This post is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22nd.
The restoration of Moscow’s Cold War-era power has been a near-obsessive concern for the Kremlin for the past decade and more. The Russian Federation is now a G-8 power, and Russia’s official plans envision a Russian economy that is to be one of the world’s top five (along with America, China, India, and Japan) by 2020. But these astonishingly ambitious goals are ungrounded—they do not take measure of the adverse trends undercutting Russia’s prospective international influence in the years ahead.
"A more powerful but unfriendly Russia could pose America and the West with plenty of problems."–Nicholas Eberstadt
Consequently, the question for Washington in the years ahead may not be how to deal with a rising Russia—but to the contrary, how to deal with a progressively weaker Russia: an autocratic but failing Russia, one armed with nuclear weapons.
Russia’s economic capabilities—the backbone for economic power on the modern world stage—have always been over-rated. In reality, post-communist Russia’s total merchandise exports (including energy, gold, and the like) has never yet matched Belgium’s in any calendar year. With a workforce whose death rates are worse than India’s and a technological base that barely produces as many annual patents as the state of West Virginia, its economic potential is limited—and over the next 20 years, Russia’s working age population (15-64 years of age) is projected to shrink by almost 20 percent.
Given this grim arithmetic, Russia’s share of the world economy would seem almost irrevocably on track to decline over the next two decades—and perhaps to decline precipitously. Since economic potential is the underpinning of state power in the modern world, such trends would seem to presage a weaker international Russia—perhaps a much weaker one. Yet the Kremlin today, and perhaps tomorrow, is convinced it is on the ascent—and has a nuclear arsenal it expects to rely upon to guarantee against any reversals of fortune. Indeed, official Russian policy papers explicitly state that Moscow will consider using nuclear options at ever lower thresholds if need be to guarantee what the Kremlin determines to be the nation’s security.
A more powerful but unfriendly Russia could pose America and the West with plenty of problems. But there is a real chance in the years ahead that we may instead confront a *weaker* Russia: controlled by an ambitious and aggressive directorate surprised by the course events are taking, and not shy about resorting to nuclear diplomacy.
Will the next president be ready to face such an eventuality?
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI