Thirteen years ago, for example, the Atlantic published a cover story, “Russia Is Finished,” on “the unstoppable descent of a once great power into social catastrophe” and ultimately “obscurity.” That was a particularly bad year to predict Russia’s demise, as an economic revival was starting to take hold. And these days, Russia is proving itself to be anything but “finished” as a geopolitical actor, with its aggressive seizure of Crimea and its arming of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine—who appear to be responsible for the July shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet as it flew over rebel-held territory. Nor is Russia’s determined and so far successful backing of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and its nascent alliance with China based on a historic energy pact, suggestive of a nation that is no longer a consequential player on the world stage. Russia remains a risk-taking nation—and as questionable, even reckless, as its gambles may be, as in its support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine, this is not the behavior of a country destined for insignificance. And while there is a great deal that is second-rate about Russia, from its sagging transportation infrastructure to its shoddy health-care system, such blemishes, common to many nations, including the United States, are hardly evidence of a fatal malaise.
The interesting question, then, is what lies behind this unbalanced mind-set—what might be called the “Russia Is Doomed” syndrome. What is the source of such stubbornly exaggerated thinking—and why is Russia chronically misdiagnosed in this fashion?