Russia is not the country you think it is. Its economy is smaller than South Korea’s. Its people are poorer than Kazakhstan’s. It trails Finland in technology. And it has a smaller military budget than Saudi Arabia.
For most of the 20th century, what Moscow thought and did mattered from Havana to Hanoi. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union left behind a battered, broken shell of a country. When the Berlin Wall fell, so did Russia’s status in the world.
A boozy Boris Yeltsin was a fitting representative for a country whose average life expentency tumbled a staggering five years in the wake of the fall. There were the coups, industrial collapse, spreading corruption, and shrinking borders. After generations of fearing the Soviet Bear, the West patted it on the head, sent it some aid, and turned its eyes with expectation towards the emerging powers of Brazil, India, and China.
But Vladimir Putin’s rise to power marked a sea change in Russia’s fortunes. How the world sees Russia began to shift. The often bare-chested leader consciously cultivated a new brand, for himself, and for the country. Putin’s new Russia was a country that mattered again.
Russia hosted the Olympics, punched Georgia in the nose, took back the Crimea, invaded Ukraine, flew bombers through NATO airspace, built military bases in the Arctic, and generally flexed and posed like an oiled, aged, but still buff, body builder. And we’ve been paying increasingly rapt attention, not noticing the geriatric walker hidden just off stage. A closer look is almost shocking.
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According to the International Monetary Fund’s most recent data, the Russian economy is approximately the same size as Australia and slightly smaller than South Korea. As an exporter, it is now less important than Belgium, Mexico, and Singapore.
And it is poor. The World Bank ranks Russia’s GDP per capita below Lithuania, Equatorial Guinea, and Kazakhstan. A larger proportion of its population lives below the poverty rate than in Indonesia, India, or Sri Lanka. It is ranked 67th in the world in the Global Competitive Index and 66th in the UN’s Human Development Index.
These economic woes are having serious social impacts. There are now fewer doctors than a decade ago. Life expectancy in Russia is nine years less than in the United States and is declining. Infant mortality rate is two to three times higher than most of the Western world. Its alcoholism rate is now the highest on the planet, three times North America’s; and consumption of alcohol has doubled in the past 20 years. Not surprisingly, the Russian statistical agency Rosstat has identified aging and shrinking demographics as the single biggest challenge facing the country over the next 30 years.
Intellectually, Russia is a distant speck in the rearview mirror. Once, esteemed Soviet universities educated the engineers and doctors of the developing world. Now, the United Nations ranks Russia’s education system behind nearly every other European country, and on par with the Pacific island of Palau. The technological leader that launched Sputnik now produces fewer patents per capita than Iceland. Its scientific publications are cited less often than Finland’s.
In nearly every indicator of health, wealth, and influence, Russia ranks below even the middle powers. What do they have left? Guns and bombs mostly. At 8,000 nuclear warheads, it still has 700 more than the United States. It ranks second globally for combat aircraft, military satellites, and nuclear submarines. Moscow’s military budget has increased every year since Putin’s arrival in 1999.
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But even these numbers are misleading. According to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Russia’s defense budget is still less than China, and Saudi Arabia. It is roughly on par with India, France, and the United Kingdom. And it is nine times smaller than the Pentagon’s budget.
The fact is, if it wasn’t for Syria, the Crimea, and some ageing warheads, Russia would get as much global attention as Slovakia or perhaps Wales. Not coincidentally, those are two nations that recently played Russia in the ongoing European soccer championship. In both cases, the results were resounding defeats for the Russians despite their opponents being one-twentieth and one-fortieth its size, respectively. In spite of these resounding defeats, which have relegated them to the bottom of the league tables, the Russian team, and its fans, still dominated the news.
When we talk about the Eurocup, we talk about Russian hooligans rioting in the stands, attacking other spectators, and even assaulting tourists on the trains home. Or we marvel at the belligerent response from Moscow when Igor Lebedev, the Deputy Chairman of the Russian parliament and a senior official in the Russian soccer official tweeted “I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting. Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!”
Lebedev understands a lesson that has been well taught by Putin: If you can’t compete on the field, make as much noise as you can off it. Russia is so far behind economically, technologically, socially, and politically, it just doesn’t matter anymore. But it can still get our attention, and it is.
When Russia next moves its tanks to the border, we should take it seriously. It has a lot of tanks (although less than Pakistan). But we should also remember that this is not a world power. By most indicators, it’s not even a middle power. Russia is a soccer hooligan: poor, drunk, and frustrated it can’t win anymore. It can only throw beer bottles from the bleachers.
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Scott Gilmore is a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, the founder of the nonprofit Building Market, and a former Canadian diplomat.