Can Russia become a superpower?

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June 21, 2016 – 

Ivan Proshkin, PolitRussia – 

Translated by J. Arnoldski

The other day at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Vladimir Putin commented on the current geopolitical situation. The President of Russia stated that Russia is not a superpower: “America is a great power. Today, it is probably the only superpower. We accept this.”

The words of the head of the Russian state provoked a lively response from among many of our patriotic citizens who hurled criticisms in the style of “Putin ditched!” at the president. Abstracting from any kind of emotional evaluation of the president’s words, let’s look at this situation objectively.

What is a superpower? Russian Wikipedia offers the following definition: “A superpower is a very powerful state with enormous political, economic, military, and cultural potential which possesses superiority over the majority of other states, thereby allowing it to exercise hegemony not only in its own region, but even in the most distant points on the plant.” 

A superpower is able to spread its political, ideological, cultural, and economic influence on other countries, not only neighboring ones, but also those in other parts of the world. Thus, a superpower does not hesitate when it is necessary to use armed forces to promote its interests. In essence, “superpowerdom” in the modern world consists of several components. Among them are armed forces, veto power at the UN Security Council, economic strength, an ideology disseminated across the whole world, and an integration project or projects on a global scale. 

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Which of these components does modern Russia have? Only two: a powerful armed forces and veto power at the UN SC. The Russian armed forces, and everyone recognizes this, have come a long way in recent time, which has allowed them to once again become one of the strongest in the world. New models of vehicles, fire arms, ammunition, equipment and so on are being developed and put into service. Russia also remains the only power in the world which thanks to its nuclear triad has the ability to destroy the US, which since the “Cold War” has caused quite a lot of nervousness among the American high political and military establishment. Our “Western partners” recognize this, whose press constantly talks of a resurgent Russian army, and hence the increasing likelihood of “Russian aggression” against the Baltic states and Ukraine. With regards to the right to veto in the UN SC which we “inherited” from the USSR, Russia has successfully used this to our interests in the international arena by not allowing US and EU initiatives to be realized which could worsen our positions and the positions of our allies on some regional and global issues, such as the war in Syria.

As for the other points – ideological, integration, and economic – serious problems arise here. Let’s start with the economy. As is known, at the present moment the share of our country in the global economy is extremely low and our country is largely dependent on energy. The latter factor became one of the reasons for the financial crisis in 2014 produced by the double decline in oil prices. Thus, our economy still remains largely “opportunistic”, dependent on the dynamics of oil prices which have been successfully manipulated by Russia’s geopolitical rivals, the US and Saudi Arabia. In addition, high-tech manufacturing is still poorly developed in Russia, while on a global scale it is becoming all the more concentrated in China. In general, in order to strengthen our economy, the country needs to seriously reduce its dependence on energy and develop manufacturing sectors unrelated to the extraction and refining of oil. Sure, the Russian leadership perfectly understands this, but understanding is not enough. Rebuilding an economy is much more difficult, and rebuilding one during a crisis is even harder. Until then, Russia can’t be referred to as a superpower insofar as it will remain small in global economic terms as a country playing the role of one of the world’ hegemonies. At first, of course, it is possible that the more our armed forces are developed, in the long term we will be able to such squeeze out this “superpowerdom.”

The situation with ideology and integration projects is similar. For the last 25 years, Russia has painfully tried to comprehend itself, find a prosperous national idea, and understand who it actually is and what place it occupies in a rapidly changing world. The problem is that a national idea is a thing in itself which does not extent beyond the borders of the state which professes it. But if this idea does not go beyond the state, then how can it be national? In this respect, the Americans have acted wisely. For them, their national idea is liberalism and democracy, and they have successfully projected this idea on the entire world. 

Thus, the national idea of one state becomes a supranational idea of all humanity. Another issue is whether this idea might be bought to other peoples along with bombs and missiles, but this is another conversation. In Russia, there is no such national idea “in itself”, nor a national idea “outside of itself,” nor a supranational idea which would act as a unifying factor for the former USSR republics around Russia. The recent statement of Vladimir Putin that patriotism is Russia’s national idea is very doubtful in the sense that neither a superpower nor even a regional power can be built along such lines. The Soviet Union had its own state ideology of the liberation of the oppressed proletariat from bourgeois slavery, and equality and brotherhood for all, and this idea was successfully projected on a good half of the globe. To this were added a powerful armed forces and a strong economy. However, it was ideology which formed the foundation of this “superpowerdom” and cemented those pursuing the socialist path of state development around the world around the USSR.

The same goes for integration projects. At the present moment, Russia does not have integration projects of a global trajectory, but merely regional ones. The Customs and Eurasian Unions aimed at the post-Soviet space are considered to be Moscow’s sphere of influence. The problem is that the project competing with the Customs and Eurasian Unions, the European Union, draws more sympathy among some post-Soviet countries than the Russian project. In particular, this is due to the higher living standards in the EU which bears the idea of the “European dream” advertised to the masses of post-Soviet states. Although this dream itself is largely a fairy tale rather than an ideological stamp, it must be admitted that it is working successfully. A typical example is Ukraine. At the present moment, Russia cannot boast a high standard of living, which results in the low popularity of its integration projects in comparison to the European and global liberal-democratic American ones. And here, once again, is the issue of the economy. 

Thus, considering all of these factors, it can be said that Russia is not yet reached the level being a world superpower which can dictate its indomitable will to the rest of the world community. Why has this reality caused such a negative response from ordinary people? Because for many, the role of Russia as an “ordinary country” is unacceptable and does not correspond to the real scale of Russia and its history. These people are largely correct insofar as the current situation of Russia does not correspond to its potential. But what did Putin say? Did he say that Russia will never become a superpower? Not at all. The president never said this. The head of state’s point was that Moscow recognizes that the United States possesses hegemony on a global scale. “But we don’t need them to constantly intervene in our affairs, point to us how to live, and prevent Europe from building relations with us,” he emphasized.

Moreover, if we are not currently a superpower, then this means that we can become one. Thus, in many ways, the president’s words are directed towards us, ordinary Russians. We are part of Russia. What the country will be tomorrow depends on each one of us. We, the Russian people, are building a superpower. And the Russian people includes the “John Smith” next door, officials, and even Putin himself. Therefore, the success of all of Russia depends on each of our successes. Russia, undoubtedly, should become one of the leading world powers in the future multipolar world. 

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