American Culture

Russia’s sabre rattling exposes the rust on the blade

One should never forget that dictatorships are inherently inefficient. Russia, now one of the world’s largest oil and gas suppliers, has made a great deal of cash out of the energy run. Most of that has been siphoned off by cronies, apparatchiks, corruption, and outright inefficiency.

When Russia declared a few days ago that they were planning to take the opportunity to extend the might of the Russian military out towards the North Pole many were concerned that they would lay claim to the oil and gas reserves currently held in international waters. They sent an ice-breaker and one of their nuclear subs to explore the Lomonosov Ridge which they claim extends from Murmansk under the pole. If they could prove it they may have a claim to the area.

However, those plans have sprung a leak. Beating up peasants in Chechnya has given the Russians a false sense of military superiority and they’ve forgotten the embarrassment of the KA-159 that sank in the Barents Sea killing its 9 crew in 2003. These subs are the same era. And their sub is now listing and in need of rescue. It’s a bit of an embarrassment.

The recent hoopla Putin and the UK has sent temperatures plummeting to Cold War levels. Russia is certainly a threat to stability in Europe and the Middle East. But it is not the Soviet Union. It doesn’t have an ideology. It is functionally poorer and more fragmented than in the ’80s. And it is significantly more dependent on the West than it is comfortable with.

None of which makes Putin less of a bully.

8 replies »

  1. I would hardly call the dictator Frederick II “inefficient”. After all, he established a bureaucratic model that became a world standard. His ability to extract taxes was legendary! His longevity of rule allowed him to accomplish many thing that he wished to do. He afforded himself the luxury of picking his enemies for a lengthy war. In many ways, Frederick the Great is what men such as George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin long to be.

  2. And, speaking of ambitions of the Bush family . . .

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/document/document.shtml

    “Document uncovers details of a planned coup in the USA in 1933 by a group of right-wing American businessmen

    “The coup was aimed at toppling President Franklin D Roosevelt with the help of half-a-million war veterans. The plotters, who were alleged to involve some of the most famous families in America, (owners of Heinz, Birds Eye, Goodtea, Maxwell Hse & George Bush

  3. Totalitarian states are inherently inefficient. Dictatorships don’t need to be, although there is a tendency that way. What matters is effective oversight and while that’s easier in a democracy it doesn’t have to work that way (India has been a democracy since after WWII. I can’t speak for right now, but I know when I spent time there in the eighties it was massively corrupt and inefficient. But it was a democracy.)

    I’d hazard a guess that the inefficiency in Russian defenses isn’t so much more than US, if you really take US into account (how much for that screwdriver? Oh yeah, there’s no kickbacks factored into the price.)

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  5. Ian, Sam the issue of centralisation is the real problem. The US, with its system of states gets to try an astonishing variety of ideas and then the best get diffused across the nation. It may be slow and inefficient but it is significantly better than one person centralising everything around themselves and micro-managing an entire nation.

    Threebells mentions Frederick II but to say that one dictator was more efficient than the others around him doesn’t mean anything. On the whole distributed meritocracies will always outperform centralised brutalities. The Cold War was a textbook example of that. Sure, the US was not a perfect democracy. The McCarthy witch-hunts were almost as brutal as Brehznev’s pograms. On balance, though, inefficient free-market capitalism beat out efficient Communist authoritarianism.

    The smartest and most creative people flock to the nation where they are safest and find it easiest to express themselves. Yes, this is a relative measure. That for now, and the foreseeable future, is the US.

  6. “The smartest and most creative people flock to the nation where they are safest and find it easiest to express themselves. Yes, this is a relative measure. That for now, and the foreseeable future, is the US.”

    True. It is why my kids will live there.

  7. Actually, the states were only part of the solution and were earlier seen as part of the problem. It is quite possible that those who actually wrote The Constitution of the United States in 1787 would like to have dispensed with the states if they could have gotten away with it.

    The real genius of the American system is that it takes the power of the king and divides it into the three constituent functions of autocracy and assigns each to a competing branch of government. The system was designed to be inefficient precisely because the writers feared the efficiency of power concentrated in the hands of one man.

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