Why Russia Matters Less Than We Think

Russia is enjoying a resurgence in popularity among Americans. The fur hat, or mexovaya chopka, is now worn by hipsters and CNN news anchors alike. The New York City subway is emblazoned with Stolichnaya vodka ads mimicking Soviet agitprop. And Russian President Vladimir Putin just got crowned TIME Magazine's person of the year.

All of which begs the question: Why do we suddenly care so much about Russia? Its economy is still smaller than Portugal's, its nuclear stockpile is no match for our own (not to mention its Soviet-era early warning radars barely work), and its foreign ambitions, as George Kennan predicted generations ago, have been mostly contained. Plus, given its current demographic trends, some analysts predict Russia's population could sink below 100 million by 2050, making it smaller than Mexico.

Yet for some reason, Washington has worked itself into a lather worrying about Russia. It shouldn't. Not that Russia doesn't matter--it does. But much like Paris Hilton or Nicole Richie, its importance derives from the fact that the American media pays such close attention to it. Despite the fact that Putin looks like a low-ranking KGB technocrat, his mug shot seems to move magazines (not to mention the zillion fawning stories written about Garry Kasparov, despite his zero popularity rating among Russians and his camp that included fascists).

Here's a closer look at why Russia is less important than previously thought.

Russia is a nuclear Wal-Mart. Not really. The threat of a loose nuke from a Russian silo falling into the hands of a terrorist is real but probably overstated, mostly in part to American safeguards like Nunn-Lugar. "Plutonium is not falling off the shelves there," Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations told me. To date, there has been no evidence of any attempts by terrorists to steal enough nuclear material to make a bomb (though that is not to discount the existence of a black market for loose nukes). Pakistan, especially in light of recent events, is a far bigger threat in this regard than Russia.

Russia is an energy powerhouse. Maybe, but little of its natural gas goes toward American consumers (indeed, Stolichnaya ads notwithstanding, we do remarkably little trade with Russia). Even Moscow's energy imports to Western Europe are dwindling, as its share in natural gas imports shrunk from 50 percent to 42 percent between 2000 and 2005. Better to pay closer attention to the politics of Nigeria or Venezuela.

Russia's economy is resurgent. Yes, but contrary to claims by Russian officials that theirs will be the fifth largest economy by 2020, Russia is still light years behind the rest of Europe. As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations points out in the Wall Street Journal, Russia's economy, despite its strong growth, has only just eclipsed the Benelux countries (when the purchasing power parity metric is scrapped).

Russia is creating a new cold war by pulling out of conventional arms treaties. That is a gross overstatement. After all, the 1990 CFE treaty, which established equal quotas for battle tanks, heavy artillery, and combat aircraft, technically only applied to members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which is long defunct. Though revised in 1999, no member of NATO would ratify the new treaty until Moscow removed its troops from Moldova and Georgia. Hence, the CFE was always a vestige of a bygone era that has lost its relevance.

Russia is rearming Iran. Yes, Russia is now the largest supplier of arms to the developing world, but the arms it sells Iran should be taken in context. They are a pittance compared to its arms sales with India or China. Plus, its shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran, while timed to coincide with the release of the recent NIE, mostly to power the peaceful civilian reactor at Bushehr, has long been foreseen. Even a few Clinton-era arms negotiators came out a few years back to say we were too obsessed with Russia's nuclear dealings with Iran.

Russia is forming a pact with China to curb U.S. interests. Yes, China and Russia have seen their relations improve in recent years and even held joint military exercises, under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. But mutual distrust--and border disputes--still lingers and it is premature to call the SCO the second coming of the Warsaw Pact. Plus, neither Moscow nor Beijing will allow the SCO check their own neo-imperialistic ambitions in Central Asia.

President Putin is overseeing a dictatorship
. Yes, but that seems to assume that his autocracy came out of left field. Let's be certain: Russia has never been a democracy, not under Yeltsin, not under Putin. Elections were rigged in 1996, just as they were late last year. Yes, there were more media freedoms in the 1990s, but there were still contract killings and the "family" of goons surrounding Yeltsin, including his bodyguard, was just as creepy and corrupt as the siloviki that pull strings today.

The main reason Russia matters on the world stage is not its abundance of energy, not its nuclear stockpile, not its neo-imperialistic ambitions. No, Russia's main trump card is its UN Security Council veto. Hence, Russian cooperation is necessary on a number of tricky issues, from North Korea to Iranian nukes. But our obsession with Russia should not distract us from more pressing concerns elsewhere.