By Tristin Hopper
Russia makes less money per year than Canada. For 2016, its $1.3 trillion GDP was roughly on par with Australia, a country with one-sixth the population and less than half the square footage.
The country’s 147 million population isn’t all that impressive either; Nigeria, Bangladesh and Brazil all have more citizens.
And yet, between hacking the U.S. election and intervening in Syria, Russia is utterly dominating foreign affairs.
With this in mind, the National Post contacted historians, political scientists and diplomats with a single question: Why is a Eurasian economic basketcase running the world now?
Being large “enough”
Sometimes a derringer is just as effective as a smart bomb. Russia’s military spending is only one tenth that of the United States, it has fewer military personnel than India, and the smoke-billowing flagship of the Russian navy has to be followed everywhere by a tug in case it breaks down. And yet, this all seems to be plenty for a country that is very good at commanding global influence on the cheap. Crimea was seized without firing a shot. The Syria intervention required only about 50 aircraft and cost only $500 million — exactly the same amount the U.S. spent on training Syrian rebels. With Russia, it may not be so much the size of the army, but the fact that they’re demonstrably willing to use it. The country has sent its armed forces into battle no less than five times since the year 2000: In Chechnya, in the Caucasus border areas, Georgia, Ukraine’s Donbass region and, of course, in Syria.
Trust no one
Russia, much like Israel, is never entirely sure who it can trust as an ally. The old members of the Warsaw Pact took off almost as soon as the Berlin Wall was down. Ditto with many of the former Soviet republics, three of whom are now NATO countries directly abutting Russia’s border. Russia also has a jihadist problem in the Caucasus and a vast, empty resource-rich region sharing a largely undefended border with an expansionist China. The implication is that Russia’s aggressive approach to foreign affairs is partly a product of its neighbourhood. If Canada had to share the 49th parallel with North Korea, Azerbaijan and half a dozen other countries of dubious intentions and stability, it might also be a bit less polite.
Security council veto
Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s UN Security Council veto, which it earned through victory in the Second World War. What’s more, Russia uses it. Since 2000, Russia has used its veto power on 13 Security Council resolutions — mostly in regards to the Middle East. France and the U.K., by contrast, haven’t touched their vetoes since 1989. A veto-happy Russia naturally makes it hard to discuss global crises without inviting them to the table.
They’re an easy villain
Here’s a headline from the U.K. tabloids, “Russia may organise migrant sex attacks in Europe to make Angela Merkel lose German elections.” It’s a ridiculous story, but the point is that British readers can apparently imagine that the Kremlin is capable of parachuting armies of sex offenders into Western Europe. Critics say that while Russia is no saint, the country gets a disproportionate share of Western condemnation simply because it’s so easy to score political points by taking shots at a former Cold War enemy. “Yes (Vladimir Putin) is authoritiarian, yes he uses extralegal methods to put down opposition and dissent, but it’s small potatoes to what our allies do on a daily basis,” said Norman Pereira, a Russian historian at Dalhousie University. Pereira pointed in particular to Turkey, a NATO member and longtime Western ally, which is still conducting a massive purge of perceived political opponents following a failed 2016 coup attempt.
Very good at diplomacy
The United States expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russian interference in the U.S. election. The next day, Putin magnanimously invited the children of U.S. diplomats to the Kremlin in order to see his Christmas tree. It was a shrewd move, and the product of a country that puts a lot of stock in diplomatic positioning. Since the Soviet era, diplomats around the world have acclaimed their Russian counterparts as well-trained, relentless and extremely professional. “The truth is, actually, Putin, in all of our meetings, is scrupulously polite, very frank,” U.S. President Barack Obama told the Atlantic in 2013. Although the crème de la crème nature of the diplomatic corps may have diminished under Putin’s tighter control, they’re still scoring some major Russian foreign policy wins: Brokering the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament deal, rapprochement with China and creating the E.U.-style Eurasian Economic Union with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.