What Democrats Are Ignoring About Russia

Vladimir Putin, President (for life?) of the Russian Federation

Vladimir Putin, President (for life?) of the Russian Federation

While Democrats continue to obsess  over imaginary connections between Donald Trump and the Russian Federation, they seem to pay little attention to what the Russians actually are doing, and what their motivations might be. Yet, as current events involving North Korea and China remind us, allowing wishful thinking about our foreign adversaries to blind us to their very real threats is the height of folly. Chickens almost always come home to roost

The Status of the Russian “Collusion” Fantasy

So what is the current status  for this conspiracy theory? Is it finally beginning to collapse for lack of additional hot air to keep it afloat? And will Democrats’ recent admirable abhorrence for Russian influence on the world dissipate along with the conspiracy theory?

Prior to Donald Trump’s election, progressive Democrats had seemingly little interest in the revival of Russian revanchist ambitions. In fact, during Barack Obama’s regime progressives had almost no interest in acknowledging any hostile foreign threat — whether from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, al-Qaeda, or ISIS. Obama’s attitude was that the United States was to blame for most of the world’s security problems, and an American military neo-isolationism would be helpful to the entire world. In the process Obama by his weakness encouraged ISIS to wage war against Iraq, Syria, and the West; Iran to hoodwink the West in its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles; and North Korea to do the same.

But then Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for President of the United States. This extremely unexpected setback created two very huge problems for the Democrats. The first was the need to find an exculpatory explanation for why Hillary Clinton, whom Democrats believed all but crowned as Queen of the U.S., could lose to such a bombastic, uncouth, ignorant clown. The second was to find a way to delegitimize and sabotage Trump’s administration in order to limit the realization of his agenda. The answer to both of these problems was suggested by two seemingly consistent, reinforcing facts. The first was a Trump statement during a campaign press conference that Russia should help find all the missing Clinton emails from her email servers. He said “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Democrats and their news-media supporters interpreted this as an invitation to espionage, and to meddle in U.S. elections. The second fact suggesting a Democratic solution was the announcement by the CIA that Russia had hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee. Many of those hacked emails subsequently found their way to online publication by Wikileaks, and their unflattering portrait of Clinton and her team certainly must have hurt her to some degree in the election.

The confluence of those two events gave birth to the Trump-Russia “Collusion” conspiracy theory. According to this picture of events, the Russian government, at the behest of Donald Trump and his campaign, committed political espionage and did their best to insure Trump would be elected president. Some went so far as to accuse Trump of being a Russian agent who would follow Putin’s directions, or at least that Trump was a “useful-idiot” for the Russians.

However, as we have learned over the last eight months, there is a very big hole in this conspiracy theory: There exists no objective, believable evidence for it. The most the conspiracy theorists can point out are some admiring Trump descriptions of Putin during his campaign and a few times in the early months of his administration, admiration that seems to have disappeared in recent months as the competition between Russia and the West has heated up. Even that circumstantial evidence can be explained as an ill-advised Trump attempt to inveigle Putin into supporting the U.S. in the destruction of ISIS. Otherwise, no direct evidence has been discovered by the FBI or the CIA in more than a year’s worth of investigation. Such worthies as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and former CIA Director John Brennan have admitted as much. The admissions by John Brennan are particularly noteworthy, as it appears the Russian “Collusion” fable started as a disinformation campaign in Brennan’s CIA shop. Even Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), that enthusiast for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, has had to admit there is no available evidence for any collusion between Trump and Putin whatsoever.

New reports by forensic experts of computer systems and intelligence analysts are shooting even more holes in the hot air balloon of Russian “Collusion.” Reported in The Nation by Patrick Lawrence, in The Washington Times by reporter Dan Moylan, in Fox News Politics by Alex Diaz, and in The Washington Examiner by Jennifer Kerns, the cumulative suggestion is that the DNC servers were not hacked by anyone external to the DNC at all, let alone Russia. Instead, the leak of information appears to be an inside job, with the leaked files probably taken out by a flash memory drive. If Russia did not indeed hack the email files, then the hot air in the “Collusion” ballon catastrophically escapes from the huge rent in it, as the balloon plunges fatally back to earth. If this occurs, will progressives and Democrats continue their hostility and aversion toward the Russian government?

