Every day we are treated to a new drop in the never ending drip, drip, drip of new information about Trump and his minions and their relationship with Vladimir Putin, his government’s agents, and Russian oligarchs. I won’t insult your knowledge of current events by regurgitating the many connections between these two groups which have been revealed, and are continuing to be revealed. Anyone not living under a rock knows there is something about this relationship which is giving off a very bad odor, though the actual source of that odor is not yet fully apparent.
Of course there is the continuing Trump camp meme, “We are just trying to get along better with the Russians and cooperate with them on matters of mutual interest. What’s wrong with that?” Well let’s leave aside the fact that the Putin has proven time and again that he cannot be trusted, has recently invaded one his neighbors and tried to subvert our democracy and democracies in Europe for his own purposes. Let’s also set aside that the last two administrations tried to reset our relationship with Russia only to be stabbed in the back. In my mind what makes Trump’s preoccupation with the Russians really weird is that Putin’s Russia no longer deserves the kind of attention he is giving them.
I grew in the cold war era when the Soviet Union was one of two military superpowers in the world and was in many ways equal in influence to the United States. Russians held the reins of power in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or USSR. Diplomatic relations between the US and the Soviet Union were always strained, often very tense, and in some situations outright precarious as the two superpowers occasionally teetered on the brink of nuclear war. During the cold war dealing with the leaders Soviet government was always one of every American President’s highest priorities.
However, that situation has changed drastically. While Russian aggression alone should command some attention from the White House, Russia is no longer the major player on the world stage it was when it controlled the USSR.
The dissolution of the USSR December 31, 1991 seriously eroded Russian status and power. The flight to independence of 16 former members of the Soviet Union left Russia, the former core of the USSR, a greatly weaken country. Compared to the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has a much smaller population and economy, and has a much smaller and less powerful military. Though Russia remains the largest country in the World, even its land area it controls has been substantially reduced. Perhaps most importantly the Russian Military, while still powerful compared to its Eastern European neighbors, is no longer the goliath we once feared. In addition, Russia’s defense allies are few and far between. The following are discussions of each of these areas.
Population and Land Area
The last census of the Soviet Union conducted in January of 1989 tallied a total population to be 286.7 million inhabitants, larger than the population of the United States at that time. About half of those people lived within the boundaries of the present day Russian Federation. In 2016 the Russia population totaled 144.3 million compared to the 323.1 million residents of the United States.
The loss of land area controlled by Russia was less significant. The land area within the borders of the now defunct USSR was 8.65 million square miles. Today’s Russia’s land mass consists of 6.60 square miles which is still large compared to the land area of the US which is 3.80 million squire miles. With its smaller population and much larger land area, Russia is much more thinly populated than the United Stares and its very long borders are harder to defend.
Of major importance is the loss of Russian economic power with break up of the Soviet Union. In 1989 the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Soviet Union which was controlled by Russian leaders amounted to 50.8% of the GDP of the US at the time. In 2016 the Russian GDP amounted to only 8.0% of the GDP of the United States. As an economic power Russia presently ranks 11th in the world behind the US, China, Japan, Germany, United Kingdom, India, France, Brazil, Italy, and Canada. South Korea which is 12th is in position to overtake Russia. The top 4 counties – US, China, Japan, Germany – all have economies which are at least twice a large as Russia while the next three – United Kingdom, India, France – all have economies at least 55% larger than Russia. As previously noted, the American economy is over 12 times larger than that of Russia while China’s economy is over 7 times larger.
Unlike many of the world’s economic powerhouses, the Russian economy depends heavily on the export of natural resources. Over the last three and half years the drop in petroleum prices and the enforcement of sanctions by the US and its allies as punishment for the Russian invasion of the Ukraine have devastated the Russian economy. The recent sale by the Russian government of an $11.3 billion stake in Russia’s largest oil company, Rosneft (which made the news lately for various reasons) was a move by Putin to try to fill a huge hole in his government budget.
Russia still has a formidable military, but its conventional forces don’t begin to compare to that of the former Soviet Union. Russian military forces suffered a decade of neglect after the breakup of the USSR. Maintenance of military equipment was spotty at best, naval ships lay rusting at their docks, and there were many times when military personnel didn’t get paid.
In recent years Putin has engaged in a program to upgrade his country’s armed forces and their equipment by investing a sizable percentage of Russia’s GDP in that endeavor. However, these efforts are limited by the amount of investment Russia can make. In the midst of Russia’s current economic down turn, Putin faces some hard choices in the near future as to whether to continue with his military upgrade effort In 2016 the US spent more on its military than the next nine countries combined and our military budget was almost 9 times greater that that of Russia. China spent over 3 times more than Russia on its efforts to revamp its military. Over the last few years Saudi Arabia military spending was roughly equivalent to that of Russia while India, France, the UK, Japan and Germany were not far behind.
The Russian armed forces remain a mere shadow of the former military might of the USSR both in terms of personnel and equipment. At the height of its military power in 1985 the combined forces of the Soviet Union consisted of 5.3 million solders. In the last years of the USSR that number shrunk to 4 million and the Russian Federation emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union with 2.7 million men at arms. Today, the Russian military consist of 798,527 men and women on active duty with a reserve force of 2,572,500. Today the United has 1,281,900 people on active duty with an additional 801,200 people in the in the ready reserves.
However, the true measure of decline of the military forces under Russia’s control lies not in the number of its military personnel, but in the status of its military equipment. While the US has been able to afford to continually upgrade its military hardware, many of Russia’s aircraft, ships and tanks were inherited from the Soviet military and were built in the 1980’s. Putin’s government has put considerable effort into upgrade this military equipment, but progress has been slow.
