The Western image of Russia and Putin in recent years has been very negative. President Obama has publicly called Vladimir Putin a "schoolboy who slouches in his chair in the back of the room" and derided his country as a mere "regional power."
This begs the question: how Russia could again become a major power after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991? How could Putin do this without an agrarian or consumer revolution and with the massive drop in the price of oil? If Putin is a terrible leader, then how can you explain successful interventions in Georgia (2008), Crimea (2014), Ukraine (2014-2016) and Syria (2015-2016)?
Putin, however, is actually a very shrewd leader with a brilliant Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who relies on a capable Foreign Ministry. Putin has rebuilt Russia's military capability by spending $49B a year on security. Russia retains 1,790 strategic nuclear weapons. With over 140 million people and 13 million college graduates, Russia has nearly a million first-class scientists, engineers and technicians, most of whom work for the military.
Many former great powers are now no longer major powers. Japan, which smashed the Russian army in the 1904 Sino-Japanese War, occupied much of China from 1937-1945 and has a four trillion dollar economy is no longer a great power. After its defeat in World War II capped by the American dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and American post-war occupation, Japan has sworn off further intervention in the world and refused to acquire nuclear weapons.
Europe, which once teemed with great powers such as Germany, France, England and Austro-Hungary, now has gone in another direction. Germany soundly beat the Russians in every World War I battle and came close to doing the same in 1941 and 1942. Today with weak power projection the three main powers have less than 1,000 mainline battle tanks and few aircraft carriers. Weak economic growth (1.5%/year), disputes among its 28 members, migration from the Middle East, serious problems with weaker members such as Greece, promote domestic over international issues.
China, with its ten trillion dollar GDP, over two trillion dollars of exports, over three trillion dollars in its reserve fund, 1.35 billion people and 3.7 million square miles of territory, is a future great power. It has made huge economic progress since Deng Xiaopong launched the Four Modernizations in 1978.
Yet, its remaining problems are staggering: enormous air pollution, 675 million peasants, huge governmental corruption, authoritarian one party dictatorship, lack of rule of law, rapidly aging population, hundreds of thousands of children raising themselves and only $7,500 GDP/capita. Its military, while boosted by 150 billion dollars of spending, still needs another decade to become a truly modern force.
India has 20 percent illiteracy, 300 million people without electricity and a $1,300 GDP/capita that is less than three percent of the United States. It faces Pakistan soon with 200 atomic bombs. India, with over a billion people, will be a major power but not for several decades.
Then there is the United States, the sole global superpower since victory in the Cold War and one of two superpowers in the world since 1945. Its 18 trillion dollar economy, 17 of the world's top 20 universities, world leadership in high technology, over 550 billion dollars in military spending and 330 million people give it serious advantages over Russia. But, with the rise of popular neo-isolationist Presidential candidates, the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression, decline in its manufacturing sector, administration talk of reducing the size of the American military to the 1940 level, and the Obama semi-withdrawal from the Middle East, the door that had been shut to Russia has been open.
The unthinkable has become a reality. Russia, seemingly finished after its defeat in the Cold War, now is emerging as a prospective great power challenging the West. Russia has done the unthinkable--become a great power filling the void left by other former great powers that have now shrunk in size, power and influence.