Putin’s war in Ukraine jeopardizes Russia’s centuries of great power status

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Russia’s attack on Ukraine has had a profound impact on European security and politics. Russia also risks emerging from the war weaker and more isolated than in the recent past. While Russia will retain instruments of power, the rest of the world may pay less attention. Something is loading.

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Question: Is Russia still a great power?

That the question needs to be asked suggests a dramatic transformation of European politics.

Russia has been a great power in one form or another since the 17th century, with the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union playing a key role in European politics.

And yet, Russian power and influence have declined in the past; the first 20 years of the 20th century represented a nadir in Russian power, as the Russian Empire lost most of its western territories after suffering a series of defeats at the hands of Japan, Germany and Poland.

The Russian Revolution also undermined the soft power that the Russian tsars had so carefully built over the centuries, even though the Soviet Union would eventually develop its own ideological appeal. The collapse of the USSR imposed severe limitations on Russia, but an economic and political revival in the 2000s once again made Moscow a center of global influence.

So now, with the year-long Russian-Ukrainian war, is Russia still among the most powerful nations in the world?

Russia as a military power: is Moscow disappearing? Russian soldiers in World War II uniforms march through Dvortsovaya Square in St. Petersburg in January 2019. Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky

By virtue of its size and its heritage, Russia is unquestionably an important military power.

Its conventional air and ground forces are large and reasonably sophisticated. But at the same time, in conventional terms, Russia has clearly become a second-rate power, significantly inferior to China, the United States and the accumulated military capabilities of the European Union.

Russian ground forces cannot destroy the Ukrainian army on the battlefield, and its air forces cannot impose air supremacy over the country. In the maritime realm, the Russian Navy seems unlikely to recover from its post-Soviet state of decay anytime soon.

Russian surface naval construction has completely collapsed, and given the demands of the war in Ukraine, it seems unlikely that Russian sea power will receive much attention from the Kremlin. Worse, Russia’s access to two of the four main areas of influence (the Baltic and the Black Sea) is now deeply questioned.

Russia’s nuclear weapons remain its most important military advantage. Russia has nothing worse than the second deadliest nuclear arsenal in the world. Even as Russia fought hard to impose its will on Ukraine, nuclear weapons kept NATO on the sidelines. But Russia’s advantage here is most likely waning.

China is building up its nuclear forces, mostly in reference to the United States, but implicitly a signal that Beijing is no longer interested in second-tier nuclear status. The invasion of Ukraine dashed hopes that Britain or France might give up their own nuclear weapons, and spurred states like Japan and South Korea to join the nuclear club.

So, while Russia will remain powerful, it looks to a future where it is a less prestigious member of a bigger club.

Russia’s waning economic power Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker Arktika leaves St Petersburg for sea trials in December 2019. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov

Russia’s trade prospects have surely diminished since the start of the war. If exporting energy and resources to its current partners was more profitable than exporting to Europe, the change would have happened a long time ago.

Sanctions have not cut off Russia’s war machine and inflicted only moderate damage to its national economy, but by erecting a barrier between Russian industry and the global tech economy they have surely limited the Russia’s long-term economic growth prospects.

At the same time, financial sanctions have limited the options for Russian capital and for foreign investment.

And yet, Russia still has a great economy and enjoys an abundance of resources. Whether it can regain some industrial might is a different matter, and likely depends on how deep the ties Russia can become with the economies of China, India and the rest of its near abroad.

If Russia wants to continue to be a great power, apart from just an influential regional state, it must do something to improve the state of its high-tech industries.

Political and Social Putin Putin and other CSTO leaders in Armenia in November. Hayk Baghdasaryan/Photolure via REUTERS

It is difficult to assess the extent of Russia’s diplomatic and political influence in the world.

The war against Ukraine has undoubtedly damaged Russia’s reputation in some parts of the world, particularly in Europe, but it has had less impact in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. The ideological evangelization of Russia, with Putin portraying the regime as a beacon against liberalism, has also found ready supporters in the West and elsewhere.

Regionally, Russia certainly hasn’t abandoned its dreams of empire, and even though Central Asia has drifted since the start of the war, Moscow’s influence has remained.

A country the size of Russia that can maintain a hegemonic position over the politics and economy of many of its neighbors is almost by definition a great power. And of course, Russia retains a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, which remains a real diplomatic asset and a key indicator of great power status.

What fate for Russia? Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Putin to Beijing in May 2017. Thomson

But is Russia a great power if it cannot even crush its neighbor without the help of China?

The war between Russia and Ukraine is not over, and Russia can still win by imposing its will on kyiv and by extension on the West.

Russian nuclear weapons are going nowhere, and Russia still has an important contribution to make to parts of the global economy. Russian soft power remains strong in some parts of the world and in some corners of its most staunch enemies.

Nevertheless, a defeat in Ukraine may well signal that the world no longer needs to pay too much attention to the Russian phenomenon. This, more than anything else, could force Russians to accept Vladimir Putin’s regime.

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon in 1997 and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of “Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force” (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), “the Battleship Book” (Wildside, 2016), “Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology” (University of Chicago, 2020), and more recently “Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages” (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also founder and editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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