Putting Putin in his Place

Last week, Russia thrust itself onto the stage of a complex international conflict when its forces began conducting airstrikes in the middle of ISIS-controlled territory.  Dmitry Suslov, Deputy Director for Research at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, discussed the development in a lecture on Thursday sponsored by the Dean of Faculty, the Levitt Center, and the Government Department.

Suslov spoke about the development of a new multipolar world order in place of the unipolar system the United States has grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War. Suslov argued that Russia is taking advantage of the diffusion of power to earn a higher spot in the international order.

While it is clear that Russia does not hold the highest position in the international order today, Suslov contended that Russia is a powerful pole in a multipolar system. Russia is not, however, a superpower. Rather, Russia is a marginal power that is trying to throw its weight around to stir up trouble.

In this case, a marginal power is defined as a country that is “not of central importance, limited in extent, significance or stature.” While Suslov was correct in saying that Russia has tremendous influence in regional territories, Putin’s inconsistent international doctrine does not allow Russia superpower status.

One can observe Russia’s regional importance in its interactions with Ukraine, Crimea, China, and now the Middle East. When viewed on a global scale, however, Russia does not have the economic capabilities or international military presence to pose a significant threat to the United States in the near future.

According to the IMF, Russia currently stands as the 10th largest economy when measured in terms of nominal GDP. But in 2014, 110 Russians possessed 35 percent of all household wealth. That is, 0.0000007 percent of Russians control 35 percent of the country’s household wealth (and we talk about inequality in the United States). A country with such inequity and lack of investment diversification cannot compete when sharing borders with an economic power like China.

Russia’s international military presence further proves that it is a marginal power. With bases only in neighboring countries, Russia is not able to impose a consistent international will that can be enforced with military might. 

Russia’s latest actions demonstrate that Putin is acting in his own interest, not to set an international standard. Putin’s demonstration that he is willing to break international law like the United States is like a child swearing to show their parent they are grown up—it does little but annoy the parent.

As mentioned by Suslov and many writers on the subject, Russia is a military threat to the United States because it remains the only country that can physically annihilate us. However, Suslov also argued that mutually assured destruction helps stabilize the US-Russia relationship because neither country is willing to initiate an attack. Today, MAD is a steadying force rather than a cause of fear.

Russia, while a regional influence, is not to be feared as a rising global superpower. Unless Putin can present a consistent international policy, strengthen an unsteady economy, and earn the trust of his own people, he is nothing more than a peripheral power with a nuclear arsenal.