In a report on the September 2003 Camp David summit between Vladimir Putin and George Bush, TV journalist Ray Suarez, on The PBS Newshour, asked his guest a question being posed with increasing regularity: "Does Russia matter?"
The guest's all-too-obvious reply was, essentially, "Yes, of course Russia matters, but just not like it used to and only on a certain range of issues [e.g. nuclear proliferation, combatting terror]."
I hate obvious answers. They're so ... obvious.
The truth is, Russia has never mattered to US policymakers. What has mattered has been "what damage could Russia do to us," or "what detente or friendship with Russia can get us." Realpolitik is object oriented and very utilitarian. Other states or nations matter only insofar as they either threaten or ensure our military or economic security. So, since today (versus 20 years ago), Russia threatens us less, it matters less.
Here's a radical concept: it's not about us.
Russia's significance in the world is huge, and will remain huge. Here are a dozen or so reasons why:
Russia occupies more land on Planet Earth than any other single country. Put another way, Russians have about three times more land per capita than Americans. Therefore, what Russia and Russians choose to do with that land (say, deforest it or protect it -- see #5 below) has huge impact for the rest of the world.
"Sure, Russia is huge geographically, but its population is "just" 145 million and falling," you say. "That's just over half the US population and a fraction of that of India or China." Point taken. But let's look at this the other way around. How many countries are there in the world that have more people in them than Russia? There must be dozens, right? Nope. Just six. They are: China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil and Pakistan. Bangladesh and Nigeria are closing fast. But Russia is 7th in the world, ranked by population.
We could also look at this linguistically: Russian is currently the fifth most widely-spoken language in the world, behind Chinese, English, Hindustani and Spanish. Arabic is 6th and French, that darling of high school language study, is 10th. Interestingly, of the top five world languages, Spanish is the only one other than English that is taught widely in American high schools (OK, we could debate whether English is actually taught in our high schools, but that's a separate editorial). There are also just six official languages of the UN: English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic... and Russian.
It is said that, in this century, fresh water will become humankind's most important resource. Best estimates are that Russia owns about 25% of the world's fresh water (see #1 above), and it is already exporting it to countries that do not have enough. "When the oil runs out," one Russian government official recently said, "we will export water."
Some 70% of Russia is forested and 22% of the world's forests are in Russia. As such, Russia -- which has been called the "lungs of Europe" -- is second only to the Amazon in the amount of carbon dioxide it absorbs. 15% of all the carbon dioxide in the world is absorbed here. See #1 above.
Russia is a scientific powerhouse, as demonstrated again this fall when a Russian and a Russian-American shared the Nobel Prize in physics with an American, for inventing a little thing they called "super-conductivity." Among other things, we owe a debt to Russian scientists for the invention of television, helicopters and the Periodic Table (OK, maybe just for the last two).
Russia has made immense contributions to world literature. "Oh, you could say that about any country," you say. Ok, then try this test on a friend (or yourself). Ask them to "Name three Russian authors." Then, after that is answered easily with the likes of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, Brodsky, Pushkin, Bunin, Solzhenitsyn, etc., ask: "Now name three Chinese (or Indian or German or Iraqi) authors."
Is it possible to think of theater today without the influence of Chekhov and Stanislavsky?
Likewise, Russia has had a hugely disproportionate influence on the world of music. Considering what classical music would be like without Tchaikovsky is a bit like thinking about it in the absence of Beethoven or Bach. But then there is a huge pantheon of other "first-rank" composers, from Mussorgsky and Liadov to Prokofiev, Rakhmaninov, Shostakovich, Stravinsky and on and on. And then there are the performers, from Horowitz to Pletnev, from Rachmaninov to Lugansky -- and those are just the pianists!
What about art? Well, admittedly, Russia has not made as many contributions to world culture in this regard, but much of that might be attributable to politics. In the early 20th century, Russia was a buzzing hub of the avant garde and its artists were doing amazing things in everything from book illustration to sculpture to animation. It could well be argued that, without the stultifying effects of Socialist Realism (which nonetheless produced some fine works of art), Russian artists would have been leading forces in the 20th modern art movements. Nonetheless, who can argue that Kandinsky, Malevich, Chagall, Aivazovsky, Repin, Serov and the Itinerants have made important contributions to World Culture?
And of course there is the importance of Russian film: Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Sokurov are important international filmmakers, and of course there are also Bondarchuk, Alexandrov, Lounguine, Mikhalkov, Chukhrai, Daniela, Vertov and all the masterful artists of Russian and Soviet animation.
Russia is one of only 5 countries that has veto power at the UN.
It was Russia (then in the larger guise of the Soviet Union) that defeated Hitler.
Until October 2003, only two nations had put humans into outer space: the US and Russia. And Russia has more experience than any other nation in long-term space habitation, vital for the next stage of space exploration.
And now, a dozen reasons later, we get to nuclear weapons. According to the NRDC, Russia has about 5,200 strategic nuclear warheads and 8,500 stockpiled warheads. That is down considerably from the 12,000 or so strategic warheads (and 35,000+ stockpiled) of the mid-1980s, but it is still hugely important (i.e. "it matters"). The US has about 8600, with some 10,500 stockpiled.
Russia is lingua franca for much of Central Asia which, needless to say, is a vital geopolitical region.
20% of the world's known oil reserves are in Russia. Russia currently supplies the US with 4% of its oil.
Western Europe currently depends on Russia for 28% of its gas supplies; Germany alone depends on Russia for 12% of its natural gas and 18% of its oil.
Russia contains the world's largest oil and natural gas reserves, the largest diamond reserves, and the second largest coal reserves. Nearly a third of all tin and iron ores are in Russia, as are over 40% of all platinum group minerals and over a third of all nickel reserves.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, and input is welcomed for further list items. But it ought to be clear to even the casual reader that Russia matters a lot more to the world than can be adequately expressed in a concise soundbite.
A modified, shorter version of this editorial appeared in the Nov/Dec 2003 issue of Russian Life magazine.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567