Michael Kofman is an Analyst at the CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
One analyst's reflection on the common analytical sins and questionable assumptions that bedevil the field of Russia analysis.
1. The Russian Government is Brittle. Or is it?
Presenting Vladimir Putin’s regime as brittle is often analytical shorthand for arguing that his regime is dangerous in the near term, but equally likely to implode in short order, with Russia descending into turmoil and instability. Indeed, Moscow has accumulated so many domestic and foreign policy problems that it would make this a logical assessment were it not for the poor track record of such predictions. With each new outbreak in what has become an almost routine series of political, economic, or foreign policy crises, a segment of the Russia-watcher community invariably begins to make predictions of Putin’s imminent demise. Unfortunately, the science of predicting regime change seems to lag significantly behind astrology. We should remember that few predicted the Soviet Union’s rapid demise, the start of the Arab Spring, or anticipated the rapid fall of Victor Yanukovich in Ukraine following the start of the Maidan.
There are two ongoing case studies on the merit of such predictions. The first is Pakistan, a country that by the same theory should have collapsed long ago under the weight of its many problems. The second is North Korea, which soldiers on despite decades of predictions and estimates of the regime’s imminent implosion. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on our ability to predict the nature and location of the next conflict, "our record has been perfect” given that "we’ve never once gotten it right.” The same should be said of our ability to judge regime brittleness. The point is not that neo-Kremlinology or assessments of political stability are a waste of time, but that this is a single layer of analysis that should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Undoubtedly those who regularly predict Putin’s downfall will one day be vindicated, but for planning and analytical purposes, our expectations should be tempered. The next test of political brittleness comes in 2018 when we will see how ready and willing the Russian public is to accept Putin’s automatic re-election. Nobody knows what the state of the economy, currency valuation, foreign exchange reserves, oil prices, or international position of Russia will be that year.
2. The United States has a Putin Problem, not a Russia Problem. Or Does it?
The individuals in power matter, and another Russian leader may not have chosen to annex Crimea or invade Ukraine in response to the Maidan’s victory. That being said, the lingering debate on whether the United States has a Putin problem or a Russia problem is an unsettled one. If one assumes that the real problem is Putin’s regime, however long it might last, then the natural course of action is to avoid any bargains with Russia, cauterize the damage to the bilateral relationship and wait for another leader. My personal view is that whoever succeeds Vladimir Putin will not prove to be all that different, and will likely follow a similar policy path.
Russian history suggests that Putin is anything but an aberration in leadership, pursuing security dilemmas in the same manner of many previous occupants of the Kremlin. Seeing Russia’s security space as a zero-sum game and securing it by limiting the sovereignty of its neighbors is almost canon for Russian foreign policy (as it was for Soviet policy). We should ask if Putin’s foreign policy is fundamentally so different from that of Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratic leader, or if Russia was simply too weak during Yeltsin’s rule to challenge the post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe. In early 2014, Henry Kissinger warned Washington not to fixate on Putin when he wrotethat "For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy, it is an alibi for the absence of one.”
Yeltsin too believed in the application of force to achieve desired political ends in Russia and on its periphery. Examples are found among Russian interventions in Transnistria and Tajikistan in 1992 and Abkhazia in 1993, the use of tanks to suppress a constitutional crisis in Moscow, the First Chechen War in 1994–96, and the Russian paratrooper deployment to seize Pristina International Airport in 1999 ahead of NATO’s deployment in Kosovo. In retrospect, that administration was not short on military gambits, complaints about NATO expansion, or gripes with U.S. military interventions. The character of Yeltsin’s government was quite different from Putin’s regime, but arguably it was under his leadership in the 1990s that Russia began and ended its brief flirtation with democracy. In truth, we have Yeltsin’s presidency to thank for Putin.
Putin’s view of the world may have evolved during his rule, but there is little evidence that we should expect his successor to travel a different path. Thus far, there is nothing to suggest that the next Russian leader, when faced with a similar international and regional environment will not attempt to engage the West, leave disappointed and revert to the ruthless pursuit of Russian national interest. Another question seldom raised is whether U.S. policy towards Russia would truly change if its troublesome leader were to disappear tomorrow.
3. Moscow Cannot Keep This Up. Or Can it?
Current discourse on Russia’s economic frailty folds into the broader discussion on whether or not Moscow can sustain the current state of confrontation. In other words, how long can Moscow keep this up? The underlying question is whether Russia will cease being a problem in the near- to mid-term by succumbing to its economic woes. The narrative that Russia will run out of money is prevalent in the West, even though Moscow’s foreign reserves have both stabilized and shown a modest rebound in recent months. The bigger question is why do we talk about Russia as though it was a bank or a company? Did Russia go out of business after the 1998 default?
What is the actual connection between Western security considerations vis-a-vis Russia, its foreign and national security policy, and the amount of money it has on hand? Putin pressed forward with ambitious military reforms in 2009, when the price of oil fell to $35 per barrel. Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014 even though the Russian economy was clearly entering a recession in late 2013. Looking further back, Russians persevered through the financial default and currency crisis of 1998, many going the better part of a year without salaries. Putin was anointed as Yeltsin’s successor following this economic carnage, and in the aftermath launched the Second Chechen War in 1999, a prolonged conventional and counterinsurgency campaign.
This discussion begs a more essential question as to whether or not the economy has ever been a foundation of Russian power in the international system. In a previous article for War on the Rocks, I argued that Russia has often appeared to be the sick man of Europe, technologically backwards, with a lackluster economy, and a political system that consistently lags behind the needs of its society. That being said, despite Western fears to the contrary, the Soviet Union was never a superpower by virtue of being a serious economic competitor to the United States, let alone the West, at best attaining 57 percent of America’s GNP in the late 1960s before falling behind.
Today, plenty of senior U.S. officials consider Russia to be a strategic threat and a serious opponent to NATO even though its GDP is barely a tenth of America’s. In a recent interview discussing Russia, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work applied Mearsheimer’s definition of a great power to Moscow, highlighting the return of great power politics in the international system. Granted, he said this was a narrow lens, but if the United States considers Russia to be a great power (or regional power with a big nuclear arsenal) when its economy represents a mere 3.3 percent of global GDP, then the connection between economic fundamentals of power and Russia’s position in the international system merits further discussion.
4. Russia Cannot Sustain Military Operations. Or Can it?
Following closely the discussion of economic weakness is a general sentiment that Russia is unable to sustain military operations due to financial or force constraints. Going back to early 2015, the notion that Russia’s armed forces are tied down or "stuck” in Ukraine seems to have dissipated. The merit of such estimates was cast into doubt when, in September of this year, Russia was simultaneously sustaining its deployment in Ukraine, conducting the expensive strategic exercise Center 2015, and deploying an expeditionary operation to Syria. I too was wrong in arguing that logistical and financial constraints would limit Moscow’s involvement in Syria given its lack of assets to sustain expeditionary operations.
Much to my own surprise, Russia surged sea lift by reflagging Turkish commercial ships to support its increasing troop presence and base expansions. For Moscow, necessity is the mother of invention, whereas for the United States it is usually the mother of procurement. Russia also found plenty of funding to test expensive land attack cruise missiles of almost every variety. In a recent press conference, Putin showed no signs that economic constraints would impact military operations. Instead, it seems Russia can sustain this and all other lines of effort for at least a few years. At 4.2 percent of GDP, or 3.3 trillion rubles, Russia’s defense budget is the highest it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Too often we trade in our analytical expertise for an accountant’s glasses, as though we could count the Russian Ministry of Defense’s money or its available troops better than it can. On the issue of sustainment of military operations we need a dose of analytical humility.
5. Russia is Still a Power in Decline. Or is it?
I fundamentally believe that Russia is a power in structural decline, but increasingly I wonder about the relevance of that assessment. It seems with each year we can infer less and less from such a statement. Celeste Wallander and Eugene Rumer, two longtime Russia experts whom I hold in the highest regard, once wrote:
Despite several years of economic growth and a new dynamic leader, Russia remains a power in decline. Neither its recent economic success nor its vigorous leadership is sufficient to make up for the long-term losses the country has suffered or to compensate for the contemporary shortcomings that belie key elements of Russian power.
