How the West underestimates Russia’s Putin
It is often said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “play a weak hand well. “But according to Catherine stoner, an expert on Russia at Stanford University, this conventional analysis is incomplete. She argues that Moscow not only holds better cards than many Western observers might think, but is also more willing to play them, even the riskiest.
On the Trend Lines podcast this week, Stoner sat down with WPR’s Elliot Waldman to discuss his recently published book, “Resurrected Russia: Its Power and Purpose in a New World Order. “
Listen to the full conversation here:
The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for clarity.
World Politics Review: In addition to playing a bad hand well, another metaphor often used in reference to Russia is that they are hitting above their weight. I guess your answer to that would be that it actually deserves to be in a heavier weight class.
Catherine Stoner: Yes. What I’m trying to do in the book is to make some corrections to how we think about state power or influence in international relations, so that we can get a sense of class. of real weight of Russia. To know if it is a light weight or a heavy weight, it is necessary to know how to measure the weight, or in this case, to indicate the power.
One of my claims is that we tend to think about power too narrowly and overlook many abilities. We tend to look at traditional measures of what I call men, military, and money: that is, things like the wealth of the population as measured primarily by GDP or GDP per inhabitant; how much a country spends on the military; and the health of its population.
I assess these things in the book, and find that Russia is actually doing a little better than you might think. But I also go beyond and emphasize that power is multidimensional. For example, Russia currently controls many pipelines, including a very large one in northern Syria, where oil flows from Iraq and Iran through Syria and to the port of Tartus, which the Russia is also in control now. So it’s not clear exactly how this plays out in its GDP, but it gives it a lot of leverage in the global oil supply, especially in Europe.
Power is also relative and contextual. A good hand of cards in bridge is a bad hand in poker. Depending on the context, the cards are worth more or less than what you can take at face value. So you have to understand the game Russia is playing at any given time in order to assess its resources.
The last thing is that a country’s power tools can be good enough to be very disruptive depending on the context. It is not necessary to have the maximum of everything to be still extremely influential in some areas of international politics.
So, I’m trying to point out that when you think of power in this different way, the characterization of Russia as weak compared to the United States or Europe is a bit outdated. It’s stronger in some areas, it’s weaker in others. He has recovered a little more of his previous abilities than is generally imagined, and he has new tools, like cyber power or what one could call “the cutting power”, which are not that expensive but which are extremely disruptive.
And then there is the internal political system, which developed around Vladimir Putin and his 21 years in power. It lacks controls, so it doesn’t have to look to the legislature, like a US president would, in order to be able to use these energy resources quickly and without a ton of accountability.
WPR: Another interesting aspect of power that you touch on in the book concerns geography and the number of places in which Russia plays a role. Can you talk about it a bit?
Catherine Stoner: Like I said, I am looking at the traditional means of power. But then there are two other dimensions of power that the book examines.
One is the geographic domain, as you mentioned. It really comes down to determining where and in how many countries Russia exerts its influence, as well as the scope or weight of politics: which policy areas are important, how important they are globally, and how far Russia is. an actor in these fields.
If you look at the geographic domain, Russia is a huge player in the former Soviet Union. It is the largest country in the world in area and extent, depending on the time of year, 12 or 13 time zones. It borders 14 countries, tied for first place in the world on this point, with China.
It is not necessary to have the maximum of everything to be still extremely influential in some areas of international politics.
But its influence also goes beyond its immediate borders. Since Russia’s successful foray into Syria in 2015, she has used this as a starting point to establish more influence in the Middle East, in particular. It is now the main power that will determine the future of Syria. Partly that’s because the United States has pulled out, but it creates opportunities, and who rushed in? Not China, but Russia.
In Iraq, where the United States has shed blood and spent a lot of money since 9/11, Russia has forged ties and trade relations, selling heavy industrial equipment and supplies to build things like railroads.
He also has a stronger relationship than we do, of course, with Iran. He is instrumental in the attempt to restore the nuclear deal, but he also trades with Iran. And Iran has tried to strike a deal with Russia and China by giving them preferential access to Iranian oil contracts, so that they can sell their oil even though they are under sanctions.
There are also new relations with Israel. Putin has even been active in doing things like providing benefits to former Soviet war veterans who now live in Israel, benefits they would have received had they stayed in Russia. Things like this are extremely popular, and it’s soft power. There is fairly stable diplomatic traffic between Israel and Russia, and there are also investments from members of the former Soviet Union who are now Israeli citizens in Russia. They are Russian speaking and have technological expertise.
It was said in the early 2000s – between 2003 and 2008, when oil prices were high and Russia benefited, in terms of GDP, from the income from the sale of its oil abroad – that Putin did not control the oil prices. world oil prices. It was “Vladimir the lucky. ”
But now, having forged close ties with Saudi Arabia and being the +1 of OPEC +, Moscow can actually agree with Riyadh on oil supply and prices, even if they don’t cooperate. always perfectly about it.
I could go to Libya, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, to provide money and pledges to right-wing populist leaders, or other relationships she has restored, two of the most important of which are with India. and with China.
WPR: Yeah, we can definitely get in there. And I want to get back to soft power, but before we do, on the issue of Russia’s hard power, there is a lot of talk in your book about its military modernization – what is called the “New Look”. . Why was it so important?
Catherine Stoner: He came out of the war with Georgia in 2008. Russia won that incursion and still occupies two areas of Georgia, but the military has not performed particularly well. At that time, it was mainly an army of conscripts. It was made up of young men, some of whom came from poorer families who weren’t connected enough to get them out of conscription. Many of the soldiers were in very poor health and the equipment had not been maintained since the collapse of the Soviet Union. They were focusing on other things in the 90s â creating a market economy and so on.
So, in 2008, they embarked on a complete overhaul of the army. The Soviet army they inherited was designed to wage a continental war, mainly in Europe. The emphasis was on the number of soldiers and on large weapon systems.
But between 2008 and 2019, Russia redesigned just about everything, from nuts and bolts, from military education to weapon systems. They have professionalized the armed forces so that conscripts represent a relatively small portion of the force now – around 10 percent to 100 percent – and they have consolidated the number of educational institutions for the military.
What they basically did was build a smaller, more nimble army suitable for modern warfare. It is a smaller army, but it arguably has more strength and much newer and modernized weapon systems. They have increased the number of submarines and they are superior in tanks to the United States. I know our military leaders have looked into this, and the best military people know that these tanks are doing things ours cannot do in certain geographic areas of Europe.
It allowed Russia to do things. If they wanted to occupy one of the Baltic republics, they could do it fairly quickly, as NATO does not have much time to react because it is not sufficiently present there. NATO has put in place smaller rapid reaction forces as a deterrent, but the Baltic republics are quite vulnerable, as is Ukraine, as we saw in 2014.
As for the Russian Navy, they have also created a number of interesting and frightening weapons. One of them is the nuclear-tipped, nuclear-powered Poseidon torpedo, which is launched under the ocean from a submarine and, if it hits its target on an opponent’s shores, can allegedly create a tsunami that spreads 1,500 kilometers inland.
I haven’t even talked about the Air Force yet, but there have been some pretty significant changes there too, as well as an improved range of tools, like modernized nuclear weapons. Russia is now hands down the most militarily capable country in Europe.