The refusal to properly assess Russian status is a case of Western wishful thinking
Written by Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.
“Russia is a power in decline, meaning the economic importance of Russia, the GDP is not keeping track with many other countries in the world. But even an economy in decline and a power in economic decline can be a threat and a challenge” stated NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on December 16. This is in line with the persistent “paper tiger” view the West has had of Russia for decades and especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much is talked about the Russian demographic crisis and its supposed resource-dependent economy. Many American experts see Russia as a declining power. In July, US president Joe Biden famously stated that Moscow was “sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else.” Is this so? Sometimes it is necessary to re-state some obvious facts, as Andrew Latham (a professor of international relations and political theory at Macalester College in Saint Paul) convincingly argues in his recent opinion piece.
As the current Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated, and as the Russian role in Venezuela, Syria, in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, currently in Kazakhstan, and elsewhere have shown the world, far from being a “broken former power”, by every criteria in the book Russia is indeed a Great Power – as Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) experts Cornell Overfield and Joshua Tallis argue in their 2020 report, quoted by Latham. Moreover, University of North Carolina economics professor Steven Rosefielde, in his 2005 book “Russia in the 21st Century” demonstrates Russia is also a potential superpower. Moscow has both the power to influence political outcomes globally in terms of soft and hard power and the will to do so. It is a military, scientific-technological, space, and economic power.
In addition to being the largest country globally (bordering 16 nations), and to being the ninth-most populous state worldwide, it is also the world’s eleventh largest economy (by nominal GDP). If one factors purchasing power parity rather than market exchange rates, Russia is the sixth-largest economy in the world. According to CNA experts Michael Kofman and Andrea Kendall-Talor, also quoted by Latham, GDP anyway is often a quite poor measure of real geopolitical power and today it does not translate so directly into international influence or even military potential.
Be it as it may, Russia is ranked as “very high” in the Human Development Index, and it has a free university education, and a universal healthcare system besides being one of the leading countries in science and technology power – it possesses the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, too. Its energy and mineral resources are the world’s largest.
Since the First Chechen Campaign in the nineties, Kofman and Kendall-Taylor argue, Russia has dramatically modernized its military forces and intelligence agencies and updated its nuclear capacities. Even though its economy might seem somewhat small, Moscow today is capable of projecting its power employing nuclear and hypersonic capabilities, as well as cyber-operations.
Moreover, according to Sven Peterson – a Central & East European, Russian & Eurasian Studies (Erasmus Mundus International Master) researcher – Russia has a modern identity forged since the times of Peter the Great’s reforms and also during the Napoleonic Wars and then the Soviet period. Moscow as well the Russian society at large sees the country as a key player in the global stage. And Russia has projected its power abroad, be it in South America or on the Africa continent. That has not changed today: Moscow asserts itself – militarily and diplomatically – in opposition to Western institutions such as the NATO. The Eurasian Economic Union is a good example of regional integration including post-Soviet countries. As Kathryn E. Stoner argues in her 2021 book (“Russia Resurrected”), Moscow’s ability to shape global politics is often missed simply because many Western experts fail to understand its intentions and purposes.
Besides being one of the five Security Council’s permanent members, it is part of the G8 and played key role in developing the BRICS group. Moscow also played an important role in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal.
Even so, Washington has consistently refused to acknowledge even Russia’s status as a regional power. This goes to show that the US-Russian dispute, far from being merely a Cold Age ideological conflict, actually has a geopolitical content. Beyond simply misunderstanding Russian role, as Latham argues, the issue is even a kind of existential challenge For American identity. Even though many former Soviet Republics have sought to maintain their ties with Moscow, and even though Russian civilization has a common history and has for centuries kept economic, political, and religious relations with a number of Slavic and Turkic peoples as well as many other ethnic groups, from an American perspective Moscow is not to have even a “zone of influence” of its own. In fact, for many influential US thinkers and policy makers, Russia should instead cease to exist altogether.
The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as a national advisor to former US President Jimmy Carter, and remained an enormously influential diplomat and foreign policy expert, was an open advocate for the further (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) fragmentation of Russia into a loose confederation. In a 1997 Foreign Affairs piece, he called for a “[a] loosely confederated Russia – composed of a European Russia, a Siberian Republic and a Far Eastern Republic.” Brzezinski advocated this while speaking about “America’s global primacy” – over the Eurasian landmass too, of course. According to him, the US should “perpetuate the prevailing geopolitical pluralism on the map of Eurasia”, so as to prevent even “the remote possibility of any one state” seeking to “challenge America’s primacy”.
However, both unipolarity and bipolarity are somewhat anomalous configurations of power in the History of the nations – that simply cannot last forever. The US is not the sole superpower anymore and rather than a return to bipolarity or to a new “Cold Age”, we are entering an age of great power disputes and competition in a multipolar world – with lots of room for cooperation and collaboration. Misreading Russia is misreading today’s international order, as Latham piece so clearly puts it.
“The report of my death was an exaggeration” said the great American writer Mark Twain – a phrase often misquoted as “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. Similarly, reports on the supposed decline of Russia are not new. This notion however is but a myth as is the very notion of American unipolarity.
The refusal to properly assess Russia’s status and role in the global arena is often part of a Western wishful thinking. Moreover, part of the American Establishment seems to be unable to think of its own country outside of the context of a unipolar world. The very existence of a Russian state is thus perceived as a threat.
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