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Since hostilities commenced, the West has scrambled to cobble together military and economic responses, with mixed results. And despite high casualties and numerous setbacks—which some Western analysts predicted would lead to a political crisis in Russia, and perhaps the fall of Putin’s regime—Russian forces have continued their campaign. At the time of this writing, they appear close to occupying all of the Donbas.
If the last few months have shown that we in the West have misapprehended Russia, then perhaps it is because we have misunderstood how Russia, in turn, perceives the West, particularly the United States. Perhaps Russia is attuned to weaknesses that the West has for too long failed to address.
In assessing Russia’s view of the West, most commentators look to President Putin’s “Munich Speech,” delivered in 2007. That speech was a protest against Western—and especially American—hegemony over the world order. In it, Putin said, “One state, and first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way.” The Western response was, effectively, “what are you going to do about it?”—which was understandable, at the time, given the way the deck was stacked. But the deck has been shuffled since then. Putin’s speech is now fifteen years old, and a lot has happened in those fifteen years.
In fact, the Russian view of the West has changed dramatically. In 2007, the Russians were annoyed at what they viewed as Western overexpansion, but they were making this case as a smaller country pleading with a unipolar hegemon. Today, however, the Russians view the West—and especially America—as being in a state of terminal, ever-accelerating decline.
This narrative has been bubbling under the surface for some time. By the mid-2010s, Russian propaganda began to home in on what it claimed was evidence of American decline, and Chinese propaganda moved in a similar direction. Russian intellectuals like Aleksandr Dugin were soon saying the same thing, often in metaphysical and even theological terms. Dugin now routinely refers to the West as the “Anti-Christ.” Then, in the late-2010s, President Putin jumped on board. “Thank God, this situation of a unipolar world, of a monopoly, is coming to an end,” Putin said in a speech at the 2018 Valdai Forum, “It’s practically over already.” This is a very different narrative than that of the 2007 Munich Speech.
Nor is this view reducible to a shallow, vague criticism of imperial overreach, or a suspicion that President Biden lacks the will or energy to defend U.S. allies, as some have suggested. Rather, the Russian view is multidimensional: the Russians see America as weak economically, diplomatically, and militarily—or at least weaker than it superficially appears—a country locked in a process of decline and disintegration. Russia’s decision to launch an overt, full-scale war in eastern Europe appears more comprehensible in this light.
In 2021, a Russian military specialist and graduate of the prestigious Kirov Naval Red Banner School named Andrei Martyanov released a book entitled Disintegration: Indicators of the Coming American Collapse. The book is perhaps the most insightful statement of contemporary Russian attitudes toward America available in English. Martyanov has lived in the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s; he is thus a competent observer of both Western political developments and the Russian perception of these developments. He is also a sophisticated thinker, with a strong grasp of both economic and military matters. Tying all these issues together is Martyanov’s diagnosis of a sharp decline in the quality of the West’s leadership class—a failing elite—which he views as being at the root of these developments.
Let us start with Martyanov’s views on American culture. It should first be said that, while Martyanov is not especially impressed with contemporary American culture, he appears to have a warmness toward the American people, whom he portrays as kind, open, and inviting. Martyanov clearly feels alienated by American culture, but he does not appear to be alienated from the community in which he lives.
What he finds most disturbing about contemporary America are the deep divisions that exist in the country. He notes that this was not always the case. When he first arrived in the United States in the early 1990s, he found it, in contrast to the collapsed Soviet Union, remarkably stable. “Each time I returned from Russia,” he writes,
which at that time was a ruined country run by criminal gangs, I would go to the nearest airport bar and would order fried chicken wings, beer and then light my cigarette. Whenever I got to those bars, the TVs hanging there would show Cheers. The opening tune and the whole aura of Cheers was at that point in time so counter to my Russian life experiences—many of which were terrifying, to put it mildly. American television projected a free and decent people, a pop culture but a culture nonetheless, and very American.
