Question: Is Russia still a great power?
That the question needs to be asked suggests an earth-shattering transformation in European politics.
Russia has been a great power in some form since the 17th century, with the Russian Empire and then later the Soviet Union playing a key role 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.
Russia’s land forces cannot destroy the Ukrainian army on the battlefield, and its air forces cannot impose air supremacy over the country.
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.
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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.
February 22, 2023 at 11:15 am
I appreciate the author stirring the pot.
That’s what a good author does.
As for his characterizations, I disagree.
Russia has the initiative in hand.
And has been exercising it… winning on the battlefield in the last three weeks @ Bakhmut & surrounding environs.
Some analysts suggest Bakhmut will fall in the next three weeks, or so.
Russia has been “spoiling the lines” up & down the front preventing Ukraine from forming up an offensive assault anywhere on the front… on the contrary Ukraine is on the defensive.
Ukraine does not have the ability to put up an offensive, at any large scale, forget about a so-called “Combined Arms Maneuver.”
That’s where the Rubber Meets the Road.
I’ll believe it when I see it.
Show me… until then talk of second-rate power… is premature… to say the least.
And, possibly leading people down the primrose path…
February 22, 2023 at 11:20 am
Russia’s influence is waning, and it will continue to decline as long as Russia continues to lose, the price of oil remains low, and contracts for Russian military equipment keep getting cancelled. Ukraine continues to prove just how possible it is to defeat Russian men and equipment…especially when they use western supplied weapons.
Speaking of which…Further details are still coming in, but It appears possible that Biden may have pulled something of a political and military master stroke. His visit to Ukraine has been followed by both a missile test failure by Russia…and a series of missile strikes in occupied Ukraine. It’s possible this was the debut of GLSDB.
Russia media outlet Redovka, among others, are reporting that last night Ukraine hit nine cities occupied by Russia, including 15 strikes at Russian bases and stockpiles in and around Mariupol. Those strikes included sightings of objects blazing across the sky in a way that seemed unfamiliar to any of the observers on the ground.
While Ukraine has previously hit targets around other Russian occupied cities in the Zaporizhzhia area, including just north of Melitopol… Mariupol is way down on the coast, about 80 km from the nearest Ukrainian controlled area near Vuhledar.
Among the sites hit in Mariupol overnight was reportedly a large ammunition depot and a loading facility for Russian ships.
Unless a HIMARS system was dragged right to the front lines in that highly active part of the battlefield—something Ukraine is unlikely to risk—Mariupol would be out of range of the missiles the US has previously provided to Ukraine.
In city after city, Russian occupiers launched air defense missiles or let loose with anti-aircraft guns. (((Tendar))), among many others on Twitter, have a bunch of videos and stills of the anti aircraft guns and SAMs being fired by Russians.
It’s ironic that even as Russia is failing to demonstrate its new long range missile system, Ukraine appears to be demonstrating a functional new ability to reach out and touch Russian assets at longer range just a day after Joe Biden came to visit.
Some are joking that Biden brought the missiles with him on his train to Ukraine.
It remains to be seen what the real source of the explosions are, and if it is a new Ukrainian weapon…or even partisan activity…can they sustain it into a full campaign to degrade Russian occupation forces throughout the south and east the way they did in right bank Kherson? Can the Russian be softened up for a counter attack that liberates the rest of Ukraine from russian imperialism?
Time will tell.
Have a liberating day.
February 22, 2023 at 11:37 am
Indeed. Certainly Russia is diminished in influence, but as a country that could potentially blow up the world, still needs to be taken seriously.
As far as Russia’s economy: one is reminded that when he United States industrialized, it was basically an autarky, it used its resource abundance to fuel its own industries not export them. When Russia was cut off from importing food from Europe, it developed its own agriculture. The circumstances are of course different and it might not be possible, but if I were a Russian I would sure want a lot of that cheap gas to fuel the development of my own industries, not China’s.
February 22, 2023 at 11:58 am
“Is Russia Still A Great Power?”
No. Any mid sized NATO Army can defeat russia… in minutes.
February 22, 2023 at 1:01 pm
Is The Moon made of Green Cheese?
February 22, 2023 at 3:55 pm
Not waining power.
Since you must assume
Their nukes function,
Russia remains a great power..
February 22, 2023 at 5:04 pm
Russia, still a great power.
But with a layer rust covering or spreading over the head of government.
Russia effectively has the second largest usable nuke arsenal in the world today, and despite US & norwegian most brazen destruction of its costly expensive strategically vital nord stream pipes, it has done absolutely nothing to redress the transgression.
