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The United States vs. Russia BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.

The United States vs. Russia




There’s been lot of talk about “false news”; stories that are reported as fact, but are actually incorrect. Sometimes these false stories are authored for a specific purpose, and other times just for sensationalism. Sometimes the lies are obvious. More insidious, however, are truthful news stories which impart a bias by virtue of emphasizing disproportionate risks.

For example, recent news stories might make one might think that Russia is a significant threat to the United States. Stories about a resurgent Russian military encroaching on NATO countries and reemerging in the mid-east are causing growing concern. The Russian involvement in leaking hacked emails from the DNC make us feel that the Russians are serious cyber-threats. Senate hearings for Trump’s cabinet nominees have featured sabre rattling about the Russian threat. Americans have come to think that Russia is a real problem, both economically and militarily.

In reality, Russia is a very, very weak competitor and a shell of the country that was once the USSR. Whether one considers their economy, their military, or their basic demographics, only one conclusion is possible: Russia is not a very serious threat to America.



America’s economy dwarfs Russia’s. In 2015 the GDP of the U.S. was almost $18.0 trillion while Russia’s GDP was only $1.3 trillion (USD). That is, the American economy is more than 8 times the size of Russia’s economy. Russia’s GDP is 20% smaller than that of Italy, a small country that is already in economic trouble. The U.S. GDP is the largest in the world, while Russia is ranked 12th.

More significantly, the Gross National Income (GNI), a measure of the sum of value added in the U.S. is $9.78 trillion, making us #1 in the world. Russia’s GNI is only $253 billion, ranking them at 17th, behind such “powerhouses” as Argentina, the Netherlands and Mexico.

President Obama has repeatedly pointed out that Russia is small and weak. At his final news conference, he stated that the Russian economy “doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy.”

As Russia remains in a recession, their central bank is running out of money. Their economy is corrupt, lacks diversification, and remains at the mercy of the oil markets, which are performing poorly. As a consequence, the Russian ruble has declined by 8% just this year.

The lack of Russia’s productivity relative to the U.S.  is evident in the disparate amounts of money workers contributes to their respective GDP per hour. In Russia this figure is $25.90 per worker, while a Greek worker adds $36.20 and an American worker produces a whopping $67.40. Russia just can’t compete with the West.

The Russian economy is terrible. Growth rate has been negative for the last 2 years (-3.7% and -0.6%). This month the International Monetary Fund predicted that the Russian economy would contract by 1% in 2017.  At the same time, Russian inflation, while slowing, has remained above 5% every month in 2016. In such a bad economy it is difficult for the Russians to invest heavily in anything, including their military.




America spends far more money on its military than does Russia. In 2015, the military budget of the U.S. was $596 billion while Russia’s budget was only $66 billion. Russia spends even less on its military than does Saudi Arabia, but must protect a country that is geographically almost 9 times as large.

As a consequence, Russia has little money available to modernize or sustain its military equipment. For example, Russia has only one aircraft carrier, a 25 year old oil powered Soviet-era Kuznetsov, which is only half the size of a U.S. Nimitz class carrier, and is plagued with problems (it has to sail with a tug boat to haul it into port). Even Italy has 2 aircraft carriers, while the U.S. dominates the world with 10 nuclear powered Nimitz aircraft carriers. These ships can operate for over 20 years without ever having to be refueled.

Military Budgets in 2015 (USD)


The number of active soldiers in Russia is just a fraction of the number in the U.S. (845,000 vs. 1,492,000 people). In fact, Russia has fewer active soldiers than either North Korea or India. And while Russia has a substantial number of submarines and nuclear warheads, most of its military serves a defensive position with little offensive capability. This is not to suggest that there is no Russian threat, but that the actual power of their military is constrained and less substantial than most people might think. The small size of the Russian economy makes it unlikely that they will be able to change these facts in the near future.

(from http://www.militarytimes.com/articles/us-vs-russia-what-a-war-would-look-like-between-the-worlds-most-fearsome-militaries)

Russian intervention in Syria and it’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula have given many people the sense that Russia is more than a mere regional power. While there is certainly validity to the idea that Russia can exert its military influence in selected areas, there is little chance that they could pursue sustained aggression far beyond its periphery.

