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The End of Russia as a Great Power?

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On February 24th, 2022,what was widely viewed as the world’s second most powerful army launched a special military operation in Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine on all fronts, aiming for a quick and rapid victory which would topple the Ukrainian regime, and probably lead to the installation of a Russian-backed puppet government. Arsenals of charts had shown huge Russian advantages in tanks, aircraft, fighting vehicles, troops, ships, and of equipment of generally notably more modern and better quality, from an army which is well reputed for operational skill and had just 8 years before won a crushing victory over the Ukrainian army in the Donbass and Crimea War.

Russia's victory day parades are an excellent snapshot of the most glorified depictions of the Russian army.

Russia's victory day parades are an excellent snapshot of the most glorified depictions of the Russian army.

Over a month later, and the Russian army increasingly looks to be the second strongest in Ukraine. Its troops have been sent reeling back in defeat from Kiev, their breakout efforts from Crimea have been contained, and its offensives in the Donbass only make grudging progress and it remains to be seen if they will achieve anything operationally. Russia has failed to secure air superiority, or even to make much effective use of its airforce, despite massive numerical advantages. It has suffered embarrassing setbacks against Ukrainian drones and even aircraft despite possessing its formidable air defense assets. Russian logistics have proven incapable of supporting advances of more than a few dozen miles into Ukraine, with the dismal spectacle of massive Russian traffic jams and widespread looting by hungry and ill-disciplined Russian soldiers – probably abetted and allowed by their officers, officers who have died in shockingly large numbers to Ukrainian attacks taking advantage of dismal Russian communications. The mortifying example of hundreds upon hundreds of Russian tanks, transports, even advanced air defense vehicles, abandoned by their crews or out of gas, and captured by Ukrainian farmers has turned Russian armor into a laughingstock, hideously vulnerable, incompetent tanks who try to protect themselves against Western AT weapons like Javelins with “cope cage” armor on top. The only thing which the Russian army has proved to be good at is shelling civilians and retreating, as well as engaging in atrocious and sickening massacres like at Bucha.

Even Igor the farmer got himself a Russian tank! Vast numbers of Russian tanks, APCs, IFVs, even advanced air defense vehicles were hauled away by Ukrainian tractors after being abandoned.

Even Igor the farmer got himself a Russian tank! Vast numbers of Russian tanks, APCs, IFVs, even advanced air defense vehicles were hauled away by Ukrainian tractors after being abandoned.

Systemic Issues in Russia's Military

Many of these flaws can be explained by poor morale, motivation, and dismal planning. But the disaster is more systemic. Even elite Russian troops have been defeated in conventional battles by Ukrainian opponents. The 4th Guards Tank Division, a storied unit equipped overwhelmingly with professional soldiers and the best equipment which the Russians have, supposed to be a peer competitor to NATO armored formations, was crushed by the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade during the Battle of Trostyanets north of Kyiv/Kiev[1]. This was a conventional, stand up fight, the exact type of battle the 4th Guards was designed for, and yet it lost, and lost decisively to far better Ukrainian tactical skills which separated infantry from tanks, picked apart Russian units, and destroyed command and control. Captured Russian UAVs show that their components are overwhelmingly imported and often of low quality [2], meaning the Russian military industrial complex is simply incapable of producing modern advanced technology like them. Widespread corruption in the Russian military with poor maintenance and sold equipment plagues operational standards. Tactical skills are terribly lacking.[3]

The Russians went into Ukraine for many reasons, but an important part of it is presumed to have been to show off its skills and impress the world: to demonstrate that Russia is a military peer to the United States, capable of invading Ukraine like how the United States invaded Iraq. Instead, it has revealed that the Russian army and military is largely a paper tiger, at least in this sort of expeditionary war. The credibility of Russian forces have been severely damaged: from the nightmare scenarios of a Russian lightning strike on the Baltic States, seizing them and entrenching and daring NATO to retake them, the image of a professional, tough, hard-hitting army, and an advanced symbol of the might of Putin’s regime, there is now a picture of stumbling incompetents incapable of defeating even Ukraine, much less NATO formations.

Before the war, one of the claims was that the Ukrainians would simply accept their Russian brothers, as willing members of the triune. The catastrophic misperception was at the heart of the invasion's failure.

Before the war, one of the claims was that the Ukrainians would simply accept their Russian brothers, as willing members of the triune. The catastrophic misperception was at the heart of the invasion's failure.

The Costs of Failure

This would all have been bad enough, but the invasion of Ukraine carried with it tremendous costs economically and strategically, ones which Russia largely underestimated. Massive sanctions were imposed on Russia, and even when the war ends and these are in part lifted, they will dramatically constrain Russia’s future growth in high technology sectors and integration into the world economy. Brain drain has further increased, and this from a country whose education base has already greatly atrophied from Soviet times. European countries are making efforts to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, diversifying supplies, and cancelling Russia-friendly strategic projects like Nordstream II.[4] Russia economically looks likely to become a mere appendage of China.

