Russian strength has shown itself to be so overrated that it gives us an opportunity to rethink what makes a power “great.” Going into the war, Russia’s military capabilities—including a large nuclear stockpile and what was thought to be one of the biggest and most-advanced armed forces in the world—were pointed to as the reason for its strength. What this war might be showing us, however, is that a military is only as strong as the society, economy, and political structure that assembled it. In this case, Russia was nowhere near a great power, but in fact a deeply flawed, in many ways weakening, state.
From this point of view, indeed, it can be seen as a power in relatively steep decline. Its economy is about the tenth largest in the world, comparable to Brazil’s, but even that masks how remarkably unproductive it is, basing most of its wealth on extracting and selling natural resources, rather than on producing anything advanced. When it comes to technology and innovation, Russia would hardly rank in the top 50 most important countries in the world.
Moreover, the Russian leadership, and most obviously its president—hailed in many quarters as a canny operator—has shown itself to be the head of a disastrously constructed state that fed misperceptions, stifled real debate, and allowed one man to launch this disaster. It’s odd that this is a lesson that we need to learn again and again: Dictatorial regimes tend to decompose the longer they stay in power, because appealing to the source of power becomes a higher priority to officials in all echelons of the state than simply doing a good job. Putin’s state fed his delusions and created an inefficient military, hobbled by corruption and inefficiency.