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Strongman or poseur? Despite his military adventures in Crimea and Ukraine, Putin is constrained by his country’s economic weakness (©MARIA JONER/CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Twisting a quotation variously attributed to Talleyrand, Metternich and Churchill, Vladimir Putin opined in 2002 that Russia is “never so strong as it wants to be and never so weak as it is thought to be”. Sure enough, Russia has probably never been as strong as it wants to be. Geopolitical over-ambition may be a permanent curse on a nation which lies straddled between Europe and Asia, and does not know to which continent it belongs. But, whatever the situation in 2002, there is no truth in the claim that today’s Russia is more powerful than the standard media representation. On all the key metrics except one, Russia is far weaker than most people realise.

The size of its economy is fundamental in assessing any country’s global importance. The ability to create goods and services is correlated with the ability to export those goods and services, and hence to pay for imports. The ability to spend money on imports then matters to suppliers in every country and to all the world’s citizens. Big nations with open markets can impress and influence small nations, simply because prosperity is inter-linked and mutual. Further, a country with a large national output can readily afford the expenditures associated with both soft and hard power. It can spread a favourable image of itself and its culture, disburse aid and support international organisations, and yet at the same time build up its military strength. Ultimately, the dominance of “the West” (meaning Western Europe and North America, with some Asian adjuncts) in the last two centuries has been based on economics. The West has been home to only a fraction of the world’s population, but these have been by far the richest people. Indeed, so high has been the typical income per head that the combined output of Western nations has been well over half the global total for most of the time since 1800.

Is Russia a great power in economic terms? One method of comparing national outputs is to calculate them at current prices and exchange rates. It is certainly relevant to the ability of a nation to import, to invest in soft power and to cover military expenditures in foreign currencies. World Bank data show that in 2015 Russia’s gross domestic product on this basis was $1,326 billion, which made it the 13th largest in the world. It was therefore in the select group of 15 nations that had a GDP above $1,000 billion.

But a glance at Chart One shows that Russia is a dwarf compared with the world’s only two economic superpowers, the US and China. The US’s output is almost 13 times Russia’s while China’s is more than eight times as large. Evidently, on the most familiar and basic criterion of international significance — national output expressed in dollars — Russia is not among the top nations. It is at best a medium-weight power, jostling for position with countries such as South Korea and Mexico — hardly major players in 20th-century global diplomacy. Let it immediately be conceded that the numbers in Chart One, despite having the World Bank as their source, are not conclusive.

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January 14th, 2017
6:01 PM
If Trump and Putin can normalise relations then the people can prosper and islamist terrorism will be eliminated. Stalin was necessary in the alliance that eliminated Nazism. Brexit inspired the USA, France and Holland in the 21st century. It was like the Civil War without muskets , magnificent and a glorious victory. A red,white and blue Brexit is what we will get. And a pro-Israel one.

December 25th, 2016
5:12 PM
The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Mangled diction and all. I have to say I found no comfort in knowing that Russians have a lousy standard of living. Or that Putin has no "strategy." Russia's advanced (and advancing, we are told) nuclear arsenal trumps (sorry!) the economic story. Putin may be less popular, but since when has that mattered to a tyrant who makes a habit of liquidating his opposition?

Ted Schrey Montreal
December 18th, 2016
3:12 AM
Personally, I'd be careful in the presence of a 'broken' bear.

December 14th, 2016
4:12 AM
First lie to scare all the "Russian threat", and then lie to people with a fear of the windows did not jump.

russian troll
December 10th, 2016
6:12 AM
Russians! We were revealed. We go home.

Marcos Vargas
December 9th, 2016
10:12 PM
A clear case of another "advertorial", stacking one blatant lie upon another and spicing them up with fact twisting and hyperbolic extrapolations. This is how much it takes nowadays to reach the answers and conclusions desired and required by the 'stakeholders' of the 'free press'.

Rus Programmer
December 9th, 2016
11:12 AM
You first you intimidated themselves by terrible Russia so you was afraid of their own lies. Now you began to calm yourself...

December 9th, 2016
11:12 AM
Author urgently go to school. Europe and Asia is one continent. The rest of the nonsense does not make sense to read))

Z'ing Sui
December 9th, 2016
10:12 AM
"Of course, there is ample scope for debate about the merits of the various methods of measuring different nations’ income and output. But it should be emphasised that, on the most favourable possible interpretation, Russia in the early 21st century is no more than a medium-weight power in economic terms" However you look at it, scoring about the same as Germany is not an "economic medium-weight". In fact, I don't think it's "commonly thought" that Russia is close to Germany in terms of economic output by any metric, and this was actually a surprise to me.

December 9th, 2016
9:12 AM
"But, when its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections, Russia..." Ahaha, what a liar. He was removed by unconstitutional coup.

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