Military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis
In its February 14, 2014 issue, The Economist focuses on the rise of Russia and its threat to Western security. Over the course of three articles, it argues that 1) the Ukrainian conflict has “usefully shown who is boss in Russia’s backyard”; 2) For the West to prevail in the conflict, “it will require far more resolve than Western leaders have so far shown”; 3) Russia is winning the war of ideas due to the electoral success of far-right parties they have supported. One can make the case, however, that this picture of Russia versus the West paints Russia as too powerful and the West as too sheepish. In reality, Russia is a small revisionist power struggling to expand against a strong alliance.
Packing a Punch?
To start, The Economist grossly overestimates the amount of military power Russia has compared to that of NATO. One graph in the magazine, for example, shows that Russia has increased its defense spending by 90% since 2007, while the European members of NATO have reduced their defense spending by 20% over the same period. The Economist tries to draw the reader’s attention to Russia’s percent increase in spending and away from the damning evidence of total defense spending. While Russia spent $70 billion on its military in 2014, the European members of NATO spent a combined $265 billion in 2014, which is almost four times more — and that’s without including the $619 billion spent on defense by the United States in the same year. The combined defense spending of NATO countries is over 12.5 times greater than Russia’s in 2014. Even with nuclear weapons, this yawning gap in military power will make it impossible for Russia to threaten Western hegemony in Europe.
Notwithstanding military strength, a look at the Russian economy shows that it is a declining — not rising — threat. With the exception of the 2008 financial crisis, Putin was able to sustain steady economic growth for most of his tenure, but now the Russian economy is falling. Economic analysts from the World Bank predict that low oil prices and increasing inflation of the ruble will cause the Russian economy to contract 3.8% in 2015, which comes on the heels of two straight years of stagnant growth in 2013 and 2014. After spending $134 billion last year trying to prop up the ruble and bolster struggling Russian companies, Russia unveiled a plan on January 30 to spend 2.3 trillion rubles ($40 billion) to contain its current economic crisis. Although growth is also slow for many major Western powers, Russia’s economy is in a declining condition similar to that of 2008. This economic decline means that Russia’s aggregate power is sinking relative to that of the US and the EU. Moreover, since Putin’s regime engages in rent-seeking behavior, an economic decline could likely spark domestic political turmoil.
Losing Hearts and Minds
While The Economist argues that Russia is making progress in a war of ideas with the West, a review of public opinion polls and recent election results tells a different story. The Economist cites the electoral gains made by Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party in France, the Jobbik Party in Hungary, and the Syriza Party in Greece. The rise of these parties, however, does not indicate a growing affinity for Russia within the EU.
The National Front Party won only 2 seats in France’s National Assembly in the 2012 elections, while Marine Le Pen, the National Front’s presidential candidate, finished third with only 17.9% of the vote. The Jobbik Party did win 20% of the popular vote in the 2014 Hungarian elections, but that translated into only 23 of the National Assembly’s 199 seats and 3 of Hungary’s 17 seats on the EU Parliament. While critics of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban compare him to Vladimir Putin due to the former’s love for illiberal democracy, Orban has never expressed any interest in building closer ties with Russia. In fact, he has denounced Putin’s regime in recent years. The Syriza Party, for its part, won the recent elections in Greece, which was more of an expression of frustration with German-imposed austerity rather than of solidarity with Russia.
The Economist also shows the approval ratings of Putin’s regime in various countries, and nowhere is it greater than 50%. In fact, most of the approval ratings are below 30%. Even in Bulgaria, the country with the highest approval rating, the pro-Russian Attack Party lost seats in the legislature and failed to elect an EU Parliament member in the 2014 elections. The mixed results of pro-Russian parties around Europe cast doubt on the belief that Russia is winning a war of ideas with the West.
Why the West is Winning
The United States and the EU have responded to Russian aggression with tough economic sanctions, which — according to the Financial Times — have cut Russian banks off from Western financing. While the Russian economy has been hurt in the short-term by falling oil prices, the long-term effect of the sanctions “could create a tightening noose around banks — and Russia’s economy.” In addition to sanctions, the West has begun delivering aid to Ukraine. Congress, for example, passed an act in December 2014 providing arms to Ukraine, while the IMF gave Ukraine $17.5 billion in economic aid in February 2015.
To be sure, Western countries need to increase their aid to Ukraine, but the swiftness and strength of the response thus far has been remarkable when considered in context. Previous revisionist powers have taken their first major grabs of territory with little to no costs. Hitler was not punished at all for re-militarizing the Rhineland, taking Austria, or taking Czechoslovakia. After Japan invaded China in 1937, the US did not enact a “moral embargo” until 1938, and it delayed inflicting serious sanctions until 1940, three years after the initial invasion. The immediacy with which balancing measures occurred in response to Putin’s attempts to grab the Crimea and a region in eastern Ukraine shows that the current Western alliance faces less severe collective action problems than past balancing coalitions. This should be expected, because America is willing to bear the extra costs of leading the balancing alliance, preventing any buck-passing.
So why have the US and the EU not sent a more aggressive threat to Russia? For one, many Western nations are not prepared to go to war over the Crimean Peninsula and the Donbas region of Ukraine. Putin knows he can make small grabs of territory because the West will not go to war to protect peripheral regions. Gaining the Crimean Peninsula or the Donbas region, moreover, will not change the regional balance of power in Europe, let alone the international balance of power. However, if Putin invades one of the countries in NATO, the balancing coalition will be swift and efficient in enacting a tough response. Putin knows this, along with the fact that he is facing a strong alliance led by the most powerful state the world has ever known. This is why he is one of the least emboldened revisionists in history. As long as the West continues to show some resolve over Ukraine, it will win the newest iteration of the Cold War without it ever becoming hot.
Tyler Bowen is pursuing a Ph.D in Political Science at Yale University.