Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is Russia Declining?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Is Russia Declining?

Article excerpt

My survey of Western scholars' writings on 21st century Russia demonstrates that the view that the largest of the 15 post-Soviet republics is a country in decline is not uncommon, though many advocates of this view do not specify exactly how they define Russia's decline or how, over what period of time and relative to what they have measured this decline. In 2002, for example, Thomas Graham of Yale University referred to "the precipitous decline of Russian power"1 and so did Olga Oliker and Tanya Charlick-Paley of RAND.2 Such assessments were justified at the time, in my view. After all Russia was then still recovering from the troubled decade of the 1990s, which saw the Soviet incarnation of the Russian empire fall apart and the national economy nosedive into a free fall. It was not until after the devaluation of the ruble and rebounding of oil prices in the late 1990s that the Russian economy started to grow consistently, fueling remarkable improvements in the economic, human capital and military components of Russia's national power.

Yet, in spite of these notable improvements, the dim view of Russia persisted. "Can we manage a declining Russia?" Richard Weitz of the Hudson Institute asked in a monograph published in 2011.3 Harvard University-based British historian Niall Ferguson proclaimed in 2011 that Vladimir "Putin's Russia is in decline" and on "its way to global irrelevance" even though the Russian state was growing economically, militarily, and demographically at the time.4 Ferguson's view of a Russia in decline was supported by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council in 20135 and then by John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago in 2014, even though the aforementioned growth continued.6 Ferguson's Harvard colleagues Joseph Nye and Stephen Walt held an equally dim view of 21st century Russia. "Russia is in long-term decline," Nye wrote in April 2015. 7 The same year saw Walt first declare Russia to be an "aging, depopulating, and declining great power,"8 and then ponder what would happen "if Russian power continues to decline." 9

Other Western thinkers who have pronounced Russia in decline in the 21st century include Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group10 and Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University.11 Moreover, some scholars believe that 21st century Russia is not just declining, but also nearing breakdown. For instance, Alexander Motyl of Rutgers University penned a piece in 2016 on what he defined as the "coming Russian collapse."12 In fact, that collapse has already begun, according to Lilia Shevtsova, a Russian scholar affiliated with the Brookings Institution. "Russia's agony has begun," Dr. Shevtsova proclaimed in a March 2015 article.13

More than a year after Shevtsova's diagnosis, however, that agony is yet to begin, which raises the question: Is Russia really in decline, teetering on the verge of collapse or even in agony, as some of the aforementioned scholars would have us believe? Or has it "not been in free fall" at all, remaining the Number 2 nation in the post-Cold War world, as Chin-Lung Chang of Taiwan's Fo-guang University claims?14 Or, perhaps, Russia did decline in the likhye (turbulent) 1990s, but then rebounded, "rising from its knees," during Vladimir Putin's presidency all while the West declined, which is what the Kremlin's spin doctors want us to believe? The answer to the question of whether Russia is a declining, stagnating or rising power is of fundamental importance for the global order because perceptions of change in Russia's standing relative to the West and the world as a whole shape great powers' policies toward Russia and Russia's own policies toward other countries. Therefore, I will lay out a way to measure Russia's standing in the world and relative to the West in this article.

Methodology and Research Design

This article will test the hypothesis that Russia has declined in the 21st century relative to the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, as well as the world as a whole. …

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