How Much of a Threat Is Russia to the United States?

Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University

There's a lot of talk about Russia's hostility to America, thanks to its apparent interference in the 2016 election. But in the grand scheme of things Russia is small potatoes, explains Stephen Walt, Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. America is bigger economically, has far more friends and thus a better world standing, and has a lot more going for it, says Walt. Should the U.S. really be concerned with a country with a GDP some 15 times smaller than its own, with a rapidly aging population and no industry beside oil and gas? Stephen Walt’s weekly column can be found at ForeignPolicy.com. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org.

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TRANSCRIPT

Stephen Walt: The United States is much stronger than Russia, and will be for the rest of my professional lifetime, and I would guess for the entirety of the 21st century unless we commit a series of almost unimaginable self-inflicted wounds.

The United States first of all has a much larger economy. Our economy is now about $17 trillion, Russia’s is less than $2 trillion and has actually been declining in recent years. So we are already close to eight or nine or ten times stronger economically.

The United States is much more powerful militarily: We spend four or five times more than Russia does on defense every year. We have much more sophisticated weaponry than Russia does. The United States is still blessed with allies in many parts of the world. These allies are for the most part rich, relatively powerful and stable. We’re talking about countries like Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and others. Russia by contrast has no allies of any real consequence. It has something of a friendly relationship with China, but it’s not really an alliance.

And lastly Russia has a terrible demographic situation. Its population is much older than ours on average, and it’s aging rapidly; the population is projected to decline dramatically by 30 or 40 million people over the next 50 years or so.

So for all of those reasons the United States has far more power potential.

Last but not least, Russia’s only real economic asset now is oil and gas. People are not lining up to buy the next Russian smartphone or anything like that, so Russia’s long-term potential strikes me as not nearly as promising as that of the United States.

Well, weaker states can still do a lot of things that cause trouble, and what Russia did in the 2016 election—the full extent of which and the importance of which we are still trying to figure out—certainly has roiled American politics in a variety of ways, so it does show that even much weaker powers can find various ways to interfere or cause problems.

Now, it was in part because we were vulnerable to that kind of manipulation, and that’s our fault, not theirs.

I would say a little bit more about this too, though: what Russia did is not unprecedented. The United States has interfered in democratic elections in lots of countries around the world, and you could argue that we've been doing a variety of things to try and encourage democratic forces, promote civil society, both in Russia or in countries close to Russia, in ways that they regard as alarming.

We might think that we’re doing the right thing, spreading our values in various places, but you could certainly understand how Russia might regard that as threatening, and might even view what they did in 2016 as a form of payback: “If you want to manipulate politics in Ukraine, if you want to interfere in Russia in various ways, well we can do things to you as well.”
So again, without knowing the full extent of what Russia may or may not have done we shouldn’t view this as unprecedented, and we shouldn’t view it as coming completely out of the blue. It doesn’t mean we have to like it, but it’s important I think to keep just how heinous it may or may not be in some context here.

Again, Russia is simply not the kind of global superpower that the Soviet Union was. It doesn’t pose a significant ideological challenge to us, it seems to me. And to the extent that the United States is going to worry about a rival/peer/competitor, it’s not going to be Russia—it’s going to be China.

But having said that, you can imagine circumstances where a confrontation between the two countries could begin to spin out of control, conceivably over what’s happening in Syria.
If things in Ukraine were to heat up again and the United States got more actively involved there, one could imagine some kind of clash arising.

I don’t think that leaders in Washington or leaders in Moscow actually want something like that to happen—Remember, we are still talking about two nuclear powers with thousands of nuclear weapons that could still be fired at each other, but I don’t think you can completely rule it out.
Will it become like the Cold War? No I don’t think so. But it is something I think that bears watching.

And it’s also unfortunate in a different sense, because there are still some issues—whether it’s counterterrorism, how to deal with Iran, what to do about the Civil War in Syria—where collaboration with Russia might be useful.

And one last point: if we really are worried about China over the long-term, if that’s really the rising power that we need to keep our eye on, the last thing we should be doing is anything that drives Moscow closer to Beijing.

Russia and China, when you look at just the geography here, are not really natural allies, they have many reasons to be weary of one another, and we should, in fact, be trying to get Moscow to be more on our side and less on China’s side over the long-term. So spinning up a new Cold War with Russia doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a larger strategic perspective.