Whether it be diplomatically, militarily, economically or politically, Russia has asserted itself as the nation that carries the most weight in the world system.
Seventy years after the Cold War was initiated by Stalin’s USSR in 1947, Russia is taking advantage of the disarray of democratic nations, badly affected by populism, and is setting the strategic agenda. Russia’s objective is to fashion a new world order that will elude the West. Its weapons are the unlimited use of force and the cyber-manipulation of opinion; and the democracies it is facing are just as powerless to wage war as to maintain peace, even within their own societies.
At first sight, Russia seems to be a giant with feet of clay. The largest country in the world is lacking a great many things. It lacks people, with a birth rate down to 1.7 children per woman and a predicted reduction in its working population from 72 to 68 million between now and 2035. It lacks development, having stagnated since 2008; its potential growth is estimated at a maximum of 1% and its economy is not more than a twelfth the size of China’s. It lacks added value from its single-industry of hydrocarbons which produced 527.5 million tons of crude oil and 640 billion cubic meters of gas in 2016; this made up a third of GDP and half of public revenue. It lacks talent, brains and capital – all of which are leaving in droves. It lacks freedom, with an autocracy recognised as such by its people and which only survives by means of massive propaganda that costs over 18 billion dollars a year.
It is now obvious that Russia is the world power that carried the most weight in the world system in 2016. On the economic front, the agreement with OPEP to reduce oil production resulted in a long-term upturn in the price of a barrel of oil, reaching more than 50 dollars. On the diplomatic front, Moscow intervened directly on the ground and in the air to become a key player in the Syrian war and control the course of the war by means of the axis made up of Iran (under the mullahs) and Turkey (under Erdogan). On the strategic front, the annexation of Crimea became irreversible and more and more pressure is being exerted on Ukraine and the Baltic states. On the military front, Putin has begun a massive nuclear rearmament (having suspended the agreement on the recycling of any surplus military plutonium). He has deployed Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave and toughened his strategy of access denial by the heavy reinforcement of anti-aircraft defenses. On the political front, the cyber-attack on the Democratic Party’s internet providers and then the disclosure of data by WikiLeaks contributed to the election of Donald Trump, whilst pro-Russian presidents were elected in Bulgaria and Moldavia – there is no more military occupation there by Russia; Moscow now exerts control through its client intermediaries.
Putin’s strategic breakthrough can be explained by the inaction of Barack Obama who will be remembered as the Jimmy Carter of the 21st century, trapped in a denial of Jihadism by refusing to recognize its roots in Islam, and in a denial of any threat from Russia, wrongly degrading its status to that of a regional power. But the breakthrough is also the fruit of a remarkably effective strategy. To Obama’s powerless words, Putin responded with action and surprise, systematically playing on imbalance to transform his weaknesses into strengths. The results of this are spectacular. The election of Trump puts a definite end to United States leadership. The West is weakened and divided by the fallback of the USA and loss of credibility of its alliances, beginning with NATO. Brexit is undermining the construction of Europe. In April 2017, Turkey under Recep Erdogan will be changed definitively into an Islamic démocrature (a combination of democracy and dictatorship) by a constitutional referendum. Turkey is overturning its alliances and envisions halting US access to its bases, notably Incirlik. Even Japan under Shinzo Abe is getting closer to Russia in an attempt to resist pressure from China.
It is high time democracies took Russia seriously, and also took seriously Putin’s desire to form an axis of démocratures. It is high time for Europe to take its own security in hand, because this will certainly be put to the test by Moscow. On the eve of the Second World War, Elie Halévy put out a warning to free nations, saying, “Without the threat of armed force, diplomacy is nothing but the yapping of a puppy.”
With the disintegration of what remains of the world order – a disintegration accelerated by Trump – we are seeing the return of the law of survival of the strongest. In this environment, soft power, which is Europe’s speciality, is of no use if it is not backed up by the capability to put up resistance to violence and to resort to the effective use of force.
(Colmn published in Le Figaro, 9th January 2017)