Paul Brandus: Trump must stop letting feeble Russia push us around

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BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin smiles at Donald Trump at a joint press conference in Helsinki in July 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a small man — just 5-foot-7 — but Americans seem to think the ruthless Kremlin leader is some sort of goliath.

Perhaps this is because we—or more specifically President Donald Trump—allow him to push the United States around, lending the precise impression that Putin wants to convey, namely that Russia is a strong power on the world stage.

In fact, the opposite is so. Russia is, by nearly every conceivable economic, demographic and political measure, a feeble nation in rapid decline. As it projects strength abroad it is crumbling from within—the starkest of geopolitical disconnects.

To wit:

Russia has no governing ideology or philosophy to offer the world. Its political system is rooted in the police state that Putin grew up in and pines for. His government controls the media, ruthlessly suppresses—and occasionally murders — political opponents and journalists. Elections are rigged. There is a puppet-like judiciary system.

With a population of 145 million, Russia’s gross domestic product is valued at a mere $1.6 trillion. Three U.S. states—California, Texas and New York—are each wealthier than that.

Adjusted GDP per capita ranks Putin’s Russia just 73rd, trailing such economic powerhouses as the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago.

And that population, by the way, is shriveling by an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 each year. Alcoholism is such that the average man, as of 2013, could expect to live to just 65—far less than men in Western Europe, Japan or the United States. Russian women do better, making it to 76.

Meantime, birthrates are low; Russian women are reluctant to have children in a country with widespread poverty, limited economic opportunity, and environmental degradation.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Russia’s economy is so tiny. Other than oil and gas, and weaponry (it is the second-largest arms exporter after the U.S.) Russia has nothing and makes nothing that the world needs or wants.

Russia is essentially an extraction economy; the scientists and engineers Putin likes to brag about make nothing of note. Says a report by Stanford’s Hoover Institution: “None of the largest tech companies in the world are Russian. Russia produces few international patents. Automation in Russian companies is far behind advanced industrial economies.”

One of the best ways to squeeze Putin is to keep oil prices low.

Crude accounts for about 40% of the Kremlin budget; the lower commodity prices are, the shakier his regime gets. One Russian think tank says $49 a barrel is the magic number: Prices higher than that give Putin cash to stir up trouble abroad; below that is a problem. Given that prices are well beyond that at the moment—West Texas crude CL.1, +0.66%   is selling for $56 a barrel and Brent crude BRN00, +0.38%   is at $61 — the once and forever KGB spymaster has money to burn.

Simply put, U.S. national security is enhanced when the screws are put to Putin, and that’s not happening right now—not in terms of economics and certainly not in terms of American policy towards Russia.

As someone who worked in Moscow for many years and knows that country better than most, I’ll emphasize something that many Americans don’t seem to realize: There isn’t really a Russian government as we would define it. There is an organized crime network, in which mobsters, government officials, the judiciary, and Putin himself all blur together as one.

All of this has scared off foreign investors—foreign direct investment in Russia is a pittance—thus denying Putin the capital he desperately needs.

The Catch-22 is this: foreigners won’t put money into Russia until corruption ends, contracts are enforced in a judicious manner, and executives don’t fear being tossed in jail (or worse) for not playing along with these grifters and killers. Putin has no interest in undoing any of this, because he sits atop it all, propped up by the network of billionaire oligarchs he has created.

Things are so bleak that 53% of those who would create Russia’s future—those aged 18-24— want to get out. It’s a damning indictment of what Putin’s Russia is: a banana republic with nuclear weapons.

Yet overshadowing these weaknesses that are eroding his “rodina” (or motherland) from within—is Putin’s mastery at using disinformation and treachery to undermine the rest of the world.

He meddled in our 2016 election. He meddled further by planting disinformation to the effect that it was Ukraine—not him—that meddled (he bragged about this publicly last month).

He has sewn confusion in Britain about its decision to leave the European Union; British Prime Minister Boris Johnson refuses to release an intelligence report on this.

He has widened divides in NATO—the breakup of which is a primary Russian goal—and filled the vacuum left from Trump’s retreat in Syria.

Like many a Russian, Putin is a grand chess player, thinking several moves ahead and knocking the West back on its heels. He has advanced on several fronts—at our expense. It’s high time America pushed back against this rogue player.

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