Russian Realities

At first glance, Russia bears many of the hallmarks of a great power. It possesses a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, enormous reserves of oil and other minerals, a recent record of robust economic growth, and more territory than any other country despite being only three-fourths the size of the former Soviet Union.

Closer inspection, however, reveals a different Russia. Much of its wealth reflects the increased value of energy, not productive economic activity. Russia’s armed forces are able to project little in the way of usable military might. The country’s population now numbers less than Pakistan’s and is declining by 500,000 people per year, leaving large portions of its vast landmass mostly uninhabited. Male life expectancy is now less than 60 years, owing to alcoholism, crime, drugs, disease, and a dreadful public health system.

All this adds up to a Russia that, if not quite a Potemkin state, is anything but great. There are limits to what Russia can accomplish in the world in any positive sense, although its capacity to be a spoiler or create problems is considerable. Decisions made in Moscow can affect world energy prices, the future of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and the success of terrorists. For better and for worse, Russia still matters. But how much will it matter?

One question concerns political stability. In order to remain intact and functional, the country needs a political system and a society that persuade talented young people to stay in Russia – and that provides them with the education to develop their talent. There also must be limits on the power of the central government and the presidency, a degree of regions autonomy, and rule of law – in short, the rudiments of a modern state and democracy. Alas, Russia is moving more in the opposite direction; political power is becoming more, not less, concentrated.