Throughout history, states recognized as exercising the greatest influence in the international system have been referred to as “great powers”. While the true origins of this concept are debated, it was formalized in Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, and a multipolar structure continued until the end of World War II. A largely bipolar system then emerged between the only two states still capable of claiming large-scale influence in the world, the United States and the Soviet Union, and the extreme difference in power projection capabilities between them and the rest of the world led to the emergence of the concept of “superpower” as a means of further distinguishing them from the traditional great powers.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was able to maintain a position of relative hegemonic unipolarity for about a quarter of a century. However, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the increasingly controversial relations with China and the US response to these developments indicate that we have entered an era of renewed competition from the great multipolar powers. While the term “superpower” has always been vague in its definition, the United States certainly retains a level of influence that surpasses any potential rivals. China’s vast military and economic assets, as well as its political culture, make it the second most powerful state in the world.
Russia’s position in the post-2014 world remains inconclusive. Although generally considered to be behind the United States and China in the world, Russia has one of the largest and most capable armies in the world and spends enormous resources on the development of power projection capabilities ranging from nuclear, hypersonic, space, computer and cybernetic operations. . Perhaps similar to a contemporary version of Prussia, the state maintains this while in the throes of an extremely small economy. While the Soviet Union also suffered, typically never producing more than half of the US economy per year, Russia has maintained an average of less than ten percent of US GDP over the past five years. While basic economic resources are only part of the equation for great power status, it is an extreme gap nonetheless. The Russian position is found in reverse to that of the European Union. Moscow’s tight budget is often used as the main argument for those who focus on the economy to point to the European Union as the truly third great power behind the United States and China, as Europeans can largely be equals. Americans and Chinese in the global economy. . However, just as Russia’s economy fails to match its military, the same can be said of the European Union’s martial competence compared to its economic position. The EU has virtually no hard power capacity as an institution. Despite this, Russian literature on its position in the world system frequently describes Russia and the EU as comparable great powers, often on the same ground as the United States and China. This assertion, reflected by both political and intellectual elites, testifies to the asymmetric ways in which an understanding of great power status can manifest.
This complexity is interesting to examine only by grassroots assets, but the willingness of a country’s political elite and public to continue its influence is another important measure of power, especially in the context of Russia. After 1991, Russia’s place in the international order and its relations with the West were hotly debated. While Westernists were initially favored in many ways, economic turmoil, the introduction of socially liberal values, and NATO’s expansion ultimately discredited those who sought to integrate into the Western world. Russia’s identity as a unique and sovereign great power, something that has roots extending from Peter the Great, the Napoleonic Wars and especially the Soviet Union, began to reappear and dominate influential circles. . As relations with the West began to stagnate during the 2000s and 2010s, it became clear in 2014 that Moscow was ready to assert itself militarily in the former Soviet space in opposition to Western institutions like the EU. and NATO.
Russia’s regional engagement is important to note, as regional spheres of influence are an essential part of great power claims. Observers with realistic tendencies sometimes argue that the European Union has established this as well, despite its conception of itself as an institution beyond the politics of power. This is particularly important from the Russian perspective of the EU’s Eastern Partnership program, which aims to strengthen relations between Brussels and several former Soviet republics. The influence of Western institutions in the region has been a major concern for Moscow and a reason for the plethora of frozen conflicts in the region. While wars with Russia or with Russian-backed groups and the creation of rump states along the border have led many neighboring populations to view Moscow with contempt and often heightened their commitment to the West, From a geopolitical standpoint, Moscow’s actions may also have strengthened a sphere of influence. Although Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine remain sovereign states with a negative view of Russia, they are unlikely to be accepted into the European Union or NATO due to the interest shown in them. regard by Moscow. The European Union and NATO expressly defend the right to sovereignty of an independent state, but also understand the policy of regional power and are rather hesitant to provoke Russia by expanding strongly in this sensitive region, which therefore gives in Moscow a de facto hold over the future of the region. This goes without mentioning Russia’s relatively successful regional integration networks with friendlier post-Soviet states, namely the Eurasian Economic Union, which may constitute a more traditional understanding of a sphere of influence.
Despite exploring grassroots economic and military strengths, as well as spheres of influence, we still face uncertainty. If regional influence is important, are states like Brazil great powers? Does China have a real sphere of influence? Iran has a will to power as well as notable regional influence, but its inclusion as a great power is very rare.
This leads to what is probably the most important factor in understanding great power status, which is that great powers seem to recognize themselves in the international system. States like Brazil and Iran have not been recognized by the United States, China and others as some of the most influential sovereign actors. In this regard, Russia has had a mixed experience, particularly during the 1990s and 2000s. President Obama notoriously referred to Russia as a mere “regional power” after its actions towards Ukraine in 2014, and the country did not. no shortage of comments on its stagnant economy. Nevertheless, Russia has managed to maintain a level of international reputation similar to that of a great power. Moscow is a hard line on the United Nations structure precisely because of its position as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, often used as a point of reference for today’s major powers. Russia was also invited to the G7, becoming the G8 from 1997 to 2014, a group generally considered to represent the most powerful states in the western and developed world. Likewise, Moscow has been an important player in the development of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), seen at its peak as a grouping of the most powerful non-Western states. Russia was also represented in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations for an Iran nuclear deal in 2015, which were limited to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, at the ‘Germany and the European Union. While it is difficult to say whether Russia has precisely the same capacity to influence the world as the United States and China, it seems to be recognized by these states as worthy to sit alongside them in exclusive global decision-making processes. It may also explain an important reason why Moscow and Beijing have been happy to forge closer ties in recent years. While Russia is drawn to China for economic reasons, China seems to view Russia as the friendliest state with “high status” in the international community. Whether it objectively deserves to be included among these other states or not, Russia certainly recognizes the drastically increased level of influence it acquires by being able to assert the image of a great power. The fact that Russia is asking to be treated as a great power also seems to encourage the proliferation of this image within the international community, advancing a cycle in which belief becomes reality. This is even more evident after the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva this year, in which President Biden squarely reversed Obama’s position and publicly declared that the United States and Russia were “great powers.” If power is defined by its influence over the actions of others, then having the most powerful state in the world to proclaim yourself equal is certainly powerful.
It is perhaps through this area, the synthesis of the will to power with the influence of international recognition, that Russia finds its most salient argument for being considered a great power.
Sven Etienne Peterson is a graduate student in Central and Eastern European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow, the University of Tartu and the National Academy of the University of Kiev-Mohyla.