A Warmongering Version of Portugal

Yglessias’ hit piece on Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili is the same faddish blame-America’s-friend-first gargabe manages to be less balanced than Kos, but his post on Russia’s capacity is top-notch:

Via Robert Farley, Charlie Whitaker makes the important and too-often-neglected point that notwithstanding Russia’s evident ability to kick around a tiny country that borders it, present-day Russia is really a poor man’s peer-competitor:

Now that we can measure it,* we find that Russia’s GDP is approximately equal to that of Portugal (which is not to knock Portugal). Much of Russia’s wealth comes from resource extraction: in other words, Russia is not making stuff. Is it thinking stuff instead? Well, is there a nascent biotech or semiconductor industry in Russia today? (Or is there maybe some other, more esoteric kind of activity that hasn’t yet permeated popular consciousness?) How are Russian universities doing?

Russia is fairly populous, although no one would call it densely populated. However, its population is shrinking; in part, because it is not a healthy country.

Long story short, the whole “Russia’s Back!” narrative needs to be kept in perspective. There’s a lot of demand out there for “new cold war” scenarios featuring Russia or China or maybe both, but fundamentally that kind of talk is out of step with reality.

Matthew Yglesias » Russia’s Weak Fundamentals.

Indeed. Putin isn’t a new Stalin, or even a new Brezhnev. His country is much to weak for that analogy to hold. Putin’s a Saddam with nuclear weapons, a dangerous criminal whose power must be taken from him.

11 thoughts on “A Warmongering Version of Portugal”

  1. One key difference: Portugal doesn’t have a weapons industry capable of producing 4th generation fighter planes and nuclear weapons.

  2. ” Putin’s a Saddam with nuclear weapons, a dangerous criminal whose power must be taken from him.”

    The first part renders the second a nullity.

    If you have nuclear weapons (serious deliverable ones, unambiguous ones) no one can take your power from you. That is the whole point. If you have nuclear weapons, you can do whatever you want and no one can stop you. That is why the USA can run around the world doing what we do.

    If Saddam had waited to conquer Kuwait until after he had nukes, he’d still be alive, and he’d still have Kuwait.

    Soviet Russia went into Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, and everyone made concerned faces, issued communiques, and quietly admitted that there was nothing they could do about it.

    This is no different.

  3. Take a breather. This is much more complicated than you want to believe, and all of this stuff is starting to look the mirror image of Russian propaganda.

  4. Lexington,
    There is much truth in what you say, which is the main reason we must prevent Iran from developing that capability.

    BTW, ‘serious deliverable” nukes are Iran’s goal, and are not that hard to make once you have the HEU. HEU can be used in a “gun” design which can be designed by anyone with a little bit of college physics, and a machine shop. The US once tested a 255mm nuclear artillery round, and it used that simple design.

    Once you have enough HEU, you have the ability to make a deliverable nuke. It’s really that simple. And, of course, Iran is developing missiles that today *may* be able to range Paris and in the not far distant future could hit the US.

    As for the USSR going into Afghanistan, someone did do something about it. The US provided training and arms for the Afghani resistance (not including, btw, Bin Laden’s group). This (and Afghan ferocity) bled the Soviets the way Vietnam bled us.

  5. Yes, we did help the Afghan resistance.

    There will be no equivalent here. The Georgians are not going to turn into Mujahidin. And even if they could, we are not going to help them do it.

    Everyone is going to send stiffly worded notes to Russia, then hope that the whole thing dies down so we can get back to business as usual. Russia has oil and gas. And Russia has nukes. Russia can do what it wants to do.

    As to Iran, we are not going to stop them from getting a nuke. We do not have the assets to go to war with Iran. We used them up in Iraq. So Iran is going to get a nuke. We will have to live with that.

  6. A great discussion!


    Well said. Russia’s relative military strength is not trivial — the conventional forces may be favorably compared to Saddam’s Republican Guard in 1990 (which was then one of the best in the world, as well).

    Russia’s weakness is its economy. While there’s nothing wrong with taking on military targets of opportunity (destroying by air Russian targets in Georgia, for example, if the opportunity presents itself), most attention should be focused on liberating Europe from dependence on oil and natural gas that comes through Russia.

    Lexington Green,

    The first part renders the second a nullity.

    Not really. Russia is far weaker than it was during the 1980s, or even the 1990s (when it hard positive diplomatic relations with most of its neighbors).

    Accelerating the decline of Russia requires pressure and patience, not nuclear exchange.

    Dan Nexon,

    Do you have anything substantive to add?

    John Moore,

    Excellent Afghan analogy.

    The Russians still rule unquiet Muslims. This is an opportunity for us.

  7. “The Russians still rule unquiet Muslims. This is an opportunity for us.”

    Ask the Israelis how well setting up Muslim groups as opposition to weaken their enemies worked out for them. The PLO were pushovers compared to HAMAS, and unlike our experience in arming the mujahadeen in the Afghan-Russia conflict, there is no Evil Empire around to make such maneuvers worth what they cost in reality (Afghanistan as failed state and magnet for terrorists).

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