Russian influence in much of Europe and America has suffered a catastrophic blow. While Russia has been perceived more and more negatively from 2014 onwards, with the annexation of Crimea, interference in Western elections, and aggressive espionage acts, there were still plenty of voices willing to work with Russia and various Russian friendly elements. Some still exist, but opinion in Europe and America is much more decisively anti-Russian, and there have been exposures of hundreds upon hundreds of Russian intelligence assets.[5] Finland and Sweden have become much more amenable to joining NATO. Perhaps the most disastrous in the long term is that Russia’s influence in Ukraine has evaporated: Ukrainians have shown themselves to be fiercely opposed to Russia, devoted to their independence, willing to fight for it, and certainly not willing to be the junior members of the triune nation of Great, White, and Little Russians. Even if Ukraine is formally established as a neutral state after the war ends, in practice it will always be a de-facto NATO ally and implacably opposed to Russia.

Economically, internationally, militarily, even in some senses demographically with casualties and large numbers of Russians who have fled the country[6], Russia has suffered a crippling blow. Even in seemingly untouched areas of influence, seeds of future disaster have been sown: Russian troop strength has had to be decreased in Syria, in its peacekeeping role in Armenia, and Russian minorities henceforth will have the same suspicion applied to them as for German minorities in the 1940s: that they are a security threat, a tool of potential Russian intervention. States like Kazakhstan with large Russian minorities will doubtless be more wary of Russia in the future.

The Basis of Russian Power

Before the war in Ukraine, Russia had six pillars of support behind its status as a global, great power.

  1. Its military, assumed to be powerful and although incapable of matching NATO, still a peer and comparable force, with formidable technical assets, massive arms exports, and at least some expeditionary and global capability as shown by the Syrian intervention and the Wagner Group’s deployment to Mali. It also enjoys massive quantities of legacy Soviet systems, which although outdated were assumed to still provide some military use.
  2. Russia’s super petrol state, with massive influence over global energy politics, as well as its exports of grains and other raw materials to a lesser extent.
  3. The presence of Russian minorities throughout the “Near Abroad,” the former territories of the Soviet Union, and its extensive influence in many of these states.
  4. Russia’s role as an ideological spoiler for the Western democracies: although not a genuine alternative, it was able to effectively harness populist and right wing opposition to the neoliberal Western order and to have thus a formidable political influence in America and Europe.
  5. Russia’s UN Security Council seat and its important diplomatic weight.
  6. Its massive nuclear arsenal.

Almost all of these have been undermined: only #6 is untouched, although with catastrophic readiness of Russian units even this has had some questions raised about this: how many Russian missiles will really fire, how many nukes really work? It’s a question which is hard to know since it is an issue where the Russian government really does place preeminent importance, and almost certainly one where enemies won’t dare to try to test Russia: the costs of being wrong are too grievous to take the risk. But in any future severe crisis with Russia, Western nations might be more willing to take risks, gambling that the Russian nuclear arsenal is just as rotten as the conventional military. Russia does too of course still have its UN Security Council seat, although it is mostly diplomatically isolated, with only minor statues like Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria backing it, although admittedly China and India both are neutral or friendly.

One can easily see that there are very few nations explicitly allied with Russia, although there are many who aren't opposed.

One can easily see that there are very few nations explicitly allied with Russia, although there are many who aren't opposed.

Diagnosing Problems

What’s more, rebuilding Russian strength and finding alternative bases of power is a nightmarish challenge. The Russian military’s problems cannot be simply fixed by a larger budget: Russia already spends outsized amounts of money on its military, and it has a demographically hefty burden placed by its large military forces as a proportion of its population. Endemic and systemic corruption means that money put into the army leaks like a sieve, and the Soviet legacy systems – already shown to be of extremely questionable military value due to their disastrous performance in Ukraine against modern anti-tank and drone forces - are often sold off or left irreparable. Fixing Russian military problems will require massive reforms, ones which are in many ways incompatible with Russia’s state: cleansing corruption, building up a real NCO body since the increasing requirements for flexibility and technical competence in modern warfare make a Soviet officer-heavy army less tenable, improved training, the end of its brutal internal terror of the dedovshchina (Russian army hazing), and a military industrial complex capable of producing advanced modern electronics. And it will require a hard look at what it really can do, and in all probability a scaling down of ambitions.

Reforms: A Difficult Question

But cleaning up corruption is simply not really possible in Putin’s Russia: Putin’s wealth is unconfirmed but if Western analysts are correct, he is without a doubt the most corrupt man in the world, having embezzled hundreds of billions of dollars[7]. The oligarchs and other figures below are just as corrupt, and a real cleaning up of corruption, from the top down, is simply incompatible with the Putin system, itself a more nationalistic continuation of the Yeltsin system. A real NCO corps with initiative and individual thinking could easily be a threat to the authoritarianism and reliability of the military. Improved training will be expensive on an anemic economy. And the military industrial complex will eternally struggle with managing to stay competitive in advanced electronics and modern technology with the massive brain drain from Russia: the only way to stop this would be a massive reform of the Russian economy or ending freedom of movement, both effectively impossible. Russia’s system is a mafia one, capable of oil production and exporting, but with an increasingly withered away technical and industrial economy.

