It is commonplace for Americans to portray Russia as a dangerous country with nearly unlimited territorial ambitions. But the facts simply do not support such an alarmist view. Instead, Russia’s behavior is more consistent with that of a beleaguered regional power trying to fend off hostile intrusions from an American-led NATO.
The self-serving myth of a malignantly aggressive Russia, however, continues to grow—with potentially dangerous consequences for European and global peace.
Assertions that Moscow’s behavior pose a serious, even an existential, threat to Europe and the entire democratic West surfaced even before Donald Trump became president. They flared up in 2008 when fighting erupted between Russia and neighboring Georgia—even though the latter country had initiated the aggression. Senator John McCain asserted that “it’s very clear that Russian ambitions are to restore the old Russian Empire.”
Such allegations became more pervasive when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in 2014 following the Western-assisted Maidan revolution that overthrew Ukraine’s elected, pro-Russian government. Ultra-hawkish writer and media talking head Ralph Peters asserted that Putin had a detailed plan for reclaiming the Russian empire. “Make no mistake,” Peters warned, “Putin truly believes he’s entitled to reclaim Ukraine and a great deal more. In his view, independent capitals from Warsaw (yes, Warsaw) to Bishkek [the Kyrgyz Republic’s capital] are integral and natural parts of the Russian imperium. He regards them as property stolen from its rightful owner: Moscow.” Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric was even more apocalyptic: Putin’s actions, she contended, were “what Germany did back in the ‘30s.”
Such hyperbole has continued and even increased over the past five years on both sides of the Atlantic. In a March 2017 interview, Dalia Grybauskaitė, president of Lithuania, stated bluntly: “Russia is a threat not only to Lithuania but to the whole region and to all of Europe.” Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, was equally alarmist, insisting that Russia’s behavior posed an “existential threat” even greater than ISIS.
Russia’s conduct has been abrasive and aggressive at times, but there is no evidence that Moscow harbors expansionist ambitions remotely comparable to those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Kremlin’s actions suggest a much more limited, perhaps even defensive, agenda. As professors Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman observed in Foreign Affairs, “To many in the West, Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia seemed to prove the Kremlin’s land hunger.” But such a conclusion reflects poor logic: “Kremlin leaders bent on expansion would surely have ordered troops all the way to Tbilisi to depose [Georgia President Mikheil] Saakashvili. At the least, Russian forces would have taken control of the oil and gas pipelines that cross Georgia. Instead, the Russians left those pipelines alone and quickly withdrew to the mountains.”
Shleifer and Treisman raise a very important point. If Putin is a rogue leader with massive expansionist objectives, why would he relinquish territory that Russian forces had occupied? Indeed, with very little additional effort, Russia could have captured Tbilisi and the rest of Georgia. Yet it did not attempt to do so. Hitler never willingly gave up any of his conquests, and until the collapse of the Eastern European satellite empire in 1989-1991, the USSR disgorged only one occupied area: the portion of Austria it controlled at the end of World War II. Even that modest retreat took place only after laborious negotiations for a treaty guaranteeing Austria’s strict neutrality. If Putin truly harbors malignantly expansionist ambitions comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin, declining to conquer and absorb all of Georgia when that achievement was easily within reach showed curious restraint. His decision merely to perpetuate and consolidate Moscow’s treatment of Georgia’s two secessionist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russian protectorates suggests much more limited ambitions.
Another aspect of Russia’s behavior is decidedly inconsistent with a rogue expansionist power: its military spending is modest and declining, not robust and surging. True, Putin has sought to rebuild and modernize Russia’s military, and he has achieved some success in doing so. Russia’s navy once again deploys modern vessels, and its air force is now flying modern, even cutting-edge aircraft. Putin’s regime has also focused on developing and deploying long-range, precision-guided weapons, and is pursuing military research and development efforts with respect to hypersonic aircraft and missiles.
Even those developments must be put into perspective, however. The restoration and modernization follows a decade of military decline and decay during the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. Moscow’s military budget is still a very modest $66.3 billion. Not only does the gargantuan U.S. budget of $716 billion dwarf that amount, it is far less than China’s $174.5 billion and only slightly more than the budgets of countries such as France and India. Moreover, in contrast to the sizable annual increases in U.S. spending levels, Russia’s military spending is declining, not rising. The 2017 budget was $69.2 billion, some $2.9 billion greater than the current budget. That is an odd trend for a government that supposedly harbors vast offensive ambitions.
The only undiminished source of Russian clout is Moscow’s large nuclear arsenal. But as various scholars have shown, while nuclear weapons may be the ultimate deterrent, they are not very useful for power projection or war fighting, except in the highly improbable event that a country’s political leadership is eager to risk national and personal suicide. And there is no evidence whatsoever that Putin and his oligarch backers are suicidal. Quite the contrary, they seem wedded to accumulating ever greater wealth and perks.
Too many Americans act as though we are still confronting the Soviet Union at the height of its power and ambitions. It will be the ultimate tragic irony if, having avoided war with a messianic, totalitarian global adversary, we now stumble into war because of an out-of-date image of, and policy toward, a conventional, regional power. Yet unless U.S. leaders change both their mindsets and their policies toward Russia, that outcome is a real danger.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 750 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019).