As noted by NBC News, in his recent press conference President Obama suggested that Russia was smaller and weaker than the U.S. Not exactly a diplomatic way of putting it, but effective when attempting to say that the Russians could only influence our election if we let them. Still, is this assessment of Russia accurate, and in what ways?
The Russian Population
While at one time Moscow controlled a much larger population, with all the other “republicans” of the USSR and the various Warsaw Pact powers under its sway, those numbers have dwindled significantly over the last few decades.
At its height, the USSR alone had 291 million people. But as Vanity Fair notes, Russia’s entire population is no more than 146 million –less than half that of the United States. Worse still for Russia and Vladimir Putin, the population of Russia is dropping like a stone.
If current trends continue, the Russians may have a population of less than 100 million. This is because Russia’s death rate so greatly exceeds its birth rate. And its infant mortality rate is outrageous. Not exactly superpower numbers.
The Russian Economy
In the Soviet era, the Russian economy was a sad, over-managed, poorly incentivized structure held together with spit and bailing wire. Generations of communist mismanagement had driven all vitality out of workers and management. What was the point of working if you didn’t profit from it?
With the collapse of the USSR in the ’80s and ’90s, the Russians under Boris Yeltsin made a stab and changing their economy. But they never quite got the hang of it. They failed to find a middle ground between state control and a wild west unregulated economy.
For a few years, it did look as through the sluggish and badly managed Russian economy might just be turning itself around. But that was an illusion caused by being flush with oil and gas money. Now that the bottom seems to have fallen out in the oil market, the boom has become a bust as the Russian government is again scrambling for change under the sofa.
The Russian Military
The once mighty forces of the old USSR have been reduced to a pitiful shell of their former selves. Whereas in the 70s the Russians boasted tank divisions that could have overwhelmed NATO forces, now the numbers and the quality are all on the West’s side.
Russian military equipment – except for special units – is second rate at best. Russian tanks – except for prototypes – cannot match those the U.S. and its allies can field. Russian planes fall from the sky with such regularity that they are more of a danger to their pilots than to ours.
The recent mission of the sole remaining Russian aircraft carrier to Syria is a nice case in point. The lumbering and smoking Admiral Kuznetsov served to show what a paper tiger the Russian military has actually become under Putin.
And it’s not as if Putin hasn’t tried to reform the military, but as a product of the old communist system he still doesn’t understand the value of private enterprise, which is why so much of the industrial capacity of Russia is still under state control.
As noted by the World Bank, the Russian economy is in a sorry state. In contrast, the United States economy is ticking along quite nicely, with the nation enjoying the lowest unemployment it’s seen in 10 years.
So yes, geographically Russia is bigger than the United States. But in almost every other way, President Obama was entirely correct when he called Russia smaller and weaker than us. Of course, that could easily change in the coming years under President Trump.
[Featured Image by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]