15 March 2007

The bear is catching up

While everybody has been jumping up and down and pointing excitedly at China (and, more recently, India), the real "other superpower" has been closing the technology gap between itself and the West:

The cold war days when the USSR matched the US missile-for-missile may be gone. But experts say that Russia is increasingly capable of turning out cutting-edge weaponry and selling it to countries that are shunned by Western suppliers.

Among the armed forces' acquisitions will be a completely revamped early-warning radar network, new intercontinental missiles, a fleet of supersonic Tu-160 strategic bombers, and 31 new warships, including aircraft carriers.

Russia is already supplying India with the Sukhoi-30MKI, an advanced "fourth generation" warplane that consistently defeats its Western counterparts, such as the frontline US fighters, the F-15C and F-16. Versions of the Su-30 are also being sold to China, Venezuela, and Malaysia.

Putin-era sales have shifted increasingly to sophisticated weapons, including warplanes, precision-guided munitions, and advanced air-defense systems. "The US still has a solid lead in the top end of weaponry," says Mr. Cohen. "But at the next level Russia is advancing fast."

There is a dangerous meme in circulation to the effect that Russia is degenerating into just another fossil-fuel-export-dependent fake economy like the OPEC countries, and will soon be no more of an important player on the world scene than, say, Nigeria or Saudi Arabia. This ignores what is by far the most important resource for any nation in the twenty-first century: the talents and education of its people. During the twentieth century, Russia transformed an almost medieval economy into an industrial superpower in one generation, put up the first artificial satellite and the first man in space, and maintained the only military force in the world capable of real parity with the United States for decades -- all while handicapped by the most idiotic economic and political system ever devised by man. What OPEC country has such achievements on its résumé? Russia today has abandoned Communism and evolved a system which, as backward and corrupt as it remains, is still far more open and market-oriented than what it had before. It has lost Ukraine -- probably forever, thanks to Putin's bullying -- but it has also lost the backward Central Asian "republics" which were a burden on the Soviet economy. After a decade of turmoil while such tremendous changes were being absorbed, the bear is emerging again, perhaps to become stronger than ever.

There is no more dangerous potential adversary -- and no more valuable potential ally against the Islamists.

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