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  February 20, 2018

Is Russia a Threat?

Alleged election-meddling aside, there is a great deal of exaggeration of Russia's power and its threat to the U.S., says author and scholar Vijay Prashad
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SHARMINI PERIES: It's The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Suspicions that Russia represents a threat to the United States received a new boost with last week's indictment of 13 Russians for their alleged interference in the 2016 election campaign. Although President Trump tends to downplay Russia's role, his own military advisors recently reaffirmed Russia as a threat. Last December the Trump administration released its national security strategy document which identifies Russia and China as the two main rivals of the U.S.. It goes on to also refer to Russia as a major threat, stating, "Russia is investing in new military capabilities including nuclear systems that remain the most significant existential threat to the United States and in stabilizing cyber capabilities. Through modernized forms of subversive tactics, Russia's interference in the domestic political affairs of countries around the world," it read.

Joining me now to discuss this and take a closer look at the supposed Russian threat is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is executive director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is also chief editor of LeftWord Books. He's also the author of more than 18 books, including The Future of the Arab Revolution. Thanks for joining us Vijay.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Pleasure. Thanks.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Vijay, let's start off with the recent indictment against 13 Russians from this internet troll farm in Russia. If they were able to sway some voters and if President Vladimir Putin of Russia is intent on somehow influencing U.S. politics, doesn't that make Russia a threat to the United States?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, if it's true that the Russian government used whatever cyber means to influence the U.S. election, then that should be cause for alarm to people who manage the election process and perhaps to the American electorate, certainly. Every country has the right to have some sort of sovereign election system where the country's institutions are respected, where the people are able to produce a mandate for whomever they'd like to govern themselves. By the way, this is a principle that I think the United States should adopt when it looks at other elections going back the last 60 years, having scant regard for the institutions of other countries, the electoral institutions, and for the outcome of elections. Most significantly when the Palestinians decided to elect Hamas, the United States, which had pushed for those elections, invalidated the results saying, "Well we don't like your candidates that have won." So, yes of course a country should be concerned about interference in its election processes and I think that's something that the United States institutions should take seriously.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Let's take a step back a bit Vijay. Would you say Russia's interests is in regard to the United States and how has that interest evolved say over the last few decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I think here there's an interesting story to be told. In other words I think the obsession inside the American media about whether Russia is the demon, let's say, of American politics I think is slightly overdrawn, that picture. It may be true that the Russian government had some influence in the U.S. election, personally I very much doubt that it had the ultimate role in bringing President Trump into the White House, but nonetheless that's a separate question. I think the question I'm interested in is whether Russia is indeed a so-called threat to the United States. This goes to another question, which is, "What should be the architecture of interstate relations? How should governments, the 193, 194 governments of the world, interact with each other?"

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States, by dint of its military power and its political authority, has been able to drive what is known as a unipolar understanding of international affairs where one pole, the so-called sole superpower, the United States, essentially dictates to the rest of the world how things should happen. This was not only by war, the test case here was the first Iraq war, but also by trade policy, and here the test case was the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1994, which was largely an organization that developed along the kind of principles and rules set by the United States and its allies. This unipolar organization of world affairs was something that I think greatly advantaged the United States for several decades.

In the recent period, this unipolar architecture has been challenged by China, by Russia, and by other countries, which we know as the so-called emerging powers, and they are pushing for what they call a multipolar organization of the world, not a single pole but many poles. China and Russia's push therefore has been towards multipolarity, not to overthrow the Americans and supplant the United States as let's say these two as the main powers, but to have a much more regionalized organization of world power. Given this, the Russians and Chinese have been pushing back against the United States and the United States government has defined this as a threat to U.S. interests. I think this definition of the push for multipolarity as a threat to U.S. interests is very narrow. It's narrow-minded and it's suffocating for the rest of the planet.

SHARMINI PERIES: That is not to say that China and Russia doesn't have their own interests and assertions in terms of using force to deal with situations say with its Crimea, or Chechnya, or in the Chinese, in the Southeast region to the Chinese, does want control of their borders, of their seaports and so forth.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, of course they use force to establish their interests, but I think what's important to understand is that neither Russia nor China, despite being permanent members of the UN Security Council, despite having a considerable nuclear arsenal, neither of them are world powers. In other words, neither China nor Russia have the military capacity to extend themselves into let us say the Western Hemisphere. There is no opportunity for Russia and China, no structural ability for these two countries to affect any kind of military change, let's say, in South America, Central America, or in North America. Meanwhile, of course, the United States continues to have a global footprint, so that the United States can indeed affect change in Asia, in Africa, at least try to affect change through military force.

These two powers, Russia and China, are actually better seen as regional powers. Turns out of course that they are enormous countries that straddle continents. In the case of Russia it straddles Europe and Asia, and so its borders do in fact run into zones where the United States believes it has fundamental interests. The key areas here of course are the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Now it's very interesting that the two conflicts that Russia has been involved in vis-à-vis the West, have been about warm water ports. This is something that is not often talked about. Why was Russia so intent upon not allowing Ukraine to become as it were a pro-western power, and why was Russia so intent to protect its interests in Syria?

Well the only two warm water ports that the Russians have any access to are in Sevastopol in the Crimea and in Tartus in Syria. These are the two major wars outside its territory that Russia has been involved with in Ukraine and in Syria. These are to my mind logical defensive wars to protect these two warm water ports. It's by the way important to recognize that the United States has about 30 warm water ports in its own territory, and another 30 warm water ports in places where it has allied agreements such as in Manama in Bahrain, in Qatar, in Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean.

