In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship

Why Underestimating Russia Can Backfire

July 16, 2019
RM Staff

In August 2014 then-President Barack Obama claimed in an interview with The Economist that “Russia doesn’t make anything.” Two years later, in December 2016, he added a disclaimer: Russia “doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil and gas and arms,” he told reporters. The past week has proved that Obama was right to modify his claim. First, Russia began delivering parts of its S-400 missile defense system to NATO member Turkey, which the latter had purchased in a $2.5 billion deal. While a July 11 story in the Wall Street Journal said that the S-400 “on paper … outperforms the comparable U.S.-made Patriot system,” an earlier comparison of S-400s with U.S. systems by CNBC cited a source with first-hand knowledge of a U.S. intelligence assessment as saying that the S-400 eclipses even THAAD, the crown jewel of America’s missile defense, in terms of capabilities. U.S. intelligence firm Stratfor has claimed in a report published July 12 that Russia’s S-400 is the “best all-around” missile defense system. Then, this weekend, Russia launched a German–Russian telescope that would reportedly be the first to map the universe in high-energy X-rays, according to the Nature journal. These two events should remind those in charge of crafting policies toward Russia that it is imprudent to dismiss Russia entirely as a “technological has-been,” as should some of the earlier accomplishments we have included in our list of Russia No. 1s. As history has demonstrated time and again, underestimating Russia’s capabilities can backfire as spectacularly as overestimating them.

Missile systems compared

Infographic by Andrew Facini.

Photo by Vitaly V. Kuzmin shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.