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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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Evgen
December 9th, 2016
6:12 AM
Why author of article didn't compre GDP of Russia in 2000 and in 2016 to do conclusions?

Evgen
December 9th, 2016
6:12 AM
It would be interesting enough if someone would compare GDP of Byzantium and muslims, when muslims destroyed Byzantium. It would be interesting enough if author of article compre GDP of Russia in 2000 and in 2014 to say about Putin's strategy.

Anonymous
December 9th, 2016
5:12 AM
Бред. Анализ очень ограничен. Есть много не учтенных аспектов. Таких как великолепный дипломатический корпус России, мизерный внутренний долг, человеческий капитал. И самое главное внутренний дух русских людей. Запад это декадентство, древний Рим эпохи заката. А такие "аналитики" вас усыпляют. И это хорошо. Привет из России.

Andy Bay
December 9th, 2016
4:12 AM
as regards Russia's economic achievements - this is real - the economy stagnated and its volume is so huge that it would compare with the world leaders. But the rest - pathetic attempts to analytics, followed by inaccurate and false data. I recommend the author carefully study the history of the events in question.

Neil Balfour
December 1st, 2016
1:12 PM
There is another reason not to fear Vladimir Putin besides the shrinking Russian economy ("No need to fear Russia - the bear is broke" by Tim Cogdon in your December/January issue). Putin is most probably one of the richest individuals on the planet. He is unlikely to want to destroy Stock Market values in New York and London.

EWAN MACLEAN
November 29th, 2016
12:11 PM
Russia and geopolitics are not Prof. Congdon's areas of expertise. He is entitled to his opinions, of course. The question is, why air them here? Without some caveat such as "these are my opinions based on an imperfect and cursory review of a highly selective sample of biased reporting by untrustworthy sources", it gives them a bogus authority.

Jonty Corfield
November 27th, 2016
10:11 AM
An excellent appraisal with Russia still remaining a dangerous and unpredictable neighbour a rogue dog under Putin. The similarity with the Argentinian Generals in 1982 and the subsequent war with and defeat by Britain stands out. That of a failing economy with a relatively large armed forces taking a disproportionate amount of the GDP and lashing out at a perceived aggressor only to end in complete failure and regime change. The Baltic States could become Russia's Falkland Islands with a swift attack to occupy like seen in the Crimea and parts of the Ukraine never mind earlier invasions into Georgia. However the supine and cowardly behaviour of European progressive Liberal politicians ( in effect appeasers and dedicated to nonviolence) to face off to Putin military might see the Baltic States or even Poland and Hungry once again become satraps of the yearned for again by Putin of a nascent Russian Empire. Scary times if EU politicians do not confront and face off to him.

Anonymous
November 23rd, 2016
3:11 PM
'When its stooge in Kiev was removed by democratic elections, Russia ignored the niceties and just walked in.' (Page 3) What do you seek to gain by saying things that so blatantly aren't true? Russia invaded Ukraine after Ukraine's democratically elected government was overthrown by a popular uprising - NOT a democratic election.

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