What Do the Russians Really Want, and How Do They Threaten Us?

If progressives lose interest in Russian misbehavior  just because their favorite “Collusion” balloon deflates to nothingness, then the one positive outcome of the entire affair — the progressives’ newly born recognition of the threat to the West by a revanchist Russian Empire — will have been lost.

They, along with everyone else in the West, have every reason to be deeply concerned with the renewed threat of a Russia that has reawakened imperial ambitions. Russia may or may not have been the source of computer hacks seeking to influence elections in the United States  and in France, but they are doing all they can to undermine the legitimacy of the NATO alliance and its constituent countries.

The motivations for these renewed threats arose with the Russian humiliation and loss of power accompanying the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the day after Christmas in 1991. What seemed like a Christmas gift to NATO and the West, was a chilling blow to the pride of the new Russian Federation. In an adverse reaction to the attempted westernization of Russia during the following regime of Boris Yeltsin (actually Yeltsin’s institution of crony-capitalism), Russians first elected Vladimir Putin President of the Russian Federation in 2000.

Rather than attempt to continue the westernization of his country, Putin instead redirected his foreign policy toward a “Russian World” revanchist project. Properly understood, the term “Russian World” means that part of the world  culturally dominated by Russian civilization. Unfortunately, in the view of the Russian Federation’s President, Vladimir Putin, and a great many other Russians, Russia lost governmental control over a very large portion of the Russian World with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. In the introduction to her monograph The “Russian World”: Russia’s Soft Power and Geopolitical Imagination, published by The Center On Global Interests, Marlene Laruelle writes,

The concept of the “Russian World” (russkii mir) has a long history rooted in the 1990s, but it was propelled under the media spotlight in 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin used it to justify Russia’s interference in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin’s actions in its so-called “Near Abroad” — a reference to the post-Soviet space — are motivated mainly by its perception of Russia’s national security interests and the need to protect the country and the current political regime from destabilizing influences, be they coming directly from abroad or fed by domestic factors.

In fact, the “Russian World” project seems to be oriented not just “to protect the country and the current political regime from destabilizing influences,” but also to reacquire all of the Russian Near Abroad, those states lost from Russian

Russia and its western "Near Abroad"

Russia and its western “Near Abroad”
Map courtesy of Google Maps

control with the destruction of the Soviet Union. These states include all the countries of the erstwhile Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe, together with the Baltic Sea States of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Since substantially all of these countries have since joined NATO, reacquiring them militarily would necessarily throw the United States into a war with Russia. Under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

It does not take much research on the internet to find posts like Charles Krauthammer’s on the National Review, Resisting the rising revisionist powers: finally, a first step, noting this most obvious fact about the Baltic Sea and Eastern European states: Russia wants them back! In particular, not only were the Baltic Sea States considered an integral part of the Soviet Union before it dissolved, they were in fact part of the Russian Empire since the early 18th century.

Because of the growing appetite of Putin’s Russia, Russia has been episodically probing its periphery with NATO militarily, beginning with the Transcaucasian state of Georgia in August 2008. The major casus belli for Russia apparently was that Georgia was strengthening its ties with the West. There followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine from February 27, 2014 to the present, and the annexation of Crimea. The motive again was to discourage the Ukrainians from removing themselves from the Russian orbit to associate with Western Europe.

Also, there have been constant Russian military demonstrations short of war at the borders of the Baltic Sea States. Russian military provocations have included incursions into Baltic state airspace as well as into other NATO airspace, and a military buildup on their borders. Also read here for  additional Russian provocations. Next door to the Baltic states across the Baltic Sea, Sweden has also been threatened with war should they decide to join NATO. Since the Baltic states have already joined NATO in 2004, this growing confrontation promises far more danger to the United States than the wars in Georgia and Ukraine.

Increasing the tensions between Russia and NATO have been joint naval and military drills in the Baltic Sea with Russia collaborating with China. Originally exercised in 2015 in drills dubbed Joint-Sea 2015, they were again held this last July. Concerning them the U.S. Naval Institute reports,

Dubbed Joint Sea 2017, the China-Russia maritime exercise in late July will see the introduction of a People’s Liberation Army Navy destroyer, frigate, and a support ship into the Baltic Sea. The PLAN flotilla will join Russia’s Baltic Sea fleet off St. Petersburg for joint drills. Joint Sea 2017 follows on the heels of the latest iteration of BALTOPs, a U.S. Navy Europe-led annual exercise that in mid-June brought together some fifty ships and fifty aircraft — including a B-52 and a B-1 — from the U.S., Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other allied navies.

