Sunday, June 22, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia Further from Superpower Status than When Putin Came to Power

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 22 – With the occupation of Crimea and with the encouragement of the Kremlin, many Russians believe they are on their way to becoming a super power once again, but the most thoughtful among them recognize that Russia lacks two if not three of the elements a super power must have.

            For a country to have that status, bombast is not enough. Instead, it needs an advanced economy, an ideology attractive to many people around the world, and a military that can rely on more than just a nuclear arsenal.  Russia falls short in each of these sectors but has in fact on certain measures has fallen further behind than it was when Vladimir Putin came to power.

            Three articles in the Moscow media over the last several days make that clear. On Thursday, the editors of “Nezavisimaya gazeta” pointed out that the share manufactured goods form of all Russian exports has fallen from almost nine percent when Putin became president to only “a little more than four percent” now (

            Rather than develop the economy and produce goods the world wants to buy, Russia under Putin has increasingly relied on the sale of largely unprocessed natural resources like oil and gas.  Twenty years ago, foreign sales of these resources formed 43 percent of Russia’s exports; as of 2011, they represented “more than 70 percent.”

            “To acknowledge this technological degradation,” the paper says, “is of course unpleasant, all the more so because it contradicts the official slogans about high-technology production, modernization and innovation.  But it is senseless to argue with official statistics” on this point.

            Changing this trend won’t happen just because the Kremlin orders it, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” says. Rather, it will involve “a long path of integration with the leading Western companies which have contemporary technologies and standards.” Any hope to do it without such partnerships is “utopian,” as is the hope that China will become a large purchaser of anything but oil and gas.

            “Moreover, under the new economic conditions, when the United States is pursuing the economic and technological containment of Russia, stimulating exports of other than raw materials will become an even more difficult task,” the paper concludes.

            In a commentary in “Novaya gazeta,” Yulia Latynina underscores this point, arguing that there are compelling reasons why countries with large supplies of raw materials available for expert may enjoy influence as a result but also why none of them, including Russia, can ever be a super power on that basis alone (

            Throughout modern times, several countries using their natural resources alone appeared to be on the road to super power status: Peru with its guano, Brazil with its rubber, and the Arab states with their oil reserves.  But not one of them made it, Latynina points out, because they failed to use their earnings in this sector to develop others or failed to recognize that what had made them influential would not last.

            But one country, which began with a monopoly on the production of oil, did become a super power because it has “a different social structure.”  Unlike the others, the Americans did not call on their government to make oil and gas state-protected monopolies but rather kept them in the private sector and engaged in tough competition.

            As a result, and in sharp contrast to the other resource “super powers,” the US did not suffer from the “resource curse” that they did but has developed in a wide variety of sectors, she argues. That has not prevented but rather helped the US to produce more natural gas than any other country and to be on its way to surpass Saudi Arabia in the production of oil by 2015.

            Despite strength in this area, Latynina says, “it has never come into anyone’s head to speak about the US as ‘a raw materials super power.’”  On the one hand, oil and gas are only a small part of a large and dynamic economy.  And on the other, the US lacks a Gazprom, “an individual or group of people who increase their wealth via non-economic means” and argue that “for the ‘national security’ of the country, the state must subsidize the import of slaves or the construction of pipelines.”

            And in a third article, this one  in “Inache,” analyst Denis Kazansky argues that Russia is moving away from super power status not only in the economy but in ideology and even military capacity as well (

                He does so by asking the rhetorical question: “Which Russia would be more undesirable for the United States, the one that launches sputniks or the one where Orthodox fundamentalism flourishes?” One that uses the Internet or shuts itself off from that resource? The answer is obvious, Kazansky suggests.

            Indeed, he argues, if the West really wants to hurt Russia, it would gain more from “supporting not Navalny but Prokhanov who talks about how good it would be to make Russia into a North Korea.” That, of course, is not what the West is doing. Instead, it is what Putin and the Kremlin leadership are.

            The United States and other Western countries are very unhappy about the outburst of chauvinism and authoritarianism in Russia rather than supporting those things because they are weakening Russia. But of course, Kazansky says, the West doesn’t need to “covertly finance” the Black Hundreds and the neo-Soviets, Putin is doing it on his own.

            And if this continues, he suggests, Russia which once led the space race will never do so again, a development that will ultimately undercut Moscow’s claims of having recovered super power status, however many nuclear weapons it may be able to maintain.   

            With regard to that arsenal, in fact, there are growing questions about just what state it is in.  According to one report which cites Russian nuclear specialists, “no fewer than 47 percent” of nuclear warheads are nearly obsolete and “no fewer than 30 percent” of Russian ICBMs need immediate maintenance (

            What must be especially galling about that among Russian commanders and political leaders is the fact that at present, the only people who can do that kind of work are Ukrainian specialists, a group that is probably less likely to be willing to help Russia now than at any time in the history of the two nations.

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