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.