20 June 2019

Can Russia Ever be a Superpower?

In recent years, few countries have grabbed the headlines around the world more than Russia.  In fact, judging by this measure, Russia has regained much of the international influence that it had lost following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In fact, Russia is using foreign adventures to do exactly that, convincing the world that it is still a great power and distracting its own population from the fact that, in many ways, Russia continues to face a number of major challenges. In fact, Russia remains a country in decline, by a number of measures.  Despite its presence in many high-profile flashpoints around the world, Russia’s political power is a far cry from what it was during the height of the Soviet Union’s power.  Worse, Russia’s economy continues to fall further behind many of its rivals, while its demographic situation is among the worst of any large country in the world. 

Any assessment of Russia’s future prospects has to begin with an analysis of its internal political situation.  At the moment, President Vladimir Putin remains firmly in charge in Russia, a position that he has held for the past two decades.  In fact, no political leader in Moscow has enjoyed such a monopoly on power since Josef Stalin.  However, 2024 is quickly approaching, and that is the year in which Russia will hold its next presidential election, an election that President Putin is currently barred from taking part in due to term limits set by the Russian constitution. Moreover, he will be 71 years old in 2024, and will have led Russia for 25 years by then.  At the moment, there is no clear successor, or succession plan, in place.  As such, as 2024 approaches, there is likely to be a great deal of uncertainty about whether or not President Putin will seek to remain in power, or if potential successors will begin to jockey for position to succeed the long-tine Russian leader.

Rebuilding Russia’s international standing and returning the country to great power status has been the key driver of President Putin’s policies since he took office.  In a short period of time, Russia went from being the dominant part of a global superpower to a country that was viewed by many as one that was in terminal decline in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to restore Russia to what he viewed as its rightful place as a leading global power, President Putin first focused on restoring Russia’s domination of its near-abroad, an effort that has met with mixed results.  Not content to simply restore Russia’s influence around its borders, President Putin has also involved Russia in flashpoints further abroad, particularly in areas where the Soviet Union once had much influence, such as the Middle East. This explains Russia’s key role in the Syrian Civil War and its efforts to involve itself in other disputes in that region.  Meanwhile, President Putin has sought to cultivate relations with China, while assiduously preventing Russia from falling into Beijing’s orbit.  Finally, nearly all of Russia’s foreign activities in recent years have been rooted in a desire to prevent the United States from establishing unilateral dominance in many parts of the world, returning Russia to a role that was once played by the Soviet Union.

While Russia’s internal and external political manoeuvers have met with some success in terms of boosting Russia’s international standing, its failure to diversify and modernize the country’s economy has to be viewed as a great setback for the country.  When commodity prices were high, Russia was able to overcome the turmoil of the post-Soviet period and record average economic growth rates of nearly 7% per year for the decade between 1998 and 2008.  However, a lack of economic diversification and the impact of international sanctions that were driven by Russia’s actions in Ukraine have resulted in economic growth rates averaging a measly 1% per year over the past decade.  Worse, the outlook for the Russian economy remains poor, with economic growth rates in Russia forecast to average just 1.5% per year over the next decade.  As a result, Russia is not only falling further behind developed economies such as the United States, but it is being rapidly overtaken by emerging market rivals such as China.  Finally, as economic hardships worsen, President Putin and his potential successors could find themselves facing rising popular unrest within Russia.

Ultimately, Russia’s efforts to restore its great power status may be undermined by the country’s worsening demographic situation.  At the time of its collapse, the population of the Soviet Union was 293 million, a larger population that the United States at that time.  Today, Russia’s population is only 144 million, just 44% of the that of the US, or just slightly more than 10% of that of China.  While Russia’s birth rate has rebounded a little in recent years, it remains well below the replacement rate, and as a result, Russia’s population is forecast to continue to decline in the coming years.  Worse, Russia’s working-age population will decline even faster in the years ahead, adding further strains to the struggling Russian economy.  As a result, if demographics are indeed a country’s destiny, than Russia’s future is increasingly uncertain.

Russia obviously faces many challenges in the years ahead.  First it will have to find a way to reverse its demographic decline, something that few countries have ever been able to do.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, it will have to diversify and modernize its economy if it has any chance of competing with today’s superpowers, the United States and China.  In fact, while Russia is struggling with these problems, the US, China and other potential rivals are rapidly modernizing and diversifying their economies. Still, Russia does have some strong hands left to play.  First and foremost, Russia remains a geographic and environmental superpower thanks to its immense land area and the resources that it contains.  In fact, some of these resources could dramatically increase in value in the coming years, a development that could help reverse Russia’s economic decline.  If Russia aims to return to the status of a global superpower, it is likely to be on the back of its immense resources and territory.  In fact, this may be the last vestige of the time when Russia was a leading global player, and may be its only hope of one day regaining that status.