How to Deal with a Declining Russia
It seems unlikely that Russia will again possess the resources to balance US power in the same way that the Soviet Union did during the four decades after World War II. But declining powers merit as much diplomatic attention as rising ones do.
TOKYO – The Kremlin is on a roll. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has replaced the United States in Syria, continues to intervene in Eastern Ukraine, and recently hosted an African summit in Sochi. Appearances, however, can be deceptive. True, Russia retains a vast nuclear arsenal, equal in size to that of the US, and it used force effectively against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014; provided military assistance to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria; and has used cyber means to disrupt US and other elections. But Russia can only be an international spoiler. Behind the adventurism, it is a country in decline.
In 1959, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously boasted that the Soviet Union would overtake the US by 1970 or 1980. Instead, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving a significantly shrunken Russia, with three-quarters of the USSR’s territory, half its population, half its economy, and one-third of its military personnel. Its GDP is only $1.7 trillion, compared to $21 trillion for the US. In 1989, the Soviet economy was twice the size of China’s; today, Russia’s GDP is one-seventh that of China. Moreover, Russia is heavily dependent on energy exports, with high-tech products accounting for only 11% of its manufactured exports (compared to 19% for the US).
While language, history, and labor migration provide Russia with some soft power in its near-abroad, few foreigners elsewhere watch Russian films, and Russian universities are not ranked among the top global 100. The political institutions for an effective market economy are largely missing, and robber-baron state capitalism lacks the kind of effective regulation that creates trust. The public health system is weak, and average Russian life expectancy, at 72 (male and female), is five years shorter than in Europe. United Nations demographers project that Russia’s population may decline from 145 million today to 121 million by mid-century.