One of the geopolitical concerns in the twenty first century is how the international power structures will accommodate a declining Russia. Another is how Russia itself will accommodate a declining Russia. This may be a surprising thing to say, after all, isn’t Russia on the rebound? Hasn’t it expanded its power and influence in the Middle East? Isn’t it the leading big player in Syria? Hasn’t it successfully intervened in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea? Hasn’t it recently hosted an African summit in Sochi? Wasn’t it able to secure its goals by force against Georgia in 2008 and against Ukraine in 2014?
However, these recent successes should not blind us to Russia’s deep geopolitical limitations. As Professor Joseph Nye argues in the Project Syndicate , Russia can “only be an international spoiler”. The Russian decline can be seen in perspective by stepping back a bit in time. In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was left with three-quarters of the USSR’s territory, half its population, half its economy, and one-third of its military personnel. Economically, the decline has been precipitous. In 1989, the Soviet economy was twice the size of China’s; today Russia’s economy is only one-seventh that of China. Its GDP is USD1.7 trillion. The USA’s is USD21 trillion. Furthermore, Russia is heavily dependent on energy exports and the international price for such exports. The political institutions for an effective market economy are largely missing and there is little trust in the country’s regulations.
Russia’s soft power is confined to its near-abroad. No Russian universities are ranked in the global top 100. In terms of health and demographic outlook, there are further weaknesses. The average life expectancy of a Russian is five years less than an average European. The population forecasts from the UN predict a decline to perhaps 120 million people living in Russia by mid-century.
On the plus side, Russia does have a vast nuclear arsenal, of similar size to that of the USA. Russia is still a potential threat to the world’s superpower simply because it is the one country with the means to destroy it. Furthermore, its relative decline in the past few decades has made it less likely that this nuclear arsenal will be given up anytime soon. Russia also has vast natural resources, enormous size and skilled scientists and engineers.
As a further counterbalance to the USA, Russia’s relationship with China has strengthened recently. In 1992 the two countries were in a “constructive partnership”. In 1996 this was upgraded to a “strategic partnership” and in 2001 they signed a treaty of “friendship and cooperation”. The two have cooperated closely at the UN and in the BRICS grouping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They also share non-nuclear military technology and conduct joint exercises. President Putin has declared China “our key strategic partner” and President Xi Jinping in return declared Putin “my best friend and colleague”.
However, the current demographic situation in the Far East (six million Russians and 120 million Chinese on the other side of the border) is a source of anxiety in Moscow. After all, in the 19th century Russia took more land from China than any other country. Russia is also concerned about becoming the junior partner in its relationship with China – more dependent on Beijing than Beijing is on Moscow.
In short, while President Putin has been “a successful tactician in restoring Russia’s presence on the world stage” there has been little done to address Russia’s long term structural problems. History is littered with examples of declining powers tending to be less risk-averse. Perhaps Russia will peacefully decline into being a regional power without too much disruption. Let us hope so.