The two-week naval exercise focused on high-end maritime warfighting drills in a corner of Europe that has been tense ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Baltic Sea has also been a space for close encounters between Russia and the United States over the last few years, both in the air and maritime domains. USS Donald Cook was repeatedly buzzed by Russian jets while operating in the Baltic Sea in 2016, and U.S. reconnaissance flights over the Baltic have repeatedly encountered Russian interceptions, with the Russian jets performing close maneuvers and showing off their weapons load outs by turning the underside of their wings towards the U.S. aircraft.

Almost all the Russian military activity mentioned in this section had happened prior to the 2016 election of Trump, and almost all of it was studiously ignored by the Obama administration and progressives while they practiced “strategic patience.”  As soon as the Democrats’ Russian “Collusion” fantasy falls apart, will they resume this exercise of “strategic patience?”

American Weakness Versus Russian Weakness

During this period of strategic tension  between NATO and Russia, both the United States and Russia deal with each other from positions of relative weakness compared to their relative positions at the height of the Cold War. The United States in particular has seen its military and naval power decay relative to Russia during the not-so benign neglect of eight years of the Obama administration.

On Russia’s part, although they have attempted to give priority to naval and military investments, they have run into severe economic difficulties in trying to maintain the buildup of their armed services. The defense build-up under Putin through the year 2016 is demonstrated by the plot below, with the data provided courtesy of the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) in billions of constant 2015 U.S. dollars.

Comparison of Russian and U.S. defense budgets until 2016.

Comparison of Russian and U.S. defense budgets until 2016. Data for the Russian Federation is available only since the end of the Soviet Union.
Data Source: SIPRI

The first thing about this data that will grab your attention is how much larger the U.S. defense budget is, typically being about ten times larger at any one time. At the end of Obama’s administration, the SIPRI data says the ratio was around 8.6. However, what this does not fully illustrate is the much greater cost of soldiers for the United States than for Russia. What Russia’s lower budget bought them in 2017 was total active personnel of 1.013 million with reserves of 2.500 million, while the higher American budget in 2017 supported total active duty personnel of 1.282 million with reserves of 0.811 million.

Recently, the strain on the Russian economy of supporting such large armed forces is rumored to be taking a toll, and causing a decline in the defense budget. Nevertheless, the actual extent of the decline this year is greatly disputed. The reason for any defense reductions can be seen in the plot of Russian per capita GDP below, again with the U.S. values plotted for reference.

Russian and U.S. GDP per capita over the years.

Russian and U.S. GDP per capita over the years in constant 2010 US dollars.
Data courtesy of The World Bank.

If American economic growth over the past decade has been downright horrible, that for the Russian Federation over the past seven years has been catastrophic. This is emphasized somewhat differently by measuring the GDP in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) in units of current international dollars.

Russian per capita GDP measured as Purchasing Power Parity in current international dollars and its growth rate.

Russian per capita GDP measured as Purchasing Power Parity in current international dollars and its growth rate.
Data courtesy of The World Bank

Clearly, the Russian economy has been in recession for the past three years, and the trend line for economic growth for the past decade is inclined downwards. It is not hard to find reasons for Russia’s distress. Most important has been the country’s fascist economic organization, and how authoritarian state control of the economy retards the growth of the country’s economy. More particularly, while the free-market had not been allowed to allocate economic assets to where the economy needed them most, the state had been encouraging the export of oil and natural gas as the main means of increasing growth. With the oil fracking revolution in the United States driving down the cost of oil and natural gas, Russian economic growth has changed to economic contraction. In addition, U.S. and European sanctions on the Russian economy laid down to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine have not helped.

We can take at least some encouragement from Russia’s economic inability to increase their military and naval strength. Nevertheless, their current strength is already formidable, and they do have some support from their de facto allies, China and Iran. And both our strength and that of our European allies has deteriorated since the end of the Cold War. It would be of great importance to the country if Democrats would not conveniently forget the Russian threat once the Trump-Russia “collusion” fable evaporates.

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