Further thoughts on the forthcoming Biden-Putin summit: U.S. policy built on false foundations

In my last essay proposing a “reductionist approach” to identifying the driver of Biden’s initiative for a meeting with Putin so early in his presidency, I spoke of putting a cap on the nuclear arms race, which is proceeding adversely to U.S. security interests.

In this brief essay, I will explain why acknowledgement of Russia’s military achievements over the past decade, both in strategic and in tactical forces, is so difficult for the American foreign policy establishment, and why this fact is a major hazard for the forthcoming summit to succeed.

But in making my argument, I am obliged to broaden our survey to take in China as well as Russia, given that recent U.S. doctrinal papers have in one breath dealt with both as leading competitors and/or potential adversaries.

My point is that official U.S. threat analysis of these two countries is based on wrong-headed estimates of their respective military strength today and in the future.  The abstract notion underlying these wrong estimates is the equation of economic strength, measured by GDP, and military strength. As we all know, China is rated number two after the USA; Russia rates itself as number 10.

As recently as 6 years ago, the President of the United States was saying that Russia produced nothing that the world needed or wanted, that its economy was a shambles.  A U.S. Senator who enjoyed wide respect of his colleagues in both parties was saying Russia was nothing more than a ‘gas station’ parading as a sovereign state.  And while we do not read these ignorant and defamatory declarations about the Russian economy today, the recent ignorant and defamatory statements about Russia’s Covid 19 vaccine Sputnik V, the first such vaccine in the world to be registered, perpetuate the notion that Russians are incapable of world-beating innovation of any kind.

For all of the above reasons, mainstream media tells us endlessly that Russia is a declining power, that it only occupies the role of spoiler, whereas China is the world’s second greatest military force as well as being the world’s second largest economy and so is the strategic competitor and potential adversary worthy of our rapt attention.

I do not mean to suggest that China does not pose a potential military threat to U.S. global interests. Indeed, China’s military and geopolitical posture is changing as we talk, precisely because of the very aggressive attempts of the US to “contain” China and hinder its international ascent commercially and geopolitically.

What I mean regarding China is that until Trump began his frontal assault on the country by his trade war and confrontation in the South China Sea, by attempts to round up all the neighboring states and Europe in a common front against China, i.e. before the unleashing of a new Cold War against Beijing, Chinese military ambitions were limited in scope to their own back yard, not global or strategic.  Now things are changing. The Chinese are adding to their nuclear arsenal, which was, by intent, very modest. It is arguable that China is now starting a build-up of strategic arms usable as deterrence against the USA that it would otherwise have started only 20 years from now. 

The same factors have pushed China into Russia’s arms. The Chinese – Russian embrace is typically described as coming from the Russian side due to the pressure they are under from NATO and the U.S.-led sanctions. However, whereas China was doing splendidly pre-Trump in its economic relations with the West and had no reason to jeopardize this boon by coming too close to Russia, the pariah state, those inhibitions have been swept away by hostile U.S. actions.  Today China is the suitor in an informal global alliance with Russia.

So, where is Russia as a security threat to the United States?  It is without question today the single greatest opponent to US global hegemony in the world. It alone has the capability of leveling the USA in 20 minutes. And it has moved maybe 10 years ahead of the U.S. in the most advanced nuclear weapons delivery systems, ICBMs, hypersonic cruise missiles, deep sea nuclear drones, you name it.  Though no one talks about it, de facto Russia probably now has a first strike capability backed up by its own iron dome ABM system. 

Here in Pushkin, a close suburb of Petersburg, where I write to you from today, 10 minutes by car from our gated community apartment complex there is what looks like an S400 unit standing out in the open.  Pushkin happens to have some of the main naval training centers with foreign students enrolled (we see Guinee trainees in uniform when we shop in the supermarkets here), and there is a helicopter center and military air field close by.

How long can the Russians keep this up?  Forever would be my guess. Putin has said in the past 10 days that Russia will be lowering its military expenditures as percent of GDP in the coming two years to just 3.5%, which is wholly sustainable for the indefinite future.

Mutual respect is what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has demanded as a starting point for diplomatic negotiations with the Americans. Respect is not conferred on an interlocutor “from a position of strength,” the typical American approach to such talks.

The problem for Washington is that no one on Capitol Hill or in the foreign policy community wants to acknowledge the obvious facts about Russia today. Everyone is happy with the vision of a slovenly, chaotic Russia ruled by a merciless dictator, whose regime is fragile and just needs a little push, like Nicholas II’s autocracy, to tilt over and collapse. This is rubbish and if it remains the foundation of U.S. policy towards Russia under Biden then we can expect nothing much to happen to reduce the dangers of nuclear war or move towards calmer waters in international relations

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

15 thoughts on “

  1. Excellent! I so much wish that someone from the “Biden team” would read this article & investigate the truths herein. I live just down the road from Pushkin in the small town of Luga, btw.


    1. Then we are almost neighbors. Our country house is in Orlino, 12 km from Siversk, and halfway between StP and Luga….In her childhood, my wife spent several summers in Luga staying with relatives and she writes about that in her recently published Dacha Stories: Life in the Russian Hinterland


      1. I saw her book is out, and I need to get it! Luga is my wife’s hometown. I took early retirement 5 years ago, and we moved here from the States two weeks later. Luga gets a lot of dachniki from the St. Petersburg area. If you are ever this way I’d be honored to meet you. I’ve read 3 of your books and enjoyed and profited from all three.


  2. “The problem for Washington is that no one on Capitol Hill or in the foreign policy community wants to acknowledge the obvious facts about Russia today. Everyone is happy with the vision of a slovenly, chaotic Russia ruled by a merciless dictator, whose regime is fragile and just needs a little push, like Nicholas II’s autocracy, to tilt over and collapse.”

    I am not sure I entirely agree with this. Certainly there are ignorami and fools in our hallowed capital, but I can’t believe that they all are so dense.

    To my understanding, Russian military production, at least with respect to internal defense, is a state-managed, not-for-profit affair (though it employees the private sector), whereas in the US a “free-market” (which seems actually more along the lines of a cartel system) approach is preferred. Russia gets more value out of its system on a much lower cost basis than does the US, but that is something that could never be admitted to as then there would be calls to reign in our $700B+ military budget (and arguably $1T+, if you consider the nuclear weapons program under DoE, Veteran Affairs, and especially the intelligence/NatSec sector which might be considered military/defensive). Moreover, there would be calls for ACCOUNTABILITY (say, for weapons systems that actually work) — and accountability is unprofitable.

    And when your representative, or Pentagon general, is not prevented from holding shares in these companies — you can see where the incentives lie.

    Additionally, Russia, I suspect, does not have anything like the US lobbying complex, nor the political campaign industry, but I could be wrong.

    Finally, GDP is about the worst measure of anything; waste and inefficiency contribute positively to GDP (take for instance the US FIRE sector, accounting for roughly 22% of GDP in 2020, which is largely extractive/rentier in nature).


  3. People like Andrei Martyanov have been highlighting the very real differences in military capabilities in the US and Russia, and why the US is so resistant to acknowledging Russian superiority in weapons systems, with an eye towards preventing the US using nukes. But you probably already knew that.


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