Why Russia Struggles to Feed Its Great-Power Addiction


May 11, 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto during their meeting at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, August 22, 2018, photo by Pavel Golovkin/Pool/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Sochi, Russia, August 22, 2018

Photo by Pavel Golovkin/Pool/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on May 9, 2020.

Russia seeks to remain a great power by building an autarkic fortress and deepening ties with China. Although the coronavirus pandemic may reinforce instincts for self-reliance, Russia could lose by resisting globalization or relying too much on China while moving away from the West.

The puzzling thing about Russia is how it is determined to remain a great power but inattentive to some of the means required to sustain a great-power status. For over a decade its economy has been stagnant, yet the Kremlin avoids reforms that could unleash the private sector. Each year Russia loses a million people, yet it invests too little in health care, especially in its rural areas. The flight of money to the West continues, yet improved business conditions could diminish it. The country's military adventures in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Syria, and Ukraine are all a net drain on the economy. The recent oil price drop and the coronavirus pandemic may lead to a further weakening.

Despite these woes, Russia is clearly a great power. Its vast landmass links two of the world's largest economies, China and the European Union. Russia is the second biggest producer of natural gas and third in oil production. It is a nuclear weapons superpower and has an educated workforce.

Russia enhances its great-power status when it cooperates. It helped negotiate the 2015 accord to limit Iran's nuclear program. In 2013, Russia and the United States collaborated to eliminate some of Syria's chemical weapons. Russia has widened its relationships in the Middle East. It is an efficient supplier of natural gas to Europe. At times, Moscow cooperates with the UN Security Council and as a security force in Darfur, although at other times it does not. For example, it did not cooperate on humanitarian access in Syria. Russia and Europe are of one mind in urging the Trump administration to extend the U.S.-Russian New START Treaty.

In recent years, however, Russia has become less cooperative and pursued more autarky. Its aggression in Ukraine led to Western sanctions that may have cost Russia over six percent of GDP. Election interference in western democracies and support for the Assad regime have spurred even more sanctions. In banning some Western organizations as “undesirable” and cutting in U.S. educational exchanges the Kremlin reduces global awareness among Russians. Sports doping has sidelined many Russian Olympic athletes.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at nationalinterest.org.

William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, and a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Howard J. Shatz is a senior economist at RAND.

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