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Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in decline? We figured out how to measure ‘national power.’

- June 20, 2018

Where does Russia stand as Vladimir Putin embarks on another six-year term as president? Analysts have been trying to figure out whether Russia has been rising, declining or stagnating since Putin ascended to power in 1999.

While some scholars argue that Putin’s Russia is careering downward, others rank it second only to the United States.

Scholars in the “declining” camp include Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, and Harvard professors Joe Nye and Stephen Walt. A special project by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation produced a 200-page book last year on “Russia in Decline.” Other analysts argue that 21st-century Russia is nearing collapse or in the throes of agony.

Or is Russia more powerful?

Chin-Lung Chang of Taiwan’s Fo Guang University has argued that Russia has remained the No. 2 nation in the post-Cold War world. The U.S. National Security Strategy last fall, meanwhile, claimed that Russia “challenge[s] American power” and has returned “to Great Power competition.”

At Georgetown University, Andrew Kuchins writes that Russia is rising and falling simultaneously.

We set out to measure national power in Russia

In our new research, we use four models to measure national power. Three of these models reveal that Russia’s power has risen since 1999, while the West’s has declined.

A big question, of course, is how do you measure “power?” For our analysis, we tracked changes in Russia’s national power since 1999 by analyzing a broad range of data, including economic output, energy consumption, population, life expectancy, military expenditures, government effectiveness and even patents.

For a comparative perspective, we contrasted Russia with the world as a whole — and with several groups of key competitors and peers: five leading Western powers (the United States, Germany, Britain, France and Italy); the other four BRICS members (Brazil, India, China and South Africa); and all former Soviet republics, except the Baltic states, and selected oil and gas producers.

To quantify the results, we adapted three existing models for measuring national power and devised a fourth experimental model. See here for full details on these models. Here’s a simplified rundown:

1) In our first model, we measured a single variable: the ratio of Russia’s gross domestic product to global GDP and to the GDP of comparable countries, in terms of purchasing-power parity — essentially, buying a standard set of goods.

By this measure, Russia grew faster than the world as a whole and the five Western competitors, but it lagged behind China and India. China also beat the United States in absolute value of national power in 2016.

2) Next, we looked at countries’ population, land mass, GDP and military strength. The results for Russia were similar to the first model’s findings, and, again, China ended up a more powerful state than the United States in 2016.

3) Our third model included countrywide population, urban population, energy consumption, military expenditures and value-added manufacturing. This time Russia fared better than five leading Western economies but was slightly below the level of the world of a whole. In this model, all elements of Russian national power, except military expenditures, grew slower than those of the world as a whole. And again, China was a more powerful country than the United States in 2016.

4) The fourth model tallied national resources — including territory, population, economic power, military power and technological prowess — along with a nation’s “capability to employ resources.” Here, the growth in Russia outperformed the five Western countries, China and India, though in absolute terms Russia was weaker than the United States, China and India.

In this model, the United States beat China. We think the increase in effective governance during Putin’s first two presidential terms — and rapid growth in military expenditures — are responsible for Russia’s unrivaled growth in this model. 

Overall, here’s what we found

The claims of Russia’s imminent demise seem unfounded — all but one model showed that Russia’s power vis-a-vis the world as a whole has grown in the 21st century. And all our models showed that Russia’s power has risen vis-a-vis Western nations.

In absolute terms, all four methods showed Russia’s power to be less than that of the United States — and one showed it trailing Germany. All four models show that Russia has lagged behind China and India in absolute values of national power.

Russia’s gains in national power, however, appear to be petering out as its economy trudges along and the country’s demographic improvements, like the end of post-Soviet depopulation and even modest growth in 2011-2015, show signs of flagging.

We think that Russia’s decline relative to China and its rise relative to its Western competitors could help explain why Moscow has been more accommodating toward Beijing and more assertive in challenging the West.

Here’s an example — Russia felt emboldened to stage military interventions in former Soviet states after Georgia and Ukraine looked to integrate into Western alliances. If we’re right about the relation between national power and military interventions, then monitoring changes in national power can help to predict nations’ behavior toward their competitors and peers.

The bottom line? The world is no longer unipolar.

Our research suggests that the post-Cold War period of U.S. global dominance is coming to an end. We think these results suggest that the world is returning to an era of Great Power competition.

Three of the four models suggest that China has overtaken the United States in terms of national power. But China is far from becoming the world’s sole dominant power, in the mold of the United States in the early 21st century or the British Empire in the late 19th century.

To be sure, Moscow faces formidable challenges in maintaining or increasing its national power in the 21st century, though these models suggest that forecasts of collapse have little basis. But Russia — no matter the method of measurement — will remain among global players, and how it engages with the world will affect the global order in profound ways for years to come.

Whichever way trends shift, the rest of the world has reason to track the measures of national power closely. Both competitors and partners of Russia would do well to shape their policies toward the country using realistic assessments of its national power.  

Simon Saradzhyan is director of the Russia Matters project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

Nabi Abdullaev is an associate director at Control Risks, a global business risk consultancy, and a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, a Moscow university.