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US politics

It’s folly to dismiss the Russian threat

Vladimir Putin at a military exercise in the Arctic. Alexey Panov/AFP/Getty Images

Americans underestimate Russia, say Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Taylor in Foreign Affairs. Barack Obama wrote it off as a mere “regional power”, John McCain as a “gas station masquerading as a country”. This summer President Biden said Russia was “sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells, and nothing else”. They’re all wrong. Russia’s economy is not as stagnant as we’re told, its population decline has been overstated and its military remains strong.

The US has this blind spot because it is so preoccupied with China. But even if Beijing proves “the more significant long-term threat, Russia will remain a long-term challenger”. Moscow is still the US’s greatest nuclear rival – it has more warheads than China and a greater ability to reach continental America. And when it comes to indirect warfare, Russia’s record of election interference and hacking is unparalleled. Even more worrying is that Moscow is now finding common cause with Beijing. The two countries exchange technical and material support, and their military co-operation is growing. “The impact of this alignment will be greater than the sum of its parts.” Biden officials brag that they “can walk and chew gum at the same time” – ie, handle two powers at once. Now they need to prove it.