But Martyanov no longer feels this way about his new home. “A long time has passed since my Cheers transitions from one world to another,” he writes. “America is different today. The country has lost the spirit which made it so attractive, and this loss is even more menacing than its catastrophic deindustrialization. America today is dysfunctional, deeply unhappy, and not a free country.” Strong words.
Martyanov is shocked by the racial divisions which have become so acute in the country. In general, he finds modern American life lawless and chaotic. He says that many American people feel scared to express themselves in public, a situation that reminds him of his early life in the Soviet Union.
Some of Martyanov’s more eccentric observations are aesthetic in nature. Martyanov has a fondness for certain aspects of pop culture. He portrays earlier developments in rock music as laudatory. He contrasts the obviously talented “musical virtuosos” of 1970s bands like Deep Purple with what he views as the degraded pop music of today. Ultimately, he traces this decline in standards to postmodernism and the demise of meritocracy. “In the world of post-modernism and fuzzy abstracts meritocracy cannot exist,” he writes, “because talent, ethics and morality cannot be defined.” Indeed, the nature of meritocracy is a major theme for Martyanov. And while some of his complaints echo the standard lines of Western conservatives, his critique of American meritocracy grows more profound and complex as the book continues.
The sections of the book on American military prowess are where Martyanov’s expertise really shines through. Martyanov claims that a revolution in military affairs has already destroyed the foundation of American post–World War II hegemony and that America simply has not yet awakened to this reality. This is due to the fact, Martyanov says, that the United States has “lost both its competitive edge and its competences in some crucial fields such as building complex machines, commercial aerospace, and shipbuilding.” Effectively, he argues, the United States has already lost the arms race. Martyanov compares the efficacy of America’s Tomahawk missile with Russia’s Kalibr. He argues that both weapons have seen ample usage in recent years, and Russia’s missile is far more effective against missile defense. He points out that 70 percent of Tomahawks launched at Syria in April 2018 were shot down.
But this is not Martyanov’s core critique, which is that the American military is simply not tailored to the needs of today’s world. It is structured for incursions against much weaker opponents—such as Iraq in 1991 and 2003. But it is not in a position of strength when faced with a peer that can compete in terms of troop deployment and firepower.
Critical in this respect is America’s continued reliance on aircraft carriers to project power across the globe. “The American super-carrier died as a viable weapon system designed for modern war with the arrival of the long-range supersonic anti-shipping missile,” Martyanov writes. This renders “the 100,000-ton displacement mastodons of the US Navy obsolete and very expensive sacrificial lambs in any real war. Modern Russian hypersonic missiles such as the Mach-9 capable aero-ballistic Kinzhal have a range of 2000 kilometres and are not interceptable by existing US anti-missile systems.” In fact, if an advanced enemy decided to sink a U.S. carrier battle group, it could do so with the push of a few buttons. These missiles cost a few million dollars to make in countries, like Russia, with low labor costs. A carrier battle group, by contrast, costs about $30 billion and has around 6,700 hands on deck. Martyanov seems genuinely concerned that the Pentagon does not recognize the scale of this problem and could deploy a carrier battle group against a competitive peer in the near future. The enormous, immediate losses that would result might force the United States to use nuclear weapons in response.
Finally, Martyanov points to the shortcomings of U.S. missile and air defense systems when measured against their Russian equivalents. He notes that this makes America’s military increasingly vulnerable against even smaller nations like Iran, reminding readers of the September 2019 attack against Saudi Aramco oil refineries where Western-made missile defense systems failed to protect the infrastructure.
Martyanov traces the failures of U.S. military technologies back to the nature of the U.S. military-industrial complex. He reminds readers that this is effectively a for-profit enterprise, and so what ends up being built is not always what is best in terms of defense capabilities, but rather what will make the most money for commercial actors.
Now that we have a large-scale land war, how has Martyanov’s analysis played out? Martyanov’s prediction that the structure of America’s military is only suited to relatively small wars against far weaker powers appears accurate in retrospect. Western weaponry and covert intelligence support has certainly helped Ukraine achieve some real successes on the battlefield. But as the war drags on and artillery capacity becomes decisive, the situation appears far more perilous.
