Question: Is Russia still a great power?
That the question needs to be asked suggests an earth-shattering transformation in European politics.
And yet Russian power and influence have waned in the past; the first twenty years of the 20th century represented a nadir in Russian power, as the Russian Empire lost most of its western territories after suffering a series of defeats at the hands of Japan, Germany, and Poland.
The Russian Revolution also undercut the soft power that Russian tsars has so carefully built over the course of centuries, although eventually the Soviet Union would develop its own ideological appeal. The collapse of the USSR imposed severe limits on Russia, but an economic and political revival in the 2000s once again made Moscow a center of global influence.
So now, with the Russia-Ukraine War a year old, does Russia still stand among the world’s most powerful nations?
Russia As a Military Power: Is Moscow Fading?
By virtue of its size and legacy, Russia is undoubtedly an important military power.
Its conventional air and land forces are large and reasonably sophisticated. But at the same time in conventional terms, Russia has clearly become a second-rate power, distinctly inferior to China, the United States, and the accumulated military capabilities of the European Union.
In the maritime sphere, the Russian Navy seems unlikely to recover anytime soon from its post-Soviet state of decay. Russian surface warship shipbuilding has utterly collapsed, and given the demands of the war in Ukraine, it seems unlikely that Russian seapower will see much in the way of attention from the Kremlin. Worse, Russia’s access to two of the four main areas of influence (the Baltic and the Black Sea) is now in deep question.
Russia’s nuclear weapons remain its most important military advantage. Russia has no worse than the second most lethal nuclear arsenal in the world. Even as Russia has struggled mightily to impose its will upon Ukraine, nuclear weapons have ensured that NATO stays on the sidelines. But Russia’s advantage here is quite likely on the wane. China is building up its nuclear forces, primarily in reference to the United States but implicitly a signal that Beijing is no longer interested in second-tier nuclear status. The invasion of Ukraine has scotched thin hopes that either Britain or France might give up their own nukes, and has given states like Japan and South Korea more incentive to join the nuclear club.
So while Russia will remain powerful, it looks to a future where it will be a less prestigious member of a larger club.
Russia’s Waining Economic Power
Russia’s trade prospects have surely diminished since the beginning of the war. If exporting energy and resources to its current partners were more profitable than exporting to Europe, the shift would have happened a long time ago. Sanctions have not cut off Russia’s war machine and have inflicted only middling damage on its domestic economy, but by erecting a barrier between Russian industry and the global technology economy they have surely limited prospects for Russia’s long-term economic growth.
At the same time, financial sanctions have limited options for Russian capital and for foreign investment.
And yet Russia still has a large economy and enjoys resource abundance. Whether it can regain some measure of industrial might is a different question, and probably depends on how deeply linked Russia can become with the economies of China, India, and the rest of its near abroad.
If Russia wants to continue as a great power, apart from merely an influential regional state, it must do something about the state of its high-technology industries.
Political and Social Power
It is difficult to assess the extent of Russia’s diplomatic and political influence around the globe.
The war on Ukraine has undoubtedly damaged Russia’s reputation in some parts of the world, particularly in Europe, but it has had less of an impact in South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Russia’s ideological evangelism, with Putin representing the regime as a beacon against liberalism, has also found ready supporters in the West and elsewhere.
Regionally Russia has certainly not given up on its dreams of empire, and even as Central Asia has drifted since the beginning of the war, Moscow’s influence has remained. A country the size of Russia that can maintain a hegemonic position over the politics and economics of many of its neighbors is almost by definition a great power. And of course, Russia retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which remains a genuine diplomatic asset and a key indicator of great power status.
What Fate for Russia?
But is Russia a great power if it can’t even crush its neighbor without help from China?
The war between Russia and Ukraine is not over, and Russia may still prevail in imposing its will on Kyiv and by extension the West. Russian nuclear weapons aren’t going anywhere, and Russia still has an important contribution to make to parts of the global economy. Russian soft power remains potent in some parts of the world and in some corners of its most dedicated foes. Nevertheless, a defeat in Ukraine might well signal that the world no longer needs to pay overmuch attention to the phenomenon of Russia.
This, more than anything else, might force Russians to come to terms with the regime of Vladimir Putin.
Author Experience and Expertise
Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.