The shoestring superpower

A 2018 military parade in Moscow.
A 2018 military parade in Moscow.Getty Images

Being a superpower is not what it used to be. These days, you can do it on a shoestring.

A superpower is a country able to project its military power over great distances and, if necessary, fight more than one war at a time – and in different continents. That costs a lot of money: military bases, ships, aircraft, tanks, missiles, communications and transportation infrastructure, none of this comes cheap. Also necessary is an expeditionary force of thousands of troops prepared to go to war anywhere on the planet. And, of course, nuclear weapons.

Vladimir Putin has proven himself a master at projecting power over other countries on a shrunken budget

While the old definition holds to some extent, today there are shortcuts that allow governments to intervene in another country, or in more than one, weakening its international adversaries, or dominating them, without having to make such big investments. Russia is the best example of the phenomenon. Vladimir Putin has proven himself a master at projecting power over other countries on a shrunken budget. He understands that his country cannot compete militarily against its arch rivals, the United States and China. He also knows that the Russian economy and its technology are not on a par with those of its competitors. And while he has nuclear weapons, he knows they can only be used in extreme cases. They are not useful, for example, in any of the armed conflicts in which Russia is currently involved: Syria, Ukraine or Libya.

Putin was not the only leader to diagnose the weaknesses of the Russian state. In 2014, President Barack Obama dismissively referred to Russia as “a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors.” Obama also opined that Russia’s attacks on other countries were “not out of strength but out of weakness.”

He had it wrong. Two years later, that “regional power” whose international adventures were, according to the American president, a sign of weakness has somehow managed to intervene in the US presidential elections, thus influencing American politics in profound and unprecedented ways. What’s more, all indications are that Russia will try to do it again this year. We have seen how Russian hackers – or hackers sponsored by Russia – have learned to sow confusion far and wide. They create doubt about whom to believe, deepen the differences and conflicts that already exist, or invent new ones. They also are adept at promoting some political actors and destroying the reputation of others.

Russia’s renewed ability to influence world politics stems from more than its mastery of information technology

All this they can do – and, in fact, do – not only in neighboring countries but also in any country in the world. Hackers and Russian computer bots have meddled in the Catalan independence conflict, in Brexit in the United Kingdom, as well as in the elections in Germany and France, and in Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. What’s more, the US State Department recently announced that Russia is behind a major influence campaign throughout South America as it tries to undermine the countries that oppose its strategic ally in the region, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. The report shows the Kremlin’s attempts to foment dissent in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

But it is not only the pioneering use of what the Russian government calls “political technologies,” they also have the ability to use cyber-weapons to attack a country’s power grids, telecommunications systems, transportation networks, and financial infrastructure.

Russia’s renewed ability to influence world politics stems from more than its mastery of information technology. The Kremlin has no qualms about using traditional weapons, too. Putin not only sent twitter bots to Syria, but also soldiers, planes and pilots. He sent anti-aircraft missiles and financial support to Venezuela. Those are two countries in which Russia has now gained a new and powerful influence. The Kremlin also does not hesitate to use professional assassins, radioactive poisons, snipers, armed drones, and other “traditional” techniques to eliminate its enemies. Russia knows how to use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but it also uses Unit 29155, the Wagner Group, and the Internet Research Agency. Unit 29155 is the name of a secret Russian intelligence unit whose objective is to destabilize Europe through assassinations and other means. The Wagner Group is a Russian private military company that uses mercenaries to influence the global conflicts on the Kremlin’s watch list. The Internet Research Agency is another Russian private organization that specializes in using the internet to support its global goals.

Clearly, Russia has a disproportionate global influence compared to its precarious economic and social situation. Despite having the largest territory in the world, its economy is smaller than those of Brazil or Italy. Its economic growth is anemic. Ten percent of the wealthiest Russians own 85% of the country’s wealth. Russia’s population has been declining, and by 2050 it will have 32 million fewer inhabitants. This is a symptom of other serious weaknesses, such as a terrible healthcare system, for example.

This is not the profile of a superpower. However, for all its weaknesses, Putin’s Russia has become a central player in most of the thorniest conflicts of this century. And not only does Putin do this well, but he also does it on a shoestring.


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