For example in 2020 Russia army plans to start taking delivery of 2,300 modern T-4 Armata tanks which is the rough equivalent of American’s current M1A2 and the follow on M1A3 Abrams tanks. The Russian army still has a huge force of 15,300 tanks, but only approximately 550 having any chance to survive a one on one battle our Abrams M1 tank. The rest are cold war relics. The US army on the other hand has approximately 8,000 modern Abrams tanks. After recent Russian aggression in the Ukraine, a good percentage of our tanks are now deployed in Europe reinforcing NATO forces.
Compared to the formidable Soviet navy, the Russian Navy is little more than shoreline defense force. During the cold war submarines were the heart of the Soviet fleet which boosted 181 nuclear powered ballistic missile, cruise missile and attack submarines along with 88 conventionally powered subs. The Russian navy has a relatively weak surface ship fleet including one ancient relatively small conventionally powered aircraft carrier which has been subject to frequent engine break downs at sea. Submarines are still its most potent weapons. However, the Russian submarine fleet been reduced to 37 operational nuclear powered and 22 conventionally powered vessels, a large majority it inherited from the Soviet Navy. On the other hand the US navy has extremely strong surface vessel fleet lead by 11 powerful nuclear powered aircraft carriers and 65 new or recently retrofitted nuclear powered submarines. The US navy continues to launch about 8 new ships every year.
The Soviet Union had powerful air force, but since 1992 the US has spent at least eight times as much air arm as has Russia. This has a resulted in a quantitative and qualitative advantage over the Russian aircraft. The US has nearly two and half time the total number of fixed wing aircraft as the Russian air force (5,414 to 2,176) and 521 more jet fighters (1840 to 1319). The US has a logistical advantage with 550 more transport aircraft (805 to 255) and a huge advantage in being able to keep its aircraft flying with 453 more air borne refueling tankers (476 to 23). The only important category where Russia has a numerical advantage is in strategic bombers – 181 to 162, but 60 of Russia bombers are the aging TU 95’s powered by turboprop engines. Per aircraft, American fighters and bombers are much more expensive than their Russian counterparts mainly due to much higher development costs. However, this has provided them with superior technology such as stealth capability which gives them a big edge over their Russian counterparts.
Only in the area, strategic nuclear warheads is Russia comparable to the United States, and only because of existing treaties. Of course, unless one country or the other decides to accept its own total destruction in a nuclear war, hopefully those weapons will never be used.
While the United States shares mutual defense packs with countries around the world, Russia is virtually isolated militarily. The US, Canada, and Iceland are members the NATO mutual defense pack along with 25 European counties, including 10 which were formally part of the USSR. The US also has mutual defense treaties in the Far East with Japan, South Korea, Australia and technically the Philippines. The Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (commonly known as the Rio Treaty) binds the US and 14 Central and South American countries in an agreement of mutual defense. Meanwhile Russia has a mutual defense treaty with only five weak former Soviet states – Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – based on the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty signed in 1992. Russia other “allies” are rouge nations like Syria and Iran which have more than enough troubles of their own.
Throughout much of its long history Russia has been a powerful country. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, for nearly 200 years the Russian Empire under the Czars was one of the largest empires in history dominating much of three continents. The USSR rose again to be again a world super power under its communist regime before crumbling 75 years later. Many of Russia citizdns long for the good old days and the return of their country to a position of power and influence in the world. Putin remains very popular in Russia because his policies and actions are in concert with his countrymen’s aspirations.
Never the less, there is only a limited amount of international problems which Russia can cause on the world stage. Russia virtually blocked by an expanding NATO from reasserting the kind of influence and power in Eastern Europe which it enjoyed when it lead the Soviet Union. It no longer has the military muscle to forcefully deal with that blockade and the Russian economy is basically ill equipped to allow it return to military super power status again. Sanctions and excess of oil in the world are further deteriorating the country financial well being. Putin sent his military to annex the Crimea and assist the Assad regime in Syria primarily because otherwise Russia would have no warm water ports to use when its northern ports are ice locked during the winter.
It is very clear why Putin supports Trump and why he instructed his spy agencies to assist the Trump in whatever way possible. Trump’s inward looking isolationist policies are tailor made for Putin’s dreams of returning Russia to its former glory. Trump’s nationalistic tendencies mean poorer US support for NATO and the European Union. Putin has also attempted support anti NATO/anti European Union candidates in European elections for the same reason – the hope that both organizations would self destruct leaving Russia with unfettered access to again subjugate former Soviet territories in Eastern Europe. Trump anti free trade policies will decrease the economic influence of the United States around the world creating a vacuum which Russia and China will only be too happy to fill.
On the surface however, what is not at all clear is why Trump gives a damn about Putin and/or the second rate country he rules with an iron fist. Putin seeks to destroy democracies around the world. On the other hand, other than his dreams of a return to Russian glory and his propensity to cause deadly mischief in the pursuit of that goal, Putin is not worthy of much notice. It is certainly not in this country’s best interest to assist him as he strives to achieve his goals. Other than our mutual battle with terrorism, there is simply little incentive for this country to partner with Russia in any endeavor. In addition, in fighting terrorism Russia will always be selective in identifying which groups are actually terrorists based only on its own self interest.
Like most Americans I have come to the firm conclusion that if visible reasons are not driving Trump’s very public bromance with Putin, then reasons hidden below the surface must be the driving force, and those reasons remain hidden for a reason. I can’t wait to learn what those reasons are.