The Big Lies

1155.jpgJune 11, 2007: Russians have been rewriting their own history, more so than most nations, for a long time. The most recent example is their current attitude towards the Cold War, how it ended, and the legacy of 70 years of communist tyranny.Because most Russians, especially the leaders, have not accepted the Soviet Union  as a truly evil institution, it’s possible for many Russians to blame the collapse of the Soviet Union, and end of the Cold War, on the missteps of Soviet leaders, especially the last head of the Soviet empire, Mikhail Gorbachev. However, most Russians go with the, “we just got tired of the incompetent Soviet bureaucrats and shed them” explanation. Either way, most Russians have not come to terms with no longer being one of the world’s two superpowers.

Russia today is a much diminished version of the Soviet Union. The population of 140 million is shrinking because of a plunging birth rate, and falling life expectancy.  The Russian GDP, at 0 billion, is less than seven percent of  the United States (which has more than twice as many people). That, however, is an improvement. In the early 1990s, when economists and accountants got the first good look at the Russian economy since the early 20th century, it was found that the Russian GDP was about four percent of the U.S. GDP. Add back all the lost components of the Soviet Union, and you still don’t have a GDP amounting to more than six percent of the American one. How did the Soviet Union achieve superpower status on such a thin economic base? They did it mostly with illusion, and an excessive arms budget that ruined the economy. Starting in the 1960s, the military got a priority on government spending, and permission to build an industrial complex that dominated the entire economy. This was part of a political deal, to keep one faction of the Communist Party in power. 


With a GDP more than ten times the size of the Soviet Unions, the U.S. could spend five percent of GDP on defense, and far outspend the Soviet Union. Worse yet, Soviet accounting practices, like so much else they did, were opaque and self-delusional. It wasn’t until after the Soviet Union collapsed that anyone could get an idea of how large the Soviet defense budgets were, and it turned out they were less than half the size of the American ones. Suddenly, a lot of Soviet military policies  made sense. Russia bought lots of weapons, but did not have the money to maintain them, or even allow the troops to train with them. That was known, and in light of how the Soviet defense budget was set up, was understandable, and inevitable. 


The really bad news is, most Russians are still not aware of how screwed up their Soviet era military was. There are two reasons for this. First, Russians take for granted how their armed forces operates. Russians complain about the brutality and incompetence in the military, but that’s all they’ve ever known. Second, Russians remember fondly that their ramshackle armed forces defeated the Germans during World War II. What the Russians play down is how much the Germans lost World War II in Russia, rather than being beaten. The Germans made a lot of serious mistakes during the war, while the Russians got their act together. What Russians fail to realize is that the Soviet Union was an accidental, and largely imaginary, superpower. Russia has long employed large scale deception, and the Soviet Union continued this on a sustained basis. Military weaknesses (poor training and readiness) were hidden, and strengths (sheer number of weapons and troops) emphasized. But as was seen many times (from Budapest in 1956, to Chechnya in 1994), the Soviet military system produced little in the way of real military power. Soviet weapons, as impressive as they appeared to be, always came out a distant second when they were used against Western ones. The main thing that kept the Soviet military reputation going was the need of Western militaries to make the Soviet Union look strong, in order to justify high Western military budgets. 


The one effective weapon the Soviets did have were their nuclear armed ballistic missiles. Better maintained than the rest of the military, enough of this missile fleet would work, if used, to devastate Western nations. Russia still has a large part of that nuclear arsenal. But that does not make Russians feel like a superpower. That’s because Russia no longer has the huge fleet, air force and army. And that’s because this huge force was all an expensive illusion, which was disbanded in the 1990s, once it was obvious what a waste it all was. But the big thing that’s missing is the size of the Soviet Union. Over half the population of the Soviet Union were not Russian, and did not want to be part of the Soviet Union. Most of these people got their wish in 1991, when the Soviet Union came apart. Many Russians want to undo that, but they cannot. It took Russia over four centuries to build that empire, and the inept Soviet Bureaucrats a few weeks to lose it all.  An increasing number of Russians want it back, but are unwilling to confront how they lost it in the first place, or why rebuilding the empire is an uncertain and dangerous enterprise. This is all very dangerous stuff.


June 8, 2007:   Russian, American and European leaders met for the G8 economic meeting, and Russias attitudes towards the post-Cold War world became a major topic. Russia has been increasingly hostile towards its neighbors joining the European Union, or NATO. Russia sees all this differently than does Europe, the U.S., or even Russias neighbors. These nations, especially those like Ukraine, which were part of Russia for centuries, understand Russian resentment over the loss of empire. Europeans and Americans have a harder time appreciating Russian fear of potential enemies making economic and military pacts with Russians neighbors. To many Russians, the West is still out to destroy them. But the West has always seen Russia as the aggressive empire to be contained. This was the case even before the Soviet Union was established. Some things never change. Russia sees an American sponsored anti-missile system, being built in Poland and the Czech republic, to stop Iranian or North Korean missiles, as part of a plot to diminish Russian military power. But everyone agrees that this system could easily be overwhelmed by the large Russian missile force. However, what the West does not appreciate, is the Russian admiration of Western military technology, and suspicion that those clever Americans will be able to tweak this seemingly limited anti-missile system, so that it will stop any Russian missiles headed for Europe. Europeans see this as absurd. Europe is the major customer for Russian gas and oil (the largest, and fastest growing, component of the Russian economy.) Why would Russia fire nukes at their largest customer? By the end of the G8 conference, Russian leaders have been forced to concede the logic of this, and even offered to join in building the anti-missile system. But nothing has really changed. Russia still has centuries of prejudices and illusions to deal with, and a cure is not likely any time soon.

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