Alex Vershinin at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute has estimated that the Russian military has been using around 7,176 artillery shells a day. He then compares this with American productive capacity. His conclusions are stark: “US annual artillery production would at best only last for 10 days to two weeks of combat in Ukraine,” he writes. “If the initial estimate of Russian shells fired is over by 50%, it would only extend the artillery supplied for three weeks.”1
In June, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, Vadym Skibitsky, admitted the gravity of the material challenges. “This is an artillery war now,” he said, “Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10 to 15 Russian artillery prices. . . . We are losing in terms of artillery.” Skibitsky then asked that more munitions be sent from the West, but as Vershinin’s analysis shows, it is likely that we simply do not have them in sufficient supply and cannot produce them. As early as April, Germany’s defense minister Christine Lambrecht admitted as much: “In the case of deliveries from Bundeswehr stocks, I have to be honest, we have now reached a limit,” she said.
Vershinin believes that the United States no longer has the arms manufacturing capacity to act as the “arsenal of democracy.” The Russo-Ukrainian war, like World Wars I and II, has been fought on an industrial scale. To fight it, the resources of a strong industrial economy must be deployed. Needless to say, the West has allowed its industrial capacity to erode considerably, having outsourced much of its manufacturing to poorer regions of the world. This is also visible in another surprising recent development. After putting a great deal of effort into lobbying the Australian government to buy submarines from the United States under the aukus deal, it was recently revealed to Congress that the United States does not actually possess the manufacturing capacity to produce these submarines in a timely fashion. Martyanov argues that the structure of America’s postindustrial military reflects its postindustrial economy. It is to this that we now turn.
The book really comes into its own in the long sections on the American economy. These chapters seem especially prescient after Western sanctions against Russia failed to stop the invasion or decisively cripple the Russian economy, while causing increasing strains in the West. In a word, Martyanov views American prosperity as largely fake, a shiny wrapping distracting from an increasingly hollow interior.
Martyanov, reflecting his Soviet materialist education, starts by discussing the food supply. He recalls the limited food options available in the old Soviet Union and how impressed émigrés were by the “overflowing abundance” of the American convenience store. But Martyanov notes that today such abundance is only the preserve of the rich and powerful. He references a 2020 study by the Brookings Institution which found that “40.9 percent of mothers with children ages 12 and under reported household food insecurity since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.” And while some of this was driven by the pandemic, the number was 15.1 percent in 2018. Martyanov makes the case that these numbers reflect an economy that is poorly organized and teetering on the edge. In the summer of 2022, when the food component of the CPI is increasing at over 10 percent a year and rising fast, Martyanov’s chapter looks prophetic.
Martyanov then moves on to other consumer goods. He recalls the so-called kitchen debate in 1959 when Vice President Richard Nixon showed Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev a modern American kitchen. During this debate, Nixon explained to Khrushchev that the house they were in, with all its modern luxuries, could be bought by “any steel worker.” Nixon explained that the average American steel worker earned about $3 an hour—or $480 per month—and that the house could be obtained on a thirty-year mortgage for the cost of $100 a month. Martyanov points out that this is impossible in the contemporary American economy. As vital goods have become less and less affordable for the average American, debt of all types has exploded. He notes that the flip side of this growing debt has been a decline in domestic industrial production, which has been stagnant in nominal terms and falling as a percent of U.S. GDP since 2008. “The scale of this catastrophe is not understood,” he writes, “until one considers the fact that a single manufacturing job on average generates 3.4 employees elsewhere in non-manufacturing sectors.”
Needless to say, Martyanov does not believe that America has the most powerful economy on earth. Deploying his old school materialist toolkit, he surveys core heavy industries—including the automotive industry, the commercial shipbuilding industry, and later the aerospace industry—and finds U.S. capacity wanting. He points out that in steel production “China outproduces the United States by a factor of 11, while Russia, which has a population less than half the size of that of the United States, produces around 81% of US steel output.”
