Every morning I wake up to the smell of fresh brewed coffee from my Moscow-manufactured coffeemaker and commute in my Russian car while making hands-free calls on my latest Siberian smartphone.
Russia makes nothing I own. Nothing I need. Nothing I consume. I don’t watch Russian movies and don’t use Russian software. Look around your own home. How many Russian appliances, food stuffs, or clothes are made in the world’s largest landmass nation? Zilch. Nada. Nothing.
If you’re worried that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is poised to take over the world, rest assured. It is not. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, once called Russia “a gas station masquerading as a country.”
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He’s right. Russia today is mostly a great big oil and gas conglomerate. Energy resources make up around 70 percent of Russia’s total exports and more than half its budget revenues.
Russia also has a lot of bombs. Really big bad ones. Weapons of mass destruction.
Former German Prime Minister Helmut Schmidt once called late 20th-century Russia — the USSR — a third-world country with nukes. Still true. But let’s also add Russia’s new cyberweapons to the mix: Gas, guns and, now, killer code.
Russia is pumping more oil and extracting more natural gas to fund a military might that has grown even faster, stronger and more aggressively since it discovered and developed advanced digital tools. These new weapons give Russia greater stealth power and global reach. Suddenly, a few energy-funded Russian hackers and hybrid warriors can infiltrate and embed themselves in foreign power grids and critical infrastructure. Web-enabled psyops and social media manipulation help Russia to sow and amplify societal division and dissent abroad.
I was a Moscow correspondent during the Cold War, and nuclear WMDs were the West’s main concern and obsession. Russia now deploys highly effective weapons of mass disruption. Its latest assault on American political sovereignty? Targeting conservative think tanks earlier this week. These are the desperate acts of a propped-up Russian administration both in decline and at war.
Oil and gas, however, keep the country afloat. This week’s toughened U.S. sanctions are bound to increase Moscow’s economic pinch as the Russian ruble races the Turkish lira to new lows against the dollar.
But even a currency crunch won’t stop Russia’s foreign interventions because, despite punitive sanctions, the price of oil, ultimately, pays for its troublemaking. High energy prices are the cost of power transferred from Europe and the United States to Russia and other petrostates. The higher the Brent crude price and the market for natural gas, the greater Russia’s domestic tranquility and geopolitical leverage. At 50 bucks a barrel or below, Putin’s regime is going to struggle at home. At today’s $70-plus per barrel, Putin can keep his regime comfortably afloat, skim a little profit and cause a lot of problems overseas. When the market pushed oil to more than $100 a barrel and Americans paid north of $4 a gallon at the pump, it was a never-ending Putin party at home and abroad.
What Russia exports today is not only oil and gas for cold cash, it is hot air and burning issues via its highly targeted and sophisticated political influence campaign aimed at the West. Russia can’t compete in the open market of goods, services or — especially — ideas. Instead, it needs to undermine political systems, delegitimize governments and destroy faith in democracy. It does this daily and with impunity. It does this to level the global playing field. And it is doing this actively, today, to take down — or, at least, take down a notch — the ability of Western states to confront and condemn Putin’s politics and practices.
In Putin’s convenient world view, every government is corrupt and craven. President Trump reflected this world view when last year Fox News asked him about Russia’s murderous deeds. Trumps response? ”What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” Trump equated all countries — regardless of their political system, laws or traditions — and made it clear he does not see the United States as exceptional. His flippant remark showed that both he and Putin believe that all powerful nations behave similarly and cynically in the world.
Russia’s attack on America’s political system and campaigns has helped American voters become deeply cynical about their representatives, parties and power. The internet campaigns run out of St. Petersburg have fueled an existing dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C. and the federal government into outright hostility against politics by exacerbating resentment over racial difference and economic inequality.
Russia may not manufacture much, but it fuels a lot of Western cars and heats a lot of European homes. It uses its energy revenues to pour gas on America’s incendiary politics of division and hate, as Facebook pointed out again this week. Putin’s Russia is a net exporter of instability and it is building more digital factories and capacities to disrupt and destroy legitimate democratic political systems.
With U.S. midterm elections right around the corner, the Russian intervention machine is fueled up. It is nowhere near running on empty.