In the Crimea, the Airborde (VDV), Naval Infantry and special forces (Spetsnaz) were responsible for securing key locations and they did so with considerable success. The victory of this operation was impressive but not when one considers that the Ukrainian military is a mess. This is because Ukrainian spending on its military shrunk every year since the breakup of the USSR. In 1992 the Ukraine had 780,000 troops but this number shrunk to 140,000 by 2014, with only about 6,000 being combat ready. The sorry state of the Ukrainian military made the Russians look stronger than they really are.

Similarly, in Syria the Russians appeared to wield enormous power. But that power was only based upon the ability to indiscriminately bomb a ragtag rebel opposition that lacked either an air force or a navy. For Russia, the intervention in Syria was a symbolic projection of their power, not an actual demonstration of war fighting capability. Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean is in the Syrian Port of Tartus, which is an important reason that they were willing to intervene despite international objections.

The U.S. has defense allies throughout the world, while Russia has very few. In a collective defense arrangement countries agree that an armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all.  The U.S. has collective defense arrangements with dozens of countries, including NATO (Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom), SEATO (Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Thailand), Japan and South Korea, as well as most of the Americas.

Russia has virtually no collective defense arrangements, except perhaps Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; and their willingness to defend Russia is unclear. Russia therefore lacks the military alliances that a confrontation with the west would require.


Cyber technology


Russian prowess in cyber warfare has moved this topic to the front burner. Many fear that the U.S. is far behind the Russians in this game. Russian hacking of the DNC and the targeting of governmental officials has given cause for alarm. Russia is using proxy cyber criminal rings to prosecute this quiet war against her adversaries. However, the recent hacking was done using relatively primitive “phishing” techniques.

At the same time, the U.S. is pouring massive amounts of money into planning for cyber warfare. In 2010 the U.S. Cyber Command, brought together each branch of the military into one initiative and the program has at least 6,000 staffers and a budget of billions of dollars. While it is impossible to know how much money the Russians are spending on their efforts, it is almost inconceivable that they will be able to afford comparable expenditures.

Whether Russia wants to build an advanced cyber capability, develop high tech weapons, field a skilled army, or cultivate a growing economy they have a critical problem: demographics.  Their country has ceased to be a “knowledge industry” as fewer people are educated and the smartest citizens seek to emigrate.

Declining Demographics

The declining demographics of Russia bode poorly for its future. In 1990 Russia had 6% of the world’s most educated people (having either secondary or tertiary educations). By 2040 this number is expected to drop to 2% or less. The brightest Russians are fleeing. This year 330,000 people are expected to emigrate.

Because the Russian population shrank in the 20 years following the breakup of the USSR Putin offered financial incentives for women to have more than one child. In 2011 more than $53 billion was offered by the government to increase the birthrate. While these efforts have had the effect of increasing the Russian fertility rate to 1.7 children per women, this is still below the critical replacement rate of 2.0, and well below the U.S. fertility rate of 2.1. Russia remains a nation in demographic decline.



Despite the breakup of the USSR, the Russian people have not benefited from the opportunity to control their own future. Unlike other countries in the former Eastern Bloc, Russia has maintained a repressive leadership that is stifling freedoms and democracy. One consequence of silencing critics is that corruption swells. WorldAudit.org ranks Russia among the most corrupt countries, worse than Togo, Egypt or Vietnam.

The Russian news media is highly controlled by the government and independent journalists have good reason to fear for their lives. Democratic nations, when suffering economic challenges, can change governments. But, Russia has driven out dissenting voices that might serve to fix the country’s problems and grow its economy.

Corruption in Russia has yielded a kleptocracy, hindering both growth and prosperity. While many complain that the richest 1% of Americans own 42.2 % of the nation’s wealth, in Russia the top 1% own 74.5% of the nations wealth. The average monthly salary in Russia is only about $433, which is less than in Serbia, Romania, China or Poland.

The fact that Russia is weaker, more isolated, and in greater economic decline than the media might have us believe is not be a reason to ignore them as a threat. Rather, it is a lens through which we should see them more realistically. As Trump takes charge of the U.S. he has a unique opportunity to bridge the rhetorical divide by offering political, military and economic incentives for the Russians to benefit from America’s success, thereby enhancing everyone’s security.



-Jeffrey Oppenheim is a neurosurgeon and the former mayor of Montebello, New York