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Strongman or poseur? Despite his military adventures in Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is constrained by his country’s economic weakness (©MARIA JONER/CC-BY-SA-4.0)


Twisting a quotation variously attributed to Talleyrand, Metternich and Churchill, Vladimir Putin opined in 2002 that Russia is “never so strong as it wants to be and never so weak as it is thought to be”. Sure enough, Russia has probably never been as strong as it wants to be. Geopolitical over-ambition may be a permanent curse on a nation which lies straddled between Europe and Asia, and does not know to which continent it belongs. But, whatever the situation in 2002, there is no truth in the claim that today’s Russia is more powerful than the standard media representation. On all the key metrics except one, Russia is far weaker than most people realise.

The size of its economy is fundamental in assessing any country’s global importance. The ability to create goods and services is correlated with the ability to export those goods and services, and hence to pay for imports. The ability to spend money on imports then matters to suppliers in every country and to all the world’s citizens. Big nations with open markets can impress and influence small nations, simply because prosperity is inter-linked and mutual. Further, a country with a large national output can readily afford the expenditures associated with both soft and hard power. It can spread a favourable image of itself and its culture, disburse aid and support international organisations, and yet at the same time build up its military strength. Ultimately, the dominance of “the West” (meaning Western Europe and North America, with some Asian adjuncts) in the last two centuries has been based on economics. The West has been home to only a fraction of the world’s population, but these have been by far the richest people. Indeed, so high has been the typical income per head that the combined output of Western nations has been well over half the global total for most of the time since 1800.

Is Russia a great power in economic terms? One method of comparing national outputs is to calculate them at current prices and exchange rates. It is certainly relevant to the ability of a nation to import, to invest in soft power and to cover military expenditures in foreign currencies. World Bank data show that in 2015 Russia’s gross domestic product on this basis was $1,326 billion, which made it the 13th largest in the world. It was therefore in the select group of 15 nations that had a GDP above $1,000 billion.



But a glance at Chart One shows that Russia is a dwarf compared with the world’s only two economic superpowers, the US and China. The US’s output is almost 13 times Russia’s while China’s is more than eight times as large. Evidently, on the most familiar and basic criterion of international significance — national output expressed in dollars — Russia is not among the top nations. It is at best a medium-weight power, jostling for position with countries such as South Korea and Mexico — hardly major players in 20th-century global diplomacy. Let it immediately be conceded that the numbers in Chart One, despite having the World Bank as their source, are not conclusive.

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Lawrence James
March 16th, 2017
4:03 PM
What was Russia's economic position in 1853 when it invaded Turkish Romania, in 1876 when it attacked Turkey and in 1905 when it fought Japan.

Leon
March 6th, 2017
5:03 PM
Peter from Oz: then imagine how proud the Russians can be: they have a tenth of Chinese population, and their GDP is just 6- or 5-fold less than Chinese one... Indeed, Russian GDP per capita make Chinese look like beggars...

Leon
March 6th, 2017
4:03 PM
Are we seriously to believe that Russia, with a GDP around that of Mexico’s, can develop advanced missile defence systems comparable to Nato’s? - But it's NOT doing it. Russia is developing missiles and warheads with an increased capability of "dribbling" the possible US ABM defense, Faster and more "maneuverable" warhead, etc. It's logical, after all. Since to produce new missiles is more or less mandatory (and so, it's an expens eyou can't avoid, if you want to keep being credible as a nuclear power), better off invest on better missiles (and warheads), with a small increase on the price you have to pay anyway, than on an huge and madly costly "star shield". It's "asymmetric" answer, again...

Leon
March 6th, 2017
4:03 PM
Jonty Corfield, if Argentinian generals would have had the weapons and the men displayed by Russians in Syria (Kalibr, Raduga, Su35, Buratino thermobaric rocket throwers, speznaz, etc.), it would have been a very harder work for the soldiers from the Queen to retake the islands... Besides that, you keep dreaming Putin can be fool enough to attack baltic states and trigger art. 5. But why should he do it? He does not need it. If and when he would like to get Balts cry uncle, he has economic leverages strong enough to set aside brute force at all: embargo on baltic goods on the Russian markets (right now, Balts are one of the most damaged countries for Russian countersanctions), custom tariffs, change of destination of Russian freight ships (no more Balic ports)... Less choreographic than an armored brigde marching on Vilnius or Tallin or Riga, but, on the long run, it hurts where it takes... And no art. 5 at all...

Shoigu's Cat
March 6th, 2017
9:03 AM
FYI, nobody in Russia cares a fig about Britain. You are just not that interesting.

Peter from Oz
March 3rd, 2017
4:03 AM
It's great to see that Australia with 24 million people is fighting it out with Russia (population 144 million) for 12 place in world's biggest economies.

Anonymou112
February 17th, 2017
3:02 PM
"But, when its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections" LOOOOOOOOOOL British guys . Author do not respect you . He lies in so basic things .

amcdonald
January 14th, 2017
6:01 PM
If Trump and Putin can normalise relations then the people can prosper and islamist terrorism will be eliminated. Stalin was necessary in the alliance that eliminated Nazism. Brexit inspired the USA, France and Holland in the 21st century. It was like the Civil War without muskets , magnificent and a glorious victory. A red,white and blue Brexit is what we will get. And a pro-Israel one.

Jeeves
December 25th, 2016
5:12 PM
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Mangled diction and all. I have to say I found no comfort in knowing that Russians have a lousy standard of living. Or that Putin has no "strategy." Russia's advanced (and advancing, we are told) nuclear arsenal trumps (sorry!) the economic story. Putin may be less popular, but since when has that mattered to a tyrant who makes a habit of liquidating his opposition?

Ted Schrey Montreal
December 18th, 2016
3:12 AM
Personally, I'd be careful in the presence of a 'broken' bear.

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