The Challenge of Russia’s Decline

CAMBRIDGE – As Europe debates whether to maintain its sanctions regime against Russia, the Kremlin’s policy of aggression toward Ukraine continues unabated. Russia is in long-term decline, but it still poses a very real threat to the international order in Europe and beyond. Indeed, Russia’s decline may make it even more dangerous.

Make no mistake: what is happening in Ukraine is Russian aggression. President Vladimir Putin’s pretense that Russian troops were not participating in the fighting was all but shattered recently, when a Russian fighter in Donetsk confirmed to the BBC Russian service that they are playing a decisive role in rebel advances. Russian officers, he reported, directly command large military operations in eastern Ukraine, including the siege and capture of the important transport center of Debaltseve in February.

But the threat posed by Russia extends far beyond Ukraine. After all, Russia is the one country with enough missiles and nuclear warheads to destroy the US. As its economic and geopolitical influence has waned, so has its willingness to consider renouncing its nuclear status. Indeed, not only has it revived the Cold War-era tactic of sending military aircraft unannounced into airspace over the Baltic countries and the North Sea; it has also made veiled nuclear threats against countries like Denmark.

Weapons are not Russia’s only strength. The country also benefits from its enormous size, vast natural resources, and educated population, including a multitude of skilled scientists and engineers.