These days seem so familiar to Americans of a certain age. Everywhere the talk is of Russia again. Russia has hacked into the DNC server. Russia is on the march in Ukraine and Crimea. Russia is thinking of threatening nearby Estonia or other Baltic states. The Russians are on the march in the Middle East. In Syria the Russians are battling for a peace agreement that would give Bashar Assad or his successor control of key parts of that country. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu talks on the phone weekly with Putin. Russians work with their allies in Iran and, at the same time, talk with Shiite Iran's enemies such as Sunni Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Even Donald Trump has gotten on board, with his sarcastic suggestion that Russia should find and turn over Hillary Clinton's deleted emails. And yet, when we look at Russia objectively, she seems far removed from superpower status. During the Cold War American GDP was only twice that of Russian GDP. Today, American GDP ($18 trillion) is a staggering 15 times greater than Russian GDP ($1.3 trillion). Even the German, British and French economies are two or three times bigger than the Russian economy. The United States has a strong First World economy of $52,000 GDP/capita. By stark contrast Russia is a Third World country with a GDP/capita of only $8,200. Its GDP/capita ranks Russia as the 65th country in the world. The Russian ruble, reflecting the massive decline in oil prices, has plunged from 45 rubles to the dollar in 2011 to almost 67 rubles/dollar today. In the political realm, authoritarian Russia has never experienced a revolution like the French, British or American Revolutions that laid the bases for creating democratic regime with the rule of law. It has missed agricultural and consumer revolutions that have pushed forward Western economies in their drive to be First World powers. So, how could such a poor country such as Russia emerge in the last decade as the #2 power in the world?
First, the world's leading countries outside the United States in the first half of the 20th century have mostly dropped out of contention on the world scene. Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy, have all (until the recent Brexit) gone into the European Union and ceased attacking each other as they had done for centuries. The European Union has been inwardly focused, rarely spending more than 2% of their GDPs on the military. Japan, whose GDP ranks fourth in the world at over $4 trillion, lost World War II and has a pacifist constitution. Only China ($10 trillion) is left besides the United States in the top 7 countries of the world in GDP. But it is plagued with huge problems: massive debts, terrible pollution, ghost towns, one-party rule, extensive corruption, and nearly 45 percent of the population still living in poverty in the countryside. China is limited to making aggressive moves in the nearby East China and South China Seas. This leaves only the United States as the world's major power for another decade or two. But President Barack Obama has pursued a strategy quite different that of his predecessors. We have witnessed the American semi-withdrawal from the vital Middle East, a sweetheart deal with Iran, failure of the reset with Moscow, unwillingness to seriously contest China's bid for dominance in nearby seas and proposals to reduce American military spending to the level of 1941. This American semi-withdrawal has opened the door for the Russians to come back into areas it had been in decades ago. Russia retains substantial assets from the Cold War period. It has a nuclear force of 1,800 strategic nuclear warheads, military budget of $80 billion and huge territory of 6.5 million square miles. Russia abuts Europe and Asia and has a well-educated population with 13 million college graduates. It has almost one million scientists, technicians and engineers who can compete with American technical capabilities. It has a first rate foreign ministry and excellent high-tech capabilities, as seen in its penetrating American and global high-tech infrastructures. In the emerging post-Cold War-era Russia, no matter how poor it is in many key areas, can be #2 in the world for many years to come. Only when China rises in the next 20 years or a new kind of President emerges in the United States will that change. Until then Vladimir Putin can play his games to his heart's content.