell the world: ‘We are a great power, we are scary, don’t ignore us’.”

It took me back. When I was eleven or so I was into planes and statistics. As a Russophile I would take vicarious pride in encyclopaedia entries showing that the USSR was the top manganese producer in the world (even if I had no good idea what manganese was) or that the MiG-21 had a top speed of 1,200mph. The point was that Russia was a superpower, almost equal in status and potency to the United States itself.

We know what became of that. By the time I first travelled to the Soviet Union as a journalist in the early 1980s it was apparent that it was a country that didn’t work. It might have MiGs but it didn’t have soft toilet paper. Its factories were crumbling, its shops were empty, its black markets were easily the most dynamic thing about it. But every May Day the mobile predecessors of the RS-28 were driven in front of Lenin’s mausoleum to be saluted by his successors.

In the reign of Empress Catherine the Great the myth was spread that her minister and favourite, Count Grigory Potemkin, had erected idyllic-looking plasterboard villages on her route around the Russian provinces. It was a myth that was easily believed in Russia. Even if something didn’t really exist, what mattered was whether other people could be gulled into believing that it existed.

So Russia’s fleet makes for Syria, its planes bomb Syrian cities, its soldiers die in Ukraine in the guise of “separatists”, its aircraft buzz ours off our own coast, it intimidates its neighbours and its hackers break into American political email accounts. Are these not the actions and capabilities of a superpower?

Stop and ask yourself how powerful you feel as a Briton these days. Do you consider yourself to be a citizen of a country with the resources to intervene in the Middle East, to send aircraft carriers round the world, to build new generations of tanks and ICBMs? No? Then consider that Russia’s GDP is half the size of Britain’s, just less than South Korea’s and a tenth the size of those of the United States and the European Union. Its GDP per capita is about the same as that of Hungary. Russia has been in recession for two years now, 2015 having been particularly bad.

And yet the Russians are spending more on defence. During the good oil years Russia doubled military spending in a decade. By 2014, with oil prices slumping, almost all areas of Russian government spending were cut in real terms — except the military. That maintained its rise. Putin explained to his people that he saw defence spending as “a locomotive that will pull the various industries: metallurgy, mechanical engineering, the chemical and radio-electric industries, the entire IT and telecommunications range”.

Manganese and MiGs. There are plenty of people in the West today who see Russia and its leadership as a sort of success story. Putin looks like a winner to them, a man who has “given pride back” to his countrymen. He is decisive. Clever. Cunning. He got the Crimea “back”, he took the initiative in Syria, he basks in the admiration of most Russians. And we would do best, rather than “demonising” him, to do business with him more or less on his terms. I hear it everywhere.

But a year ago a Russian economist, Pavel Medvedev, noting the “enduring opinion” that the economy could be led by the defence sector, questioned whether it was true. Putting money into tank production, say, actually did little for domestic consumption. It was still guns or butter, gun sights or broadband. You still couldn’t spend the rouble twice.

Even spending it once is a problem in a sector as problematic, crony-ridden and beyond scrutiny as Russia’s defence procurement sector. There are grandiose and over-expensive programmes, such as the creation of the new Armata super-tank, whose $5 million unit cost has led to orders being slashed from 2,300 to 250. The mighty Admiral Kuznetzov, completed in 1991, is a mechanical disaster area with poor engines and an obsolete launch system. The very fact that a Russian fleet should need to refuel at a Nato port en route for a country just a Turkey-width away from its southern border tells you a great deal.

For some time now the Russian government has been cushioned by a large reserve fund arising from energy production and sales, but this is now depleting. As a consequence other spending areas, such as the Russian health service, are suffering badly. Mothers to be in Moscow are having to wait for up to six weeks for an ultrasound scan, x-rays and blood tests have to be paid for and doctors and nurses are being laid off. A third of Moscow health workers will have gone by next year.

MiGs and manganese. We have been here before. Our danger, as ever, is overestimating an opponent and despairing about ourselves. But thirty years ago the realisation that his country could not compete with the West in technological innovation and defence spending, spurred the reform programme of Mikhail Gorbachev. It wasn’t accommodation by the West that achieved change, it was clear-eyed competition.

I am not advocating confrontation or sabre rattling. I am saying that Russia’s position is much weaker than it appears and that ours is much stronger. We must be clear that the advantages of Russia behaving in a responsible way will be friendship, co-operation and mutual security. The disadvantages of belligerence will be to find themselves caught up in a competition that they cannot win and — as of yesterday — with no room at the port.

David Aaronovitch, is a British journalist, broadcaster, and author.

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