A survey of recent writings on Russia by western scholars reveals a widely-held view that the largest of the 15 post-Soviet republics has continued to decline in the 21st century.
Yet an examination of the data suggests that Russia has actually risen in comparison with some of its western competitors.
Neil Ferguson, the British, Harvard-based historian, wrote in 2011 that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was in decline and “on its way to global irrelevance.” His Harvard colleagues Joseph Nye and Stephen Walt hold similar views. “Russia is in long-term decline,” Nye wrote in April 2015; also last year, Walt wrote of Russia’s decline at least twice. Other western thinkers who have pronounced Russia’s decline in the 21st century include John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, Ian Bremmer of Eurasia Group, Nicholas Burns of Harvard University and Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council.
Others go further. Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University recently wrote of a “coming Russian collapse”. Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian scholar affiliated with the Brookings Institution, believes the collapse has already begun.
But is Russia really in decline, as western scholars claim? A comparison of its performance with the world as a whole or with the west’s leading economies suggests that the claim that post-Communist Russia has continued its decline into the 21st century is highly contestable at the very least.
I have compared Russia with the US, the UK, France, Germany and Italy – the west’s biggest economy, western Europe’s four biggest and all of the west’s nuclear powers – in the period 1999 to 2015 (with some exceptions when data is not available).
I relied on data supplied by the World Bank, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the World Steel Association, turning to data from national governments only in the absence of data from the three organisations.
Single-variable comparisons: Russia has gained against the west but may have declined compared with the world as a whole
One traditional way of measuring nations’ power relative to each other is to compare their gross domestic product. By this measure, Russia gained economically on all of its competitors as well as on the world as a whole in 1999-2015.
Russian GDP was equal to less than 5 per cent of US GDP in 1999. That share grew to 6 per cent in 2015, a 36 per cent increase. Over the same period, Russia’s share of global GDP increased by 23 per cent, from 1.32 per cent in 1999 to 1.6 per cent in 2015. Meanwhile, the US, UK, French, German and Italian shares in global GDP declined by 10 per cent, 11 per cent, 19 per cent, 20 per cent and 32 per cent, respectively.
It is well known that the Russian economy has been declining since 2014. According to the World Bank, it is poised to contract by 1 per cent yet again in 2016 before it resumes growth. However, this projected decline will not erase the cumulative gains that the Russian economy has made since 1999 against those of the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy and against the world as a whole.
Another single-variable approach to gauging the power of nations is to measure their energy consumption, as proposed by the Russian thinker Pobisk Kuznetsov. Using this approach (based on country data for 1999-2012 and World Bank data for 1999-2014) suggests that Russia has gained on all its competitor nations.
Russian energy consumption equalled 26.21 per cent of US energy consumption in 1999, rising to 33.16 per cent in 2012. It rose even more against the other countries. In contrast, my calculations show that Russia’s share in world energy consumption was 10 per cent less in 2014 than it was in 1999. However, all of its competitors lost even greater share in that period.
The GINC measures national power as the geometric mean of the following ratios:
TPR = total population of country ratio;
UPR = urban population of country ratio;
ISR = steel production of country ratio;
ECR = primary energy consumption ratio;
MER = military expenditure ratio;
MPR = military personnel ratio.
The GINC shows Russia’s power rising by 6.53 per cent in 1999-2014, while the power of the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy declined 13.14 per cent, 24.42 per cent, 24.23 per cent, 29.92 per cent and 27.29 per cent respectively in 2014 compared with 1999.
Chin-Lung’s formula is this: Nation’s Composite Strength = (Population Strength + Economic Strength + Military Strength)/3, where:
Critical mass = (Nation’s population/world population) x 100 Critical mass + (Nation’s area/world total) x 100.
Economic Strength =(Nation’s GDP/world GDP) x 200
Military Strength = (Nation’s military expenditures/world military expenditures) x 200.
Applying Chin-Lung’s approach shows Russia’s power rising by 28 per cent between 1999 and 2015, while the power of the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy decreased by 6 per cent, 15 per cent, 29 per cent, 29 per cent and 41 per cent, respectively. Moreover, even if we to alter Chin-Lung’s approach by reducing the proportional weight of land area and military strength and adding a measurement innovative strength, such as the number of patents filed by residents, the results show Russia rising faster than the US, with the other competitors declining.
Taken together, these measures suggest strongly that Russia has either risen or retained its position relative to its five competitors and the world as a whole so far in the 21st century.
It is well known that the Russian economy stopped growing in 2014 and started declining. The World Bank estimates that Russians GDP shrank by 3.7 per cent in 2015 and that it is poised to shrink by up 1.9 per cent in 2016, before starting to grow again next year. However, the losses of these three years will not erase the cumulative gain in Russia’s power as a nation since 1999.
Looking forward, Russia faces a number of long-term challenges, including an obsolete and inefficient economic model, poor quality of governance, pervasive corruption, demographic fragility, instability in neighbouring countries and separatist threats to Russia itself.
We don’t know yet whether and when these challenges may acquire such an acute character that they may reverse the resurgence of Putin’s Russia described above. One thing is certain, however: Russia’s size, resources and military might all ensure that it remains a global player that will continue to affect the western world and the global order as a whole in profound ways for years to come, and should be treated accordingly.