That’s on top of the massive agitprop and monstrous weapon supply being stacked and heaped against russia in donbass.
The US used nukes on japan for far lesser reasons and on the marshall islanders and also suspected of testing a nuke device in iraq in feb 1991 near basra.
The russian people need to whip off or scrape off the rust from the current leadership unless they start using nukes to impress NATO-US-EU-G7 that russia is still a great power.
One that still has ability to burn and toast your backsides not once but twice over. Today, in 2023.
February 22, 2023 at 6:32 pm
It’s remarkable how many different opinions exist about Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine. Some blame NATO ‘expansion’, some see a quest for past glory, some see Kremlin fear of an emergent EU-based economy on Russia’s doorstep, and some point to geography with the pursuit of natural barriers to defend Russia. My opinion is both different and a fused version of these.
Vladimir Putin indeed feels threatened and is convinced he’s defending something, but it’s not Russia or the Russian speaking population of Ukraine. Instead Putin is defending the myth of Russian EXCEPTIONALISM, the mindset that Russia still matters and is still the penultimate global player. Big landmass, big history, big oil, big nukes, thus a big deal.
This stubborn mindset has taken some blows. Russia’s economy is smaller than Italy’s and dominated by old energy, mining and weapons sales, not ‘new economy’ tech. Russia’s economy, influence and military superpower status has been eclipsed by China. Russia’s space program is an aging ISS doormat while other nations venture farther. Immigration flows outward, tourism is a joke and fewer westerners want to learn Russian. With no more bilateral Cold War summits, Russia has been kicked out of the G-8 and doped out of the Olympics. It’s self-inflicted humiliation.
This decline undermines Kremlin influence over Russia’s population. It threatens cohesion in a vast Eurasian country with dozens of ethnicities, cultures and languages. Several republics are keen to break away. To maintain cohesion, Moscow does three things: 1. Crackdown on dissent, opposition and rival candidates, 2. Promote the myth of Russian exceptionalism, and 3. Demonstrate examples of power and influence outside Russia, such as in Ukraine. After all, Moscow can’t convince Russian citizens they’re globally exceptional if Russia can’t even influence its closest neighbors.
Internal control collapses if this exceptionalism myth implodes. The edifice disintegrates and nearly 2,000 years of Russian lore would be dishonored. Putin would be remembered as the leader who let it all happen, thus he feels threatened – or so that’s how he has romanticized his decisions by evoking history, culture, religion and WW-2 style bogeymen.
Reclaiming exceptionalism to maintain the Kremlin’s power over Russia requires more than the Donbas and Crimea within Ukraine. Putin wants historic acclaim. This includes the G-7 supplanted by a G-2 with himself the ‘senior’ member holding court with the U.S. president in televised Cold War 2 summits. To get there, he needs to offer Ukraine as a hostage to roll back NATO in Eastern Europe, cancel Sweden and Finland as new members, end all sanctions and get broader Europe hooked on Russian energy again. Tall order. Not happening. He miscalculated.
But Putin is more likely to escalate the war beyond Ukraine and beyond conventional means. Because the alternative is a retreat from centuries of self-styled Russian exceptionalism and Kremlin control, and Putin’s own legacy would be dirt.
February 22, 2023 at 10:29 pm
From conventional war perspective against larger militarys, no.
Chinas 1.4 billion to russias 1.3 million and much of russias trained military killed in Ukraine means no. China would run them over.
With last troops grouped to “win” some small villages, the US would take a day.
Can Russia inflict major losses? If their nuclear weapons are maintained, yes. Todays failed launch however makes pulling the trigger a not so sure response since the missiles may not survive launch. Any launch would result in similar response and be the end Russia as a nation, and maybe some others.
The bottom line.
Poor maintenance and poor ground force and medical support has put Russia in a non recoverable position for many years.
Everyone is selling weapons because they know Russia won’t fire a nuke, and ground forces are untrained dying from lack of doctors.
The US and others have limited range and type of weapons to defensive.
Germany and others would prefer peace and trade and fuel.
The latter is the best solution, but must be a Russian citizen overthrow of Putin.
Ukranians will die, Russians will die, ukraine will continue to freely trade, russia will not.
It’s time generals figure out Putins in dream land.
February 23, 2023 at 12:14 pm
Barkhut is about 9 square miles. Gee by 18 the greatest army should be out of troops…
These are villages Russia can’t control.
I guess thats the answer.