The recent return of Russia to great power status under Vladimir Putin is one of the miracles of the twenty-first century. In 1991 the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the Cold War made any rebound seem highly unlikely. Many writers such as Frances Fukuyama asserted that that the future belonged to capitalist democracies.
Russia also had many weaknesses. Defeat in the Cold War lost it 2.5 million square miles of territory and 250 million people (150 million in 14 new republics, 100 million in formerly Soviet dominated Eastern Europe). It suffered a mass emigration of millions of people. With a male life expectancy in the low 60s, the population declined almost every year. Russia had never undergone a consumer revolution, an agricultural revolution or significant in-migration. The state controlled economy had no experience with capitalism or democracy. Russia lacked a competitive Silicon Valley. Having lost much of its better territory, Russia was left with millions of square miles of tundra and taiga as a higher percentage of its land.
The first decade of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin was another disaster. The defeat in Chechnya in the mid 1990s, the weak performance of the Yeltsin leadership and disintegrating economy reinforced the view that all was lost. There was no sense of direction provided by Moscow. Relations with many formerly strong allies of Russia seemed to fade.
When Vladimir Putin became the leader of Russia in 2000, few believed that this relatively obscure leader could make a great difference. But, by dumping remnants of the Communist past for a new form of authoritarian nationalism, he is in tune with international trends. He has revived state support for once vilified major religions including Russian Orthodoxy and Islam. For Jews there was good relations with Israel, regular talks with the Chief Rabbi and support for a new Jewish Museum. Putin even asked Jews to return to Russia and visited Israel twice.
He has hailed Joseph Stalin (47% popularity rating) and the Soviet victories in the Great Patriotic War. In a country that is a petro-state, he was lucky to see the price of oil and gas soar in his first decade before it went down in the next decade.
He has used Russia’s traditional assets—high technology, weapons, and centrally directed finances. Russia’s 7,000 atomic bombs match those of the United States and are 30-40 times more than the United Kingdom, France or China. Putin has a first rate military and is a major exporter of arms. It has a highly developed military-industrial complex where behind closed doors one million often highly talented scientists, engineers and technologists toil. Russian money is spent liberally on the government. Its Foreign Ministry, which I have visited, is first rate.
He has benefited from the paucity of rivals. Many countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy and Japan, were once major powers, but now are middle ranking powers. China (11 trillion dollar GDP) will some day be a great power but, it will take several more decades with a huge population and 750 million peasants. India also will likely get there but with huge overpopulation, low GDP/capita (under $2,000) and massive environmental degradation, take 30-40 more years. That leaves Russia today with few rivals besides the United States.
Putin has been shrewd in working with authoritarian states. He has revived domestic support and foreign interest by winning back small parts of the former empire in Southern Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea and a spectacular victory abroad in Syria. Foreign Secretary Sergeii Lavrov’s first rate department and the capable military with were especially helpful. Especially with the United States under Presidents Obama and Trump seemingly retreating from parts of the world, the door was open for Putin.
He worked hard on cementing relations with traditionally friendly powers such as India, Cuba, Syria, North Korea and Egypt. Then he patched up relations with such key countries as China, Germany and Saudi Arabia (arms deal) and developed new relations with important countries such as Israel, Iran and Turkey. Putin also focused on improving relations with former Soviet satellites suchas Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania and focused on neglected Latin American countries such a Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.
For all these reasons Putin has done the seeming impossible—bring Russia in only two decades back to being the number 2 power in the world.