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Russia: Not The Super Power It Once Was

By Ashely Wiederhold

Showdown, revival, and aggression-- all of these words that have been used to describe Russia in the news over the last few months. First, Russia made headlines with the Syria Crisis, then the Sochi Winter Olympics, and now the Ukraine Crisis. Some experts have begun to debate whether Russia is on the rise toward becoming a superpower once again, comparing the country to its height during the Cold War. Despite recent Russia's rise to notoriety on the world stage, the country is not going to regain superpower status anytime soon. 

Alice Lyman Miller, who has done research on foreign policy and domestic issues in China as well as on international relations of East Asia, wrote that a superpower must have four axes of power: military, economic, political, and cultural. Does Russia meet these requirements?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there has been one global superpower in the world: The U.S. Though it may be true that Russia has made efforts in the last decade, they are nowhere close to where they were during the Cold War, when they competed with the U.S. as global superpowers. The population of Russia has declined since the fall of the USSR, and many young Russians are emigrating. The economy of Russia also has become more dependent with the rise in oil exports, creating a reliance on trade with Germany, Britain, and France. The purchasing power parity of Russian GDP is still 7th in the world, compared to the United States, which remains number one. 

In recent years, Russia has tried to demonstrate influence in its region of the world. Russia's involvement in Syria drew global attention, as it helped draft the chemical weapon deal in the war-torn country. Ulimately, Russia was responsible for seeing it out. However, this influence is not likely to expand very far. The simple fact is that Russia is not politically or culturally desirable to other regions of the world.

The country has caught a lot of attention over the past year for their suppression of homosexuals. In June, the lower house approved a bill that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” The anti-gay propaganda law has been criticized by the global community, especially during the time of the Sochi Olympics, when there was so much focus on the country. 

Russia's violent and brutal crackdown on LGBT people, including its youth, paints Putin as an evil leader against human rights. When it comes to striking new business deals, world leaders shy away from working with outright human rights abusers.

Even if Russian leaders was able to appeal to the global community, culturally and politically, they still have troublesome demographic issues within their own borders. The population in Russia is only 143 million with a life expectancy that seldom exceeds 75 for women and 63 for men. The numbers in Russia are dropping, and quality of life is currently less than desirable. The OECD gives Russia an abysmal rating in health and civic engagement. Putin's anti-gay policies have been credited with contributing to the rise of HIV/AIDS in the country. News coverage of corruption in Russian local and federal politics is ever-present.

Russia must address these issues within their own state before they gain superpower status. This means improving healthcare, improving working conditions, or repurposing their money toward better food sources. While a large check of 31 billion dollars on the Sochi Olympics helped make Russia seem like an up-and-coming global center, the reality of daily life in the country proves otherwise.

Putin himself, in an annual address to parliamentarians and senior national officials last week, said “We do not aspire to be called some kind of superpower, understanding that as a claim to world or regional hegemony…We do not infringe on anyone’s interests, we do not force our patronage on anyone, or try to teach anyone how to live.”

While it may be that Putin is covering hidden motivations, it is unlikely that Russia would be able to retain superpower status even if they wanted to. The U.S. will remain the sole global superpower for the foreseeable future.

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Ashely Wiederhold is a graduate student at NYU. 

[Photo Courtesy of CSIS PONI, Marco Fieber]

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