The only problem with this remarkable piece in The Washington Quarterly is that it was published in late 2003. Roughly a decade later, President Obama similarly opined that Russia is a "regional power” acting out of "weakness.” Many of Russia’s underlying weaknesses were as true then as they are now, but if Russia is declining, it is doing so very slowly, and its leadership does not accept such a predestined fate. As improbable as it may be, absent a sudden Russian collapse, at some point we may be forced to admit that Russia is declining so slowly the country might just be muddling through.
6. Demography Will Determine Russia’s Fate. Or Will it?
Russia’s demographic problems are commonly referenced as one of the drivers of its supposedly assured structural decline. Analysts often mention demography to either blithely support the notion that Russia will simply cease to be a problem for the West in the long term, or worriedly speculate that the country will become dangerously unstable. But what might Russia’s demographics truly determine? Will Russia somehow be less of a strategic threat or a concern for the United States if it has a smaller population? It is almost certain that Russia will have enough manpower to maintain 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons, along with a conventional force to overmatch any of its neighbors, save China. Perhaps counterintuitively, in the short term, Russia’s armed forces have steadily increased in size from roughly 667,000–700,000 in 2012 to 900,000 today.
When considering long-term alternative futures it is worth noting that Russia’s economy and national budget is inexorably dependent on energy and resource extraction. These are industries that are not labor-intensive. At the same time, Russia is the beneficiary of a large labor influx from former Soviet Republics, often making it the third- or second-highest recipient of migrants in the world. Can Russia nationalize such labor at the cost of internal social cohesion? How much will its government budget truly suffer following a labor force contraction? Is it even fair to assume that warfare or similar state tasks will remain manpower-intensive 30 years from now? Are Russia’s demographic problems fundamentally different from those of other developed states, including many U.S. allies? It strikes me that Russia’s demographic decline is more of an open-ended question than a definitive statement on the future of the country.
7. For Putin, It’s All About Regime Survival. Or is it?
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine, and launch of operations in Syria are sometimes explained as the throes of a falling political system engaged in a "survival project.” The underlying theory unifying these actions is regime survival, brilliantly advocated by Lilia Shevtsova in a number of articles and op-eds. The problem with this approach is that regime survival circularly explains everything and absolutely nothing at the same time: There is no political regime on earth that is not interested in its survival. Regime survival is a constant motivation for many, if not all, political systems and politicians. It is so fungible an analytical approach that it lends itself useful to explaining any and all policy choices by Putin.
At its core, this argument arbitrarily takes the domestic political outcomes of Moscow’s actions, such as high approval ratings at home, or a resurgent sense of nationalism, and moves them back in time to become the primary objectives of foreign and national security policy. That could be true, but it seems impossible to prove or disprove. Regime survival may not be an incorrect explanation of Moscow’s motives, but it is certainly incomplete as an analysis of the real sources of Russian decision-making.
Russia Analysis in Perspective
In my own narrow lane of Russian military analysis, there is always room for a more balanced, informed, and nuanced understanding of Russia. Perhaps the greatest woe of discussions on Russian military, strategy, and decision-making (other than debates on hybrid warfare) is the constant seesaw between two extremes. Too often, we are engaged in an asinine debate as to whether Russia’s military is five feet tall or 12 feet tall. Assessments tend to track more closely with where one sits in the policymaking or national security establishment, versus where the Russian military actually is, and what it can do. Here I believe the starting point should always be Bismarck’s observation that "Russia is never as strong as she looks nor as weak as she looks.” When it comes to decision-making analysis, Putin is regularly cast in stark terms as either a brilliant strategist, outfoxing the West at every turn, or completely incompetent without any notion of what he will do next.
Perchance the broadest and most vexing question for U.S. decision-makers and experts today is this: How do we deter Russia? It is as vague as it is recurrent. The short answer is that the United States does deter Russia, which is why we’re all still here 70 years after nuclear weapons were first used. A more analytically interesting — and politically valuable — question would be how the United States should manage great-power competition in the international system and keep confrontation with Russia from escalating into war. If crises are inevitable among the major players, and it seems they are, then managing escalation dynamics is paramount. When faced with a problem, bureaucracies have a predilection for pursuing activity and confusing it for achievement, to paraphrase Fareed Zakaria. To better structure a policy or a strategy towards Russia we should confront our own underlying assumptions and the merits of prevailing narratives, and more rigorously seek to fill existing gaps in analysis.