Martyanov is particularly critical of GDP metrics as a basis for determining the wealth of a country or the power of its economy, because they assign spending on services the same weight as spending on primary products and manufactured goods. He believes that the postindustrial economy is a “figment of the imagination of Wall Street financial strategists” and that GDP metrics merely provide America with a fig leaf to cover its economic weaknesses. In a separate podcast that Martyanov posted to his YouTube channel, he explains why these metrics are particularly misleading from the point of view of military production. He compares the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class fast-attack submarine and the Russian Yasen-class equivalent. He argues that these are comparable in terms of their platform capabilities, but that the Yasen-class has superior armaments. Crucially, however, he notes that the cost of a Virginia-class submarine is around $3.2 billion while the cost of the Yasen-class submarine is only around $1 billion. Since GDP measures quantify economic output (including military output) in dollar terms, it would appear that, when it comes to submarine output, Russia is producing less than a third of what it is actually producing. Using a purchasing-power-parity-adjusted measure might help somewhat here, but it would still not capture the extra bang for their buck that the Russians are getting.
A few years ago, it would have been fashionable to dismiss this sort of materialist analysis as old fashioned. Pundits argued that the growing weight of the service sector in the American economy was a good thing, not a bad thing, a sign of progress, not decline. But today, with supply chains collapsing and inflation raging, these fashionable arguments look more and more like self-serving bromides every day.
Next, Martyanov looks at energy. While many American pundits believed that the emergence of fracking technology would make Russian oil and gas less and less important, Martyanov views the shale oil boom as “a story of technology winning over common economic sense.” He believes that America’s shale boom was a speculative mania driven by vague promises and cheap credit. He quotes the financial analyst David Deckelbaum, who noted that “This is an industry that for every dollar that they brought in, they would spend two.” Ultimately, Martyanov argues, the U.S. shale industry is a paper tiger whose viability is heavily dependent on high oil prices.
Martyanov is even more critical of “green energy,” which he views as a self-destructive set of policies that will destroy the energy independence of all countries that pursue them. He also points out that China, Russia, and most non-Western nations know this and, despite lip service to fashionable green causes, avoid these policies.
Finally, Martyanov returns to the collapse of America’s ability to make things. He recites the now familiar numbers about falling manufacturing output and an increased reliance on imports from abroad. But he also points to the collapse in manufacturing expertise. Martyanov cites statistics showing that, on a per capita basis, Russia produces twice as many STEM graduates as America. He attributes this to a change in elite attitudes. STEM subjects are difficult and require serious intellectual exertion. They often yield jobs on factory floors that are not particularly glamorous. “In contemporary American culture dominated by poor taste and low quality ideological, agenda-driven art and entertainment, being a fashion designer or a disc jockey or a psychologist is by far a more attractive career goal,” he writes, “especially for America’s urban and college population, than foreseeing oneself on the manufacturing floor working as a CNC operator or mechanic on the assembly line.”
Martyanov’s economic analysis may reflect his Soviet materialist education, but ultimately, he views America’s core problem as being a crisis of leadership. He traces this problem back to the election of Bill Clinton in 1993. Martyanov argues that Clinton represented a new type of American leader: an extreme meritocrat. These new meritocrats believed their personal capacities gave them the ability to do anything imaginable. This megalomaniacal tendency, Martyanov observes, has been latent in the American project since the founding. “Everything American,” he writes, “must be the largest, the fastest, the most efficient or, in general, simply the best.” Yet this character trait has not dominated the personality of either the American people or their leaders, he says. Rather, the American people remain today “very nice folks” that “are generally patriotic and have common sense and a good sense of humour.” Yet in recent times, he argues, something has happened in American elite circles that has let the more grandiose and delusional side of the American psyche run amok, and this has happened at the very time when America is most in need of good leadership.
