Reports of Russia’s decline are greatly exaggerated
Tales of Russia’s demise have circulated with remarkable consistency since the fall of the Soviet Union on Dec. 25 exactly three decades ago. Having fallen from its superpower pedestal, the Soviet Union’s successor state was routinely characterized as a “declining power,” a “has-been power” and a “downshift power.”
In recent years, the more dire prophesies of Russian collapse that circulated in the 1990s having gone unfulfilled, such characterizations have given way to a recognition that Russia is in fact a “persistent power.” Fundamentally, though, nothing has changed. Whether rebranded as a mere “nuisance power” or as a perpetually “disruptive” power, Russia is viewed now as it has been since it emerged out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union in December 1991 — as a broken, if sometimes petulant, vestige of a once-mighty superpower.
But as the crisis in Ukraine has once again demonstrated, such characterizations are grossly misleading. Indeed, they couldn’t be more wrong. Russia is not the geopolitical basket-case it was in the immediate post-Soviet era. Nor is it the bit player on the world stage it is often portrayed as in the Western press. In fact, quite the opposite: Viewed dispassionately and in the cold light of Realpolitik, Russia is unambiguously a “great power” — a country possessing both substantial instruments of national power and the will to use these instruments to influence political outcomes around the world. And any American grand strategy worthy of the name will have to take that undeniable fact into account.
When it comes to possessing a substantial and varied instrument of power, there can be little doubt that Russia meets the “great power” standard. To be sure, economic woes and demographic challenges continue to plague the country. But the myth of Russian decline is precisely that — a myth.
The Russian military today is not the poorly trained and ill-equipped conscript rabble that fared so poorly in Chechnya in the mid-1990s. Spurred in large part by that experience, Moscow undertook a radical modernization and upgrading of the country’s nuclear and conventional forces, with staggeringly impressive results. While some asymmetries remain between Russia on the one hand and the United States and China on the other, resurrected Russia’s “hard power” capabilities now place it in the same league as those two recognized great powers — and in a different league altogether than almost every other country on the planet.
Similarly, there can be little doubt that Moscow is able to field the “soft” and “sharp” power capabilities of a great power. Regarding the former – which in Russia’s case refers to the country’s ability to “wage friendship” – Russia has developed a formidable arsenal of tools for generating good will and attracting political support. These include Russian media (including the RT and Sputnik networks), Russian cultural centers, the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian universities and research centers. Moscow also exercises soft power through the provision of humanitarian aid and debt relief and security through Russian-centered international organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Finally, Russia exercises soft power by actively promoting the idea that there are viable alternatives to “degenerate” Western liberal democracy — an idea with soft power appeal to a host of non- and anti-democratic regimes around the world.
And then there’s “sharp power,” defined as the ability to manipulate information to sow discord and confusion in a target country. In this realm, Russia has few peers. Moscow’s ability to disrupt political life abroad through the manipulation of social media and traditional news sources like RT and Sputnik to propagate disinformation is perhaps unparalleled. Add to this an advanced capability to conduct denial-of-service operations, compromise private accounts through phishing attacks and carry out other offensive cyber operations, and the extraordinary scale of Russian sharp power begins to come into focus.
Finally – and this is crucially important – one of the key ingredients of great power status has always been self-perception. If a country has certain hard, soft and sharp power capabilities and its acts as if it is a great power, then it is a great power. And there can be little doubt that Russia perceives itself in this way.
Russia today is heir to an old and enduring identity – forged during the time of Peter the Great and persisting through the Soviet era – as a major player on the international stage. The country’s ruling class feels this in its bones and acts accordingly. And this identity – shared by rulers and ruled alike – compels Russia to act like a great power, projecting power around the world even in the absence of direct economic imperatives or security concerns. It is easy enough to explain Russia’s assertive role in its near-abroad in terms of its material interests or even imperial nostalgia. But how else to explain its extensive and sustained efforts to influence political outcomes in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia? From the perspective of Russia’s leaders, the answer is obvious: Great powers have global reach, Russia is a great power, therefore Russia must have global reach. It’s that simple.
There seems little doubt, then, that Russia is a great power. It has all the ingredients and passes all the tests. But what does this mean for the United States?
Simply put, acknowledging Russia’s great power status is to recognize that the factory settings of international relations have kicked in once again. We have been blinded to the fact that multipolarity is the default configuration of power in the international order by three-quarters of a century, first of bipolarity during the Cold War, then of unipolarity in the post-Cold War era and now of the illusion of a second Cold War with China. But, as an honest appraisal of Russian power clearly indicates, this is neither a bipolar nor a unipolar moment. It is an era of multipolar great power competition. To delude ourselves that it is something else – Cold War II or some similar mis-analogy in which the U.S. is the “sole remaining superpower” – is to fundamentally misunderstand the geopolitical environment we find ourselves in today. Conversely, grasping the realities of Russian power and Russia’s place in the international order is a step on the road to strategic clarity.
Given the stakes involved, we would be well advised to take that step.
Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
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