Joe Biden has attracted a lot of attention with his prediction that Russia’s “withered” economy would give us a decisive advantage in our relationship with it. I think Biden is wrong, because he has committed the cardinal sin of projecting our logic on the Russians. Big mistake.
I take the opposite view. I think that for a variety of reasons, Russia will become even more aggressive and difficult to deal with.
Reason one: “Withering” is relative. Yes, the Russian economy has taken a body blow, but compared to some neighbors, notably Ukraine and Lithuania and the other Baltic states, it is doing well. Throughout the CIS states and Eastern Europe, many countries and companies are doing very badly, and are in serious financial straits. The Russians still have money in the bank, and resources to deal with. Although those have diminished, they are still enough to exert pressure on, and find bargains in, countries whose economies have been even more devastated.
In other words, the Russians realistically view power as relative, and in crucial areas the crisis has actually increased their relative strength.
Indeed, although one would have hardly considered it possible, even Germany is being more solicitous in its dealings with Russia, as this depressing article by Vladimir Socor demonstrates:
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel headed large governmental delegations for bilateral talks on July 16 in Munich. The process, known as Russo-German inter-governmental consultations, involves informal semi-annual summits at which leading business representatives join the cabinet ministers on either side. The Munich meeting reviewed ongoing cooperation projects and considered new ones.
Access to the Russian market is seen as critical to Germany’s export-oriented economy at any time. As an export nation, Germany’s reliance on the Russian market has developed in parallel with its overdependence on Russian energy supplies. The Russian market’s perceived importance increases during the ongoing recession, as global markets shrink and Russia has also significantly reduced its imports of German goods. In these circumstances, the German government agreed at this meeting on some measures to subsidize Russian imports of German goods.
. . . .
The inter-governmental meeting also considered an ambitious program for manufacture and delivery of Siemens trains and locomotives to the Russian Railroads state company. In parallel, Siemens is negotiating to establish a joint venture with Russia’s Rosatom for building nuclear power plants and electricity transmission systems. In March of this year, Siemens withdrew from its joint venture with the French nuclear power plant manufacturer Areva and proceeded to sign an agreement of intent with Rosatom instead. This move hurt the overall Franco-German partnership in Europe while highlighting the structural trend toward Russo-German cooperation. According to Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, the contract with Siemens is expected to be signed before the end of this year and will greatly improve Rosatom’s international competitiveness through technology transfers from Siemens (Die Presse, July 23).
The German government is tentatively looking at Gazprom to rescue the ailing German shipyards Wadan, in the Baltic ports of Wismar and Rostock. Under proposals under discussion, a Gazprom subsidiary would place orders for liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers to be manufactured at those German shipyards. If implemented, this move would facilitate Gazprom’s entry into German and European LNG markets, with a corresponding increase in German dependence on Russian gas. The German government apparently feels that it must consider the proposal in this election-recession year, when job-saving is a top priority.
Reflecting that same short-term German priority, the Munich meeting discussed a Russian rescue of Opel, the German subsidiary of General Motors.
I think I need an aspirin.
Seriously, though, even though by every measure the German economy dominates the Russian, and even though the badly shaken German economy has still outperformed Russia’s, the dispiriting litany in Socor’s article (and I left some stuff out!) shows that even Merkel (no Schroeder she) is bending over backwards to supplicate Russia. Look at all the things that Germany is doing to advance “withered” Russia’s interests, especially in energy, and then ask yourself “what the hell is Biden talking about?”
What’s the difference? Well, a major factor is that the relative lack of organized political opposition within autocratic Russia, the state’s ability to crack down on the opposition that does appear, and the asymmetric vulnerability of the leadership in democratic Germany (especially with an election coming up). The German government is anxious to appease important domestic constituencies, especially major corporations that do business in Russia, and those that work for these corporations. This gives the Russians a lot of leverage, which they have used to the hilt.
Reason two: Aggressiveness abroad and obnoxious nationalism is one of the ways to distract Russian public opinion, weakened and apathetic as it is.
Reason three: Russia is obsessed with status, reputation, image. The myth of Russia on its knees humbled before the West is ubiquitous, and powerful. The Russian leadership is more than willing to do things that are objectively counterproductive economically and geopolitically just to avoid the appearance of subservience to the West. (In fairness, Biden admitted that Russia’s prickly pride might make it more aggressive in the short run before it was forced to bend to objective economic realities. The short run could be long indeed given the raging complexes that drive Russian relations with the West.)
Reason four: The very desperation of the situation tends to shorten time horizons, and make the elite willing to take huge risks. Faced with ruin, gamblers will often double down. What’s there to lose? This would suggest that Russian behavior is more likely to moderate if their economic circumstances moderate. Biden’s argument leads to the opposite conclusion.
So, I disagree with Biden’s diagnosis. I think that we are in for a protracted period of testy relations with Russia, and that economic hardship will actually exacerbate these problems rather than ameliorate them.
That said, the Russian reaction to Biden’s interview has had immense entertainment value.
And Biden has it all over Hillary, who (like Obama) is apparently a firm believer in the Self Esteem Theory of Diplomacy. Just tell them that we want them to be big and strong, and a great power, and express admiration for their contribution to history (and boy, do you have to leave a lot of stuff out to do that!) and they’ll be biddable. Sheesh. As if.
Maybe the NoKos are onto something in their evaluation of Hillary. It is especially painful to watch such transparent diplomatic clumsiness. Also, the discordant notes struck by Biden on the one hand, and Hillary and Obama on the other, hardly present an image of a well-oiled team executing a thoughtful and coherent Russia policy.
Regardless of whether the Biden view or the Obama-Hillary approach prevails, I think that our policy vis-a-vis Russia is in for some very rough sledding.