Friday, December 12, 2008

The Return of the Russian Navy

While the plans for it got quite a bit of publicity a few months ago, it seems that the Russian-Venezuelan naval exercises (which included the participation of the Russian battle-cruiser Peter the Great) drew little attention when they actually took place at the start of the month.

Incidentally, the exercises were followed up by the Russian navy paying a visit to Nicaragua before heading east via the Panama Canal, the first time Russian warships have used the canal since 1944. Next up for the Peter the Great is a trip to the Indian Ocean, where it is to take part in exercises with the Indian navy and help in "maintaining a regular [Russian naval] presence" off the Horn of Africa. According to the Times of India this will be the fourth Indo-Russian exercise since 2003, which included one in the Sea of Japan last year.

And of course, there are all the more unlikely stories, like the idea of relocating the Black Sea fleet to a base in Syria (at which point, it would of course need to be renamed).

One has to wonder what to make of all this. Today's Russia is not the Soviet Union, nor can it seriously hope to be. Where the Soviet Union in the late 1980s had perhaps 6 perhaps of the world's population and accounted for 12 percent of global GDP (to say nothing of having its troops sitting on half of Europe), today's Russia has a little more than 2 percent of the world's population (and shrinking in absolute as well as relative terms), maybe 3 percent of global GDP-and that because of oil price rises that have been falling since July. (Believe it or not, today's Russia is actually less industrialized than it was in the Soviet period.)

I expect oil prices to rebound, perhaps in the not too distant future, but even were they to do so, oil alone cannot sustain a superpower's ambitions (and anyway, the benefit Russia derives may be undercut by its peaking production, the worries of foreign investors and the country's own consumption growth), while at the same time, being likely to hobble the country's continued development with a well-known "resource curse." (I discussed the issue at some length in an analysis of the Russian economy for the Space Review back in November.)

In short, the power base isn't there. In fact, as the strain of defense spending on the Soviet economy showed, it wasn't really there even then. The result is that it looks more than anything else like grandstanding off of old military-industrial capital and new petrodollars to score some prestige points (and in cases, prop up a few friends and clients), while hoping that the limited positive signs seen to date will lead to a more substantial recovery enabling it to really fill that enlarged role.

Right now that looks like a longshot, and in any case, it would seem that the money (while admittedly limited next to what the Soviets spent on their military) would be much better spent on rebuilding infrastructure, restoring public health and making other desperately needed investments at home. For that matter, it might have been expended reforming the horrendous conditions faced by Russian conscripts during their national service (or better still, ending conscription, and moving to an all-professional force).

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