Is Russia really a great power?

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Is Russia really a great power?

The Russ­ian Space Sta­tion Mir, from Wikipedia

Our National Secu­rity Strat­egy, Mil­i­tary Strat­egy and other sup­port­ing doc­u­ments talk about a return to “Great Power Com­pe­ti­tion,” with the Great Power Com­peti­tors being China and Rus­sia. I think we made a mis­take in call­ing Rus­sia a Great Power, because in real­ity, it might not be.

What makes a Great Power?

We don’t have a defin­i­tive answer to that ques­tion. Great­ness isn’t exactly defined. But let’s take some com­mon ideas and explore them. We should look at econ­omy, mil­i­tary, influ­ence and demographics.

When we look at econ­omy, Rus­sia is def­i­nitely up there, and has con­sis­tently been in the Top Ten no mat­ter how you cal­cu­late it. But so has a lot of other coun­tries, includ­ing India, the UK, Ger­many and Japan. Japan has had a larger econ­omy than Rus­sia for for­ever. In fact, while the Russ­ian econ­omy has had spurts of growth, it con­tin­ues to remain frag­ile. Arms exports and petro­leum prod­ucts dom­i­nate, but both are eas­ily ham­pered by treaties and eco­nomic pres­sure from the US.

Mil­i­tar­ily, Rus­sia is large, boast­ing a mil­i­tary size on par with the US. It also main­tains very good tech­nol­ogy, and has invested heav­ily in weapons that dis­rupt US and Euro­pean sys­tems, such as GPS jam­mers. Again though, this is a frag­ile sys­tem. For exam­ple, Russ­ian pilots strug­gled to land aboard their air­craft car­rier. Russ­ian land units are con­stantly being snap drilled after Rus­sia suf­fered higher than expected casu­al­ties in Geor­gia and Ukraine. Even the Russ­ian mil­i­tary health sys­tem is falling apart, with rou­tine wounds killing more peo­ple in Syria.

By cul­tural influ­ence, Rus­sia is los­ing. Euro­pean, Chi­nese and Amer­i­can cul­ture dom­i­nates the world. Hol­ly­wood bows to China and Amer­i­can mar­kets, but not that of Rus­sia. Russ­ian cul­ture doesn’t export well.

Demo­graph­ics are worse. Rus­sia faces steep pop­u­la­tion declines. A poor birthrate, high male death rate (dri­ven by alco­holism), and out­ward immi­gra­tion is hurt­ing Rus­sia. Rus­sia shrank, again, in 2018.

Great­ness is hard to define, but we should remem­ber that “great” is a term we assign to things. Was Alexan­der the Great really great? After break­ing apart a sig­nif­i­cantly more demo­c­ra­tic nation (Per­sia), he mil­i­tar­ily won a lot, yet his empire didn’t sur­vive his death. By a lot of def­i­n­i­tions, he really was a mil­i­tary con­queror who hap­pened to be tac­ti­cally smart but strate­gi­cally foolish.

We call Rus­sia a “Great Power,” despite very obvi­ous, very deep flaws. Per­haps we should stop giv­ing them credit where it isn’t deserved.

This post rep­re­sents the views of the author and not those of the Depart­ment of Defense, Depart­ment of the Navy, or any other gov­ern­ment agency.

The Russian Space Station Mir, from Wikipedia

Our National Security Strategy, Military Strategy and other supporting documents talk about a return to “Great Power Competition,” with the Great Power Competitors being China and Russia. I think we made a mistake in calling Russia a Great Power, because in reality, it might not be.

What makes a Great Power?

We don’t have a definitive answer to that question. Greatness isn’t exactly defined. But let’s take some common ideas and explore them. We should look at economy, military, influence and demographics.

When we look at economy, Russia is definitely up there, and has consistently been in the Top Ten no matter how you calculate it. But so has a lot of other countries, including India, the UK, Germany and Japan. Japan has had a larger economy than Russia for forever. In fact, while the Russian economy has had spurts of growth, it continues to remain fragile. Arms exports and petroleum products dominate, but both are easily hampered by treaties and economic pressure from the US.

Militarily, Russia is large, boasting a military size on par with the US. It also maintains very good technology, and has invested heavily in weapons that disrupt US and European systems, such as GPS jammers. Again though, this is a fragile system. For example, Russian pilots struggled to land aboard their aircraft carrier. Russian land units are constantly being snap drilled after Russia suffered higher than expected casualties in Georgia and Ukraine. Even the Russian military health system is falling apart, with routine wounds killing more people in Syria.

By cultural influence, Russia is losing. European, Chinese and American culture dominates the world. Hollywood bows to China and American markets, but not that of Russia. Russian culture doesn’t export well.

Demographics are worse. Russia faces steep population declines. A poor birthrate, high male death rate (driven by alcoholism), and outward immigration is hurting Russia. Russia shrank, again, in 2018.

Greatness is hard to define, but we should remember that “great” is a term we assign to things. Was Alexander the Great really great? After breaking apart a significantly more democratic nation (Persia), he militarily won a lot, yet his empire didn’t survive his death. By a lot of definitions, he really was a military conqueror who happened to be tactically smart but strategically foolish.

We call Russia a “Great Power,” despite very obvious, very deep flaws. Perhaps we should stop giving them credit where it isn’t deserved.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.