The United States Navy has 60 warm water ports to the Russian two warm water ports, so there's a great deal of exaggeration of Russian power, of Russian threats to the United States, when in fact I think it's better to see the Russians and the Chinese as being defensive of their borders and of the kind of regions that are near their borders, but they are not making a push for global power. I don't think either of them are threatening the United States mainland. They are certainly threatening the United States unipolar control over the planet, that is a threat, but not the United States itself.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, it is important to point out here that the increase of the U.S. military budget insisted upon by Donald Trump is greater than the total Russian military budget. The new U.S. budget will spend 105 billion more on the U.S. military than it did just last year, taking U.S. military spending to 716 billion. Russia's total military spending as far as we know is around 69 billion, and the Chinese too are spending more on military than it has in the past, but nowhere near the U.S.S. The argument that Russia and China are threats are weak assertions here, aren't they?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is a very important question. Let's take the case of Russia. Let's assume that a dollar in Russia buys as much as a dollar in the United States. This is an unfair assumption, but let's just assume that for the sake of comparison. Now, it's interesting that if President Trump gets his way in this next budget, the United States will spend at least $710 billion on its military, on what is known as defense. At least $710 billion, I say at least because of course there are the hidden budgets that involve the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, national security, et cetera, but let's take the $710 billion on the surface as the amount the United States spends in war making.

The Russians by comparison spend $69 billion in war making. That's one-tenth, less than one-tenth of what the United States spends. Mr. Trump wants to increase the budget by--to $710 billion--is by $100 billion. In other words, the increase in U.S. military spending is itself greater than the total military spending by Russia. I think this statistic is very important, this data point is very important. It's important for people to understand the scale of U.S. military spending and the scale of Russian military spending. There is simply no comparison, one against the other. It's of course true that Russian military spending has increased over the last decade and a half, and the reason it's increased is since Mr. Putin came to office in 2004 he had pledged to improve not only the Russian military but Russian arms production, both of which had deteriorated in the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In many ways Putin's spending on the Russian military and on Russian military production was a kind of salvage spending, building up the Russian military to near Soviet levels, but not actually at Soviet levels. Russia still has only one rather poor Air Force carrier, which as many people noted was not able to operate at full capacity off the coast of Syria in the Mediterranean, whereas the United States has several Air Force carriers and therefore can project its force across the planet. One should be I think rather actually based in one's understanding of military power and of power of countries, rather than allow the kind of hallucinations of the corporate media to sway one's thinking.

SHARMINI PERIES: On the economic side Vijay, the U.S. continues to dominate the world in spite of China's remarkable economic gains over the last several decades, but Russia is struggling economically. It's still coming out of the setback in terms of the drop in oil prices and it might be doing a little bit better than it was a few years ago, but where is all this heading and what is going to be the measures undertaken to dethrone the U.S. dominance and influence over the world economy?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, this is a very difficult piece of the puzzle as it were. The so-called BRICS countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, over the course of the past decade had tried to provide alternative institutional frameworks for trade and development. They pushed for an alternative to the World Bank, they pushed for an alternative to the International Monetary Fund, and so on. Even those pushes that they made to create these alternatives to the IMF and the World Bank, those itself were rather timid. In other words, they continue to rely on the U.S. dollar for them and they continue to rely on the IMF surveillance units to provide them with information. The drive to create an alternative ratings agency to Moody's, to Standard & Poor, didn't really take off. The attempt to produce a new wire service that would have allowed these countries to not have to go through the European wire services, the Swift service that's based in Europe, that didn't take off.

This attempt to create an alternative set of institutions hasn't really gone anywhere, and now that several right-wing countries have emerged within the BRIC blocks, that is in India, in Brazil, in South Africa as well, these are right-of-center governments as far as economic policy is concerned, and none of them really has the appetite to drive an agenda against U.S. dominance over trade institutions, over development institutions. This has not really gone anywhere and I think it's to be seen whether some of the initiatives started by the BRICS will even survive the next five years.

SHARMINI PERIES: Vijay, this leaves the political fora; here we are mainly looking at the United Nations and perhaps the EU to contain the U.S. What are the developments that we should note here by way of dehumanizing the power of the United States in terms of the political world order?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, it's to be seen whether this is going to be possible. The two flashpoint conflicts in Iran and North Korea, the United States in neither of these conflicts has been able to drive an agenda by itself. It has been hemmed in by lack of allies, and here actually the issue is not so much Russia and China, although Russia and China put down a marker against U.S. policy, but the issue here are the Europeans. They no longer will march in lockstep with U.S. policy. Reuters recently leaked a memorandum that came from the U.S. State Department and went to embassies in London, Berlin, Brussels, and Paris, asking U.S. ambassador's to push the Europeans on the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump seems eager to want to break, but there is no appetite in Europe to go along with the American position to scuttle the nuclear deal.

There has been equally no appetite in Seoul in South Korea or in Tokyo in Japan to go with the Trump position on North Korea. So, because its allies have abandoned it, it appears therefore that Russia and China are seeing some of their positions come on top over the American positions, at least on Iran and North Korea, but I don't think this should be seen as somehow the emergence of Russian and Chinese power. I think this is much more a sign that American allies are not being as pliable as they used to be.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right Vijay. A lot to digest there. I thank you so much for coming on The Real News Network and looking forward to having you back.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Thanks a lot.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.


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