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Should Russia Claim Great Power Status

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Sergei Kortunov
Moscow, Russia (RIA Novosti) Sep 25, 2006
Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting of a group of Western political analysts participating in the Valdai Discussion Club: "I wouldn't like to use the terms of the past. 'Superpower' is a term we used during the Cold War. What do we need such terms as 'power' and 'superpower' for?"

Some Russian and Western media interpreted these words as Russia's decision to abandon superpower ambitions. Political analysts concluded that the Russian ruling elite was not thinking about Russia's greatness and reconstruction.

But the transcript of Putin's speech, which has been published since then, shows that the president was speaking about Russia's great opportunities in the energy sector, although he refused to apply the term "superpower" to energy relations either. "You have probably noted that I have never said Russia is an energy superpower," he said. "However, we have more opportunities than any of the world's countries. This is an obvious fact."

The question merits serious analysis. Should Russia claim a superpower status, or reclaim the status of the former Soviet Union so as to challenge the Untied States, another superpower?

No matter what we may think about the Soviet Union, its dissolution in December 1991 inspired a feeling of loss in the overwhelming majority of Russians and people of the post-Soviet states. They think we have lost a great and powerful state.

On the other hand, few people want the USSR to be reconstructed in its old form. Polls show that most Russians do not want Russia to regain the superpower status if this is accompanied by a deterioration in their living standards. This is why the number of advocates of reunification with the CIS countries has been falling in the past decade.

But the majority of the people and the political elite would like Russia to be respected in the world, which explains the noticeable growth of great power sentiments in society and growing interest for discussions of "sovereign democracy", "energy superpower" and other related issued conducted by political analysts and experts.

The root cause of this is not the nostalgia for the old superpower, the Soviet Union, although it is a factor. The events of the 1990s and the early 21st century, specifically the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. occupation of Iraq and recurring Western interference in the affairs of the CIS and Russia, are seen by many as proof that the West respects only economic and military might. Therefore, the potential loss of the great power status is regarded as the loss of independence and the ability to influence other countries and internal developments.

But is Russia a great power? The possibility has been questioned in the West and in Russia, usually on the back of its economic performance, share in global profits and trade, the structure of foreign economic relations, per capita GDP, economic structure, and the like.

Russia is far behind the industrialized countries on these counts (it is 46th in per capita GDP). As for the sustainable economic growth, it is explained, with good reason, by super-high world prices of energy resources.

However, the West has admitted Russia - not Brazil, Indonesia, India or China - to the G7 group of the world's leading countries in recognition of its political weight and potential economic might.

Russia is a great power in terms of its political importance, intellectual might and influence on global affairs, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and corresponding responsibilities. Apart from this, as well as the geopolitical situation and the existence of nuclear weapons (Russia is a military superpower without a doubt), other proof of Russia's great power status are its current and future opportunities of a resource provider, its hard-working and intellectual population, and the high scientific and technological potential.

These factors (territory, technological and human potential, and the existence of nearly all types of raw materials and resources) objectively make Russia a major world power.

Russians are well-educated and cultured people, with a major share of qualified professionals and specialists. Russia therefore is an industrial (and partly post-industrial) country, some of whose elements were created by Soviet defense industries. Russia's workforce differs from the developing countries' labor force, but is quite similar to the Western workforce. It has the same type of skilled workers, machines and technologies.

But the trouble is that Russia has a different mentality, culture of employer-employee relations and social structure (mostly for historical reasons), which prevents it from attaining Western productivity.

So Russia is a great power facing major economic problems provoked by changes in its economic, geopolitical and geoeconomic situation and transition to a new type of social development. The maintenance and mobilization of internal reserves promise a potential economic rehabilitation and transition to a stage of sustainable, innovation (post-industrial) development. Changes in the world, which are mostly positive, provide preconditions for attaining this goal.

Russia can attain and better the high Western results in absolute output. If, however, this does not happen overnight, the situation should not be dramatized. The loss of the superpower status has not stripped Russia of a chance for social progress and prosperity. Moreover, it can stimulate them.

Putin has said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. It was also a national catastrophe. There are three types of such catastrophes. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe involving a shift and, to a degree, an inversion. But it cannot be described as an exhaustive catastrophe because it can be remedied.

Russia has the means to guarantee its survival, national security, social development, human dignity, fundamental rights and liberties, and the wellbeing of the individual and his family. The fight for global leadership, such as between the Soviet Union and the Untied States, entailed major outlays. Ensuring national security and development is a much less costly undertaking but it is the underlying principle of survival. As for the idea of global geopolitical and territorial expansion, the Russian people have had enough of it.

So, should Russia claim the great power status or not? Yes, it should. It need not claim the role of "superpower" competing with the U.S. on a par, because the term withered away when the Cold War ended, as Putin has said correctly. Rather, it should claim an equitable role in the group of the world's top five countries, and not because it wants it. This is an objective and logical process, which cannot be disregarded.

Sergei Kortunov is deputy chairman of the panel of experts at the upper house's committee on international affairs.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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