While Russia projects power far beyond its means, the United States essentially is unprepared to deal with today’s realities.
I recently spent two weeks as a lecturer in a small city near Rostov-on-Don in south Russia. This was an opportunity to interact with Russian students and reflect on the evolving U.S.-Russia relationship. My military career spanned most of the Cold War, with a clear ideological barrier between the free and communist worlds. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many of us relished the victory and enjoyed our superpower moment, with Russia relegated to Third World status. But leaving Russia on a bright new Aeroflot Airbus A320, I faced flight attendants in crisp red uniforms with the hammer and sickle prominently displayed. This symbol would be meaningless for most of my American students, but for me it was a sobering reminder.
Much has changed in the last three years. The bold Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 caught the West by surprise and suddenly altered fundamental world-power relationships. Russian manipulation of the media in Eastern Ukraine in the same period was a textbook example of hybrid warfare. This would serve Russia well in its later efforts to sow instability and help undermine legitimate Western governments.
America is deeply divided over its past, with statues of Robert E. Lee and even Theodore Roosevelt generating demonstrations and violence. Yet each day in Russia, I walked past a stone monument to Lenin; he still rests comfortably in Red Square with little or no controversy. This is despite the fact that he remains a contentious figure with a history of mass killings and repression of his own people. Russia attempts to portray an image of brotherhood and unity, despite deep ethnic and religious fault lines in much of the country.
America looks inward today while Russia takes a wider view. Last year Americans were chanting “Build the wall!” while Russia quietly undermined American democracy, with an ingenious plan to use hacking and social media as weapons. American diplomacy is in retreat, with the U.S. State Department unable to fill important posts in key locations. During the Cold War, America devoted significant energy and resources to the study of Russia and the Russian language. In America today, university students are more likely to devote time to math and science than to humanities and the study of international relations and Russia. The former U.S. ambassador to Russia pointed out in 2014 that State Department focus on Russia was long ago eclipsed by the Middle East and Asia. The situation is not likely to improve as the U.S. cuts further into the State Department budget.
Although Russia lacks a coherent ideology comparable to the Soviet era, it has shown extraordinary success in projecting power and influence. Despite the historic importance of NATO, America has been unable to demonstrate the necessary commitment to the alliance. Countries with vivid memories of Russian aggression, including Estonia and Latvia, are justifiably nervous. Despite serious limitations in conventional weapons, Russia has been able to threaten its former Eastern European allies and even guarantee the continuance of the failing Assad regime in Syria. Although its economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas, Russia manages to rebuild its armed forces, and the big cities appear to be prosperous. In Moscow and the regional center of Rostov-on-Don, construction cranes are everywhere and infrastructure improvements are underway.
Limitations aside, Russia today can project power far beyond its means, focusing on critical vulnerabilities in the West. Congress has three investigations into a hostile power that worked to influence U.S. elections, but there is selective enthusiasm in government and among some citizens over the outcome. Russia is back, and America is essentially unprepared to deal with it.