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Is Russia Still a Great Power?

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By Attributed to Jean-Marc Nattier – The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77692552

1945 asked me to write on Russia’s great power status, and I mostly stuck to the practical side rather than interrogating what it means to be a “great power”:

Russia’s nuclear weapons remain its most important military advantage. Russia has no worse than the second most lethal nuclear arsenal in the world. Even as Russia has struggled mightily to impose its will upon Ukraine, nuclear weapons have ensured that NATO stays on the sidelines. But Russia’s advantage here is quite likely on the wane. China is building up its nuclear forces, primarily 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 has scotched thin hopes that either Britain or France might give up their own nukes, and has given states like Japan and South Korea more incentive to join the nuclear club.

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

Cue Yoda “power does not make one great.” Dan will have more to contribute on this as he has a better sense of the depth of the literature, but by most of the metrics that political scientists have used to measure historical power Russia still seems to qualify as “Great.” I’m not sure that could meaningfully end because of a defeat at the hands of Ukraine, just as I’m not sure that Russia ever quite left the ranks of great powers in 1917 or 1992. I struggle a bit to even imagine a world in which Russia is not “great,” but it feels as if it would require continued 1) demographic catastrophe, 2) sustained ineffectiveness of influence operations in the West and elsewhere, 3) an economic reformation which undercut Russia’s resource advantages, 4) and one of nuclear disarmament, nuclear obsolescence, or massive nuclear proliferation. At the moment we may be seeing the first and a bit of the third, but the second and fourth seem pretty far off.

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