It depends on what makes a superpower. If we judge Russia on its economic performance, military prowess and technological development, the country is well behind the United States. But the superpower status that the United States enjoys in these regards is unlikely to be meaningful in a vacuum of norms and rules which have defined the postwar international system. If Putin’s KGB career has taught him anything, it is how to exploit others’ weaknesses to his benefit. He knows how to deactivate America’s superpower advantages in such a way that Russia’s weaknesses don’t matter in his broader geopolitical strategy. It would be wrong to conclude that just because Russia does not meet many superpower criteria that it doesn’t pose a threat to liberal democracies or transatlantic peace and security.
Let’s consider some conventional parameters on which a country can be considered a superpower. If we look at publicly available development indicators from the World Bank, GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity is about 78 percent higher in the US than in Russia. The US exports almost 15 times more high tech products than Russia and produces almost 12 times as many scientific and technical journal articles. On average Russians live 9 years less than Americans, and face twice as many homicides.
US investment in military research and development still outpaces all other countries in the world—and outpaces Russia by 11 times. Beyond this common metric of military prowess, political scientist Barry Posen argues that the US has “command of the commons,” meaning that it gets “vastly more military use out of the sea, space, and air than do others; that it can credibly threaten to deny their use to others; and that others would lose a military contest for the commons if they attempted to deny them to the United States.” The US intelligence community has painstakingly accumulated a stock of information technology and highly trained personnel whose skills can’t be hacked or easily transferred elsewhere, helping secure the US’s military hegemony perhaps for decades to come.
Putin is keen on breaking this hegemony by striving for a multipolar world dominated by regional powers. He can’t threaten US hegemony with economic or military pressure, but he can go after hearts and minds in the west by deploying propaganda networks and funding populist parties on the far right and left across Europe. In doing so, fringe parties are emboldened in their message of cultural and economic protectionism, which helps fragment the EU and block trade agreements that bind societies through economic exchange. Donald Trump’s claim that NATO is “obsolete” helps fragment a defense alliance which has fostered 70 years of peace after a horrific world war. Fake news propagated by Kremlin trolls help citizens of western democracies question the legitimacy of their democratic processes, which clears the path to power for charismatic strongmen.
Why does Putin want this kind of world? His intentions in Georgia and Ukraine might symbolize revived imperialistic dreams. Alternatively, Russia’s inability to deliver the same level of economic growth that it delivered at home throughout the 2000s may have precipitated a new social contract with its citizens based on geopolitical greatness rather than enhanced wellbeing. Levada Center polls show that Putin’s approval ratings jumped by over 11 percentage points during his annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This suggests that Putin’s imperialist ambitions are but a strategy of authoritarian survival in bad economic times.
Whatever his motivations, it is easier for him to aggress without a unified block of liberal democracies to constrain his behavior. And it is easier for him to undermine the reigning superpower than build superpower capabilities at home. Political scientists Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth argue that the peace and stability of the current international system depends on the US’s willingness to maintain a “deep engagement” in the architecture of alliances it has helped construct and support over the last 70 years. Putin understands this. An economic and military powerhouse will no longer be so powerful if it sheds its economic ties, military commitments and the values of human liberty and dignity that undergird them. His strategy helps create the vacuum of norms that accelerates this abandonment.
Putin’s next land grab will likely be brushed away as a distant regional conflict of no relevance to the US national interest. The US’s non-intervention might even be applauded as avoiding another Iraq war. But burgeoning conflicts in a multipolar world—whether due to the whims of authoritarian populists, trade wars or broken alliances— are likely to affect US national security in unpredictable ways, and will be increasingly difficult to assuage. Having the economic and military hardware won’t be enough for the US to put out all the fires. If Putin is successful in upending the rules for the benefit of strongmen around the globe, it won’t be because Russia is a superpower or even a great power, but because the US will have turned its back on defending a rules-based world order.