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This leads back to a vital factor for launching the war in Ukraine in the first place: Russia is a declining power, and this is obvious even to the Russians themselves. The population is dwindling, the economy stagnant or shrinking, the industrial base atrophied, decaying, more and more outdated. If Ukraine had worked as Russia predicted – if Ukraine had been swiftly and easily conquered – then it would have served greatly to buttress Russian power, its sphere of influence expanded, its defensive capabilities against NATO magnified, its population size would have been fortified. Instead its gamble to prop up its position has merely served to massively degrade Russia’s power. All of the problems mentioned above will only get worse as time goes on.

Russian pipelines are still overwhelmingly to Europe

Russian pipelines are still overwhelmingly to Europe

This grim picture continues in most areas. Certainly, oil supplies will continue to be important for a long time to come, even with the rise of renewable energy production. But there are other alternatives, and European states like Germany approved the construction of liquid natural gas terminals, to reduce their dependence on Russia. And the aforementioned renewable energy will in the long term take their toll. The only element of the economy as far as broader trends go which can be said to be truly positive is global warming, which will make large swathes of Siberia much more habitable, but the Russian population is declining and this will make it difficult to actually make use of this. To fix Russia’s demographic problems would require a much more functional economy and massive expenditures on social welfare and social provisions: research shows that small payments to women to have more children simply doesn’t cut it[8], vast expenditures are required. With the amount of money diverted by oligarchs into their own pockets this social program cannot be achieved, and Russia’s population will continue to atrophy. Mass immigration might help, and there are already large numbers of guest workers in Russia, but continued political stability and the ideological implications of turning Siberia into a majority non-Russian area are clear issues with this. And whether there is much of a desire to move to Russia with the recent economic crises is up for debate.

The decline of Russian population is not simply internal. Russian minorities are also shrinking throughout much of the Near Abroad, slowly declining. Kazakhstan at independence was around 1/3 Russian: now it is 1/5[9]. Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population is declining faster than that of the Ukrainian side of the country, and even worse they clearly do not feel themselves to be Russian. This vital tool of continued Russian influence is on the wane: it is a wasting asset.

And what of Russia’s ideological competition to the West? This too is less viable: the popular mood in the West is extremely hostile to Russia. Putin’s image as an authoritarian strongman, unlike the decadent West, has been decisively shattered. Russia is no longer the legions of proud soldiers marching in the May 9th Victory Day parade in Moscow, or the defender of tradition and Orthodoxy: it is hardscrabble armies of war criminals, poverty, butchers, and aggressors, and sympathy with Russia is clearly beyond the pale.

What Does the Future Hold?

If you take the traditional attributes of a Great Power: a large and powerful economy, extensive influence over other nations, a military capable of competing with other great powers, Russia is clearly falling out of the great power club, a trend which had started decades ago but the sheer extent of this collapse was masked until now. Russia seems likely to become more and more an appendage of China, a supplier of raw materials to China, turning to the only other power which can offer some support for it. Russia seemed at first like a partner of China: then it seemed like a junior partner, and now it looks to not even be a partner at all – just a glorified Chinese vassal.

So long as the Yeltsin-Putin system continues in Russia, of massive corruption, cynicism, organized looting of the Russian economy, Russia looks likely to continue its decadence and fall. Of course, what will come after Putin, who has singularly failed to assure a successor, is anyone’s guess…

And fascinating too, is how Russia as a security council membership will continue to develop. Russia has lost the attributes of a great power in most regards, other than nukes: India is almost certainly far more suited to being a security council member, with its larger population, economy, and global diplomatic influence, but there is no mechanism to remove a permanent security council member. The shift from the ROC to the PRC was an exception, since it involved simply the transfer from one Chinese faction to another, rather than to another nation: any displacement of Russia’s seat will be a far more ugly and messy affair. It isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, but it will be an interesting feature to see how the world handles the first decline and fall of a great power in a century.

Sources

[1] Kremlin forces humiliated after famed Stalingrad tank division reduced to smoking wreckage | World | News | Express.co.uk

[2]Ukrainian Soldier Find A ‘Cannon’ Inside A Russian Orlan-10 Drone; Calls It Moscow’s ‘Cosmic Technology’ – Watch (eurasiantimes.com)

[3]The Intellectual Failures Behind Russia’s Bungled Invasion | Royal United Services Institute (rusi.org)

[4]Shell signs deal to receive LNG at future German Brunsbuettel terminal | Reuters

[5]Countries Have Expelled 120 Russian Spies During War in Ukraine - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[6]Russia faces brain drain as thousands flee abroad - BBC News

[7]Is Putin secretly the world's richest man? His real net worth is a mystery no one can solve. | Fortune

[8]Would Americans Have More Babies if the Government Paid Them? - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[9]Why are Russians Leaving Kazakhstan? – The Diplomat

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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