Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Dismissing Russia as a Declining Power in U.S. Strategy

Bad Ideas in National Security Series

Although the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) lists both China and Russia as the United States’ principal great power competitors, in practice China commands the lion’s share of attention from policymakers and much of the national security community. Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was clear on his desire to focus the Pentagon’s efforts on China. His predecessor, Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan, put it less eloquently as “China, China, China.” Some NDS authors — not satisfied with a China-heavy focus — want to center defense strategy even more specifically around a fight over Taiwan. These statements speak to a mindset that China is the real challenge and Russia is some much lesser temporal threat. Indeed, an earlier piece in this series argued that Russia “no longer qualifies as a ‘great power,’” and “great power competition” terminology is misleading because it conflates the threats posed by China and Russia.   

Admittedly, Russia is a relatively weak great power when compared directly to the United States and China. Whether one accepts the “great power competition” framework or not, China is rightfully placed at the top. But writing off Russia as a declining state or dismissing it as no longer a great power to focus exclusively on China is a serious mistake. Russia remains one of most assertive and powerful states in the international system, and should be regarded as an enduring strategic competitor. Russia is a different challenge than China, but it is not going to go away. Like China, Russia too should be considered a pacing competitor of a different kind. 

Russia is not a rising power, but it will not decline as a threat to the United States in any appreciable way in the near- or medium-term. Moreover, the declining power mantra is puzzling as a basis for defense prioritization since declining powers can be more dangerous than rising ones. The United States must not let its desire to focus efforts on China result in strategic malpractice by failing to account for a world with multiple competitors, including one in which Moscow and Beijing may collaborate to the detriment of U.S. efforts. Consequently, the United States needs to take Russia seriously. Moscow is an enduring great power and should continue to be a major factor in U.S. strategy. 

Russia retains the power to challenge or violently upend the security architecture of Europe. In military terms, it has the conventional military power to deter the United States, take on any coalition of lesser states, and use force successfully outside of its region to deny U.S. foreign policy prerogatives elsewhere (as Syria aptly illustrates). As a nuclear power, Russia is in a league only with the United States, with a much larger non-strategic nuclear arsenal to boot. Together the United States and Russia account for over 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Moscow also has a seat at the table in the world’s most significant international institutions like the United Nations Security Council. A conflict between the United States and Russia — or between Russia and an American ally — could have existential implications for the prevailing international order.

Instead of comparing Russia to the United States or China, the question is whether Russian power relative to that of U.S. allies is declining by any appreciable measure. Perhaps the strangest and most factually inaccurate strain in national security discourse on Russia is the notion that there is something deterministic about Russia’s demographic outlook, and its implications for state power. While Russia’s population is set to decline by approximately 7 percent (to 135 million) by 2050, it will remain the most populous country in Europe by a wide margin. Russia’s demographic decline is not just overstated, based on dated estimates, but it is unlikely to substantially constrain Russian power in any meaningful way. The demographic outlook for many of America’s allies, as well as China, is just as worrisome. The relevance of demographics to state power today is not a simple question: what matters is quality of human capital rather than quantity. Often it seems that Washington’s understanding of how to assess power, and what matters, is more suitable for the world of 1920, as opposed to 2020. In any case, Russia is not going to run out of people. 

Russia’s economy may appear one dimensional — depending heavily on resource extraction — but economic power speaks to potential, and even then crudely. In truth, the economic foundations of Russian power have often been weak compared to Moscow’s status ambitions. That said, Russia is not a one dimensional power. Simple GDP measures, based on market exchange rates, disguise the fact that Russia is one of the world’s largest economies with tremendous resources. For example, while many think tanks assess Russian defense spending at a mere $60 billion, a much more accurate way of comparing defense spending, which adjusts for purchasing power parity or PPP, illustrates that Russian military expenditure is in the range of $150-180 billion per year. 

The mismatch between Russian economic strength and apparent performance has engendered a mistaken perception that Russia is just playing a weak hand well, perhaps due to President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness. Individual leaders and their ideas matter, but the conventional wisdom has it backwards. Russia is much stronger, and more resilient as a power than it’s typically given credit, while its leadership is hardly a fountain of strategic aptitude. There is also little evidence that the significant disagreements over interests, values, and outlooks on how to order the world will disappear with a different Russian leader, or that a different regime in Moscow will embrace America’s view of the world. What the narrative on Russian decline gets wrong is Russia’s historic ability to resurrect itself after a period of stagnation, decline, or state collapse to rebuild state power and influence. U.S. defense thinking has fallen victim to the fallacy of secular trends: the belief that a rising China will stay rising and a stagnating Russia will continue to do so. Ironically, there is good evidence that China has tremendous structural weaknesses, which are commonly brushed aside, but in Russia’s case the same problems are viewed as somehow deterministic.

Russia is a different challenge than China, not a much lesser version of the same problem. Moscow is more interested in status as a great power and a seat at the deciding table, rather than the nature of the international order. Yet Russian elites will not accept a European security system determined by Washington and its allies. Russia is not an expansionist power, but it continues to fight for a geopolitical space outside its actual borders, seeking buffer states and a sphere of influence where its interests predominate. The Russian penchant for use of force in foreign policy, as well as its desire to check U.S. prerogatives abroad and aggressive employment of political warfare, will continue to pose a significant challenge to U.S. foreign policy. 
Not only can Russia sustain this confrontation, there is no evidence that Russian stagnation will result in a rout of Russian power or influence. Policymakers should remember that Moscow also gets a vote on where it falls among U.S. foreign policy priorities. The recent hack by Russian intelligence services — by all accounts an espionage operation of massive proportions — is a good reminder of this reality. This is why any strategic reformulation under the incoming administration should include a sustained approach to dealing with Russia, along with resources commensurate to the task.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed above should be understood to be solely those of the author.

Photo Credit: The Kremlin

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