Martyanov believes that America’s extreme meritocrats vastly overestimate their capabilities. This is because, rather than focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the country they rule, they have been taught since birth to focus on themselves. They believe that they just need to maximize their own personal accomplishments and the good of the country will emerge as if by magic. This has led inevitably to the rise of what Martyanov characterizes as a classic oligarchy. Such an oligarchy, he argues, purports to be meritocratic but is actually the opposite. A proper meritocracy allows the best and the brightest to climb up its ranks. But an oligarchy with a meritocratic veneer simply allows those who best play the game to rise. Thus, the meritocratic claims become circular: you climb the ladder because you play the game; the game is meritocratic because those who play it are by definition the best and the brightest. Effectively, for Martyanov, the American elite does not select for intelligence and wisdom, but rather for self-assuredness and self-interestedness.
This creates an echo chamber in the halls of power. The elite incentive structure does not allow for self-correction when error is detected. Rather, when mistakes are made, they are ignored and forgotten. To illustrate this phenomenon, Martyanov recalls the popularity of the phrase “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” on Wall Street in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Since the incentives are set up for people to focus wholly on themselves and their own careers, there is no reference to any common good to be defended, and so anyone who points out mistakes risks career suicide. Ensuring that the mechanism securing elite individual gain is upheld and insulated from criticism is more important than ensuring that it works. As with late Communism, most effort is expended on producing self-reinforcing narratives that justify the system itself, and there is little energy left for addressing genuine problems.
Martyanov posits that this is how American leaders are viewed in much of the rest of the world, where he contends that leaders are selected along more genuinely meritocratic lines. “American [public] intellectuals come across as feeble and unconvincing, if not laughably incompetent and trite,” he writes, “when measured against the best minds from Russia, China, Iran or many other regions of the globe.”
Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with Martyanov’s assessment of the American elite, his view has explanatory power if it is widely shared outside of the West and especially in Russia. Given that Russia, China, India, Brazil, and most of the Global South appear to have broken with the West in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, we can infer that their leaders share at least some of Martyanov’s views of Western elites.
If Martyanov’s book provides a reasonable overview of how Russian elites view America—and I think that it does—what can we take from it? For one, Russia does not fear America. The Russians view the United States as a country in the process of collapse. They view its economy as precarious and its military power as outdated. Whether or not we agree with these assessments, they can help us understand their actions.
What is so striking about Martyanov’s book is that he has actually lived through the collapse of a society before. So too have most of the Russian leadership and the most influential Russian intellectuals. One could argue that this trauma colors Martyanov’s worldview and the opinions of his generation—that the trauma of the breakdown of the Soviet Union has led them to see collapse around every corner. But this would be unfair. For one, Martyanov clearly saw his new home as a beacon of stability in the 1990s, a viewpoint shared by many Russians of his generation.
Moreover, Americans increasingly see their country in this way. A recent poll published by YouGov on June 13, 2022, asked Americans: “Do you think it’s likely or unlikely there will be a civil war in your lifetime in America?” Among those surveyed, 46 percent said they thought it was likely; only 36 percent thought it was unlikely. Martyanov’s views are not merely those of a traumatized refugee of a collapsed superpower; they are the views of nearly half of Americans.
Read in this light, the invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent alliance between Russia and China makes sense as part of a larger scheme to hasten ongoing American decline and accelerate the emergence of a multipolar world. Going forward, the core strategy of America’s rivals—already reflected in Russian rhetoric and diplomacy—will probably be to convince the rest of the world that their assessment of America is the correct one.
The key question now is, how will America’s elite respond to this spreading perception of the country’s decline? Will they become bellicose and aggressive in an attempt to prove that they are still a power to be reckoned with? Or will they examine some of the weaknesses that their enemies believe they have found and attempt to get the country back on track? The former seems risky and could well accelerate the decline. The latter seems like the more reasonable response. But it is also the more difficult one, especially if Martyanov’s assessment of the current U.S. elite is correct.
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume VI, Number 3 (Fall 2022): 102–12.