Look at this chart of GDP in Russia and Australia. They are essentially on par with us — perhaps more when oil revenues are high, less at other times. Russia is not a big force in the global economy. Like us, it has few global brands that matter. Like us, it exports some raw materials. The way it is unlike us is you don’t see us destabilising the global economy by launching cruise missiles at our neighbours.
We could do to PNG — a former Australian dependency — what Russia is doing to Ukraine. But do we? No. We are quiet. We keep our military assets mostly at home (jaunts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and perhaps Timor-Leste the exceptions.)
Look at Russia’s place in the world. It is not an exceptional country by population or by GDP. You can see why Joe Biden recently called it “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons”.
The phrase Biden used, by the way, is an updated version of an old Cold War phrase “Upper Volta with rockets”, the exact provenance of which, is, like all good quotes, murky as hell.
Russia was once mighty and is now run of the mill. But Biden’s quip highlights the key factor — it speaks to the importance of nukes. That’s what makes Russia special. It’s not the overall military spending, which is comparable to many other countries and a fraction of the two big powers.
All the other nuclear-armed countries spend a fair bit on their militaries too. This includes the other four signatories to the non-proliferation treaty — the US, UK, China, and France. Plus India, North Korea, and Pakistan, who make no secret of their nukes. And also Israel, who keep their nukes sort of secret but also want their neighbours to know they have them.
Biden’s quip was supposed to direct scorn at Russia’s underdevelopment and its citizens’ lack of wealth. Ladas and borscht. Grim, grey apartments. But what it does for me is draw my attention to how a binary issue — whether or not you have nuclear weapons — determines a lot of your clout in the world.
When Iraq rolled into Kuwait in 1992, America pushed them back. Iraq didn’t have nukes; it was an easy choice. George H W Bush won that war swiftly. But when Russia rolled into Crimea in 2014, America whistled and looked the other way. Nuclear powers can get away with things. Kim Jong-un knows this. Knew it all along, persevered, won, and is smiling today. Xi Jinping probably knows it but is having the lesson refreshed. The boys at the PLA outposts opposite Taiwan have a spring in their step today.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty is a source of increased peace in our world. It is. In general. Four countries have given up their nukes, those being South Africa, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and… oh yeah, one other: Ukraine.
In the aftermath of the USSR, Ukrainian territory had lots of nuclear weapons. They eventually gave them up in exchange for security guarantees. In 1994, the Ukraine president went to Budapest and signed a piece of paper that said his country would join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and give up its nukes. In exchange, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom agreed to assure its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
That deal was not worth a bag of potatoes. The UK and US didn’t abide by it, and Russia crapped all over it. What we discovered this past week was extremely disappointing. Alliances and deals don’t get you very far. Threats of sanctions don’t deter. Countries that want to be safe from nuclear powers need to arm themselves.
This is probably why stock in Lockheed Martin and Raytheon is outperforming the market so strongly in the last month. Bitter lessons are being learned. Might matters. More than GDP, that’s for sure. The cost will be a more dangerous world.