Author: Nicu Popescu, Director Wide Europe programme ECFR

EU leaders plan to discuss Russia on March 25-26 Summit. Many of them are convinced Russia is a declining power. Many European thinkers and policymakers like to point to Russia’s diminishing share of the global economy, the size of its GDP (which is comparable to those of Spain and Portugal combined), and demographic trends. They also cite Russia’s dependence on raw materials and inability to fight back against corruption, as well as many other chronic ills of its state and economy. But GDP and other socio-economic indicators are just one measurement of power. The link between GDP and geopolitical influence is never linear. Of course, it helps to have a large economy. But history is full of cases in which states – or even proto-states – with less than impressive economies have dominated or destroyed richer and more technologically advanced neighbours. The fall of the Roman Empire is one such example. The Mongols overran China several times. Iran is not the richest country in the Middle East but, for decades, it has increased its geopolitical influence relative to countries with higher GDPs.

Russian decline is also a fallacy because plenty of states have cycled through phases of rise and fall. Chinese, Iranian, and Russian power has expanded, contracted, and then expanded again for centuries – even millennia. In the past millennium, Russian imperial power ballooned and then collapsed several times.

Where the EU sees irreversible Russian decline, Russia sees one of several temporary slumps it has experienced over the centuries. Russian leaders believe that they can reverse such decline just as their predecessors did following the contraction of the Russian state after the 1917 revolution. In 1918 Russia lost control of huge swathes of territory (including Finland, Poland, the Baltic states, and what is today Moldova). But, within less than three decades, it had recovered parts of those lost territories and expanded its control to Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, and Tirana. Russia’s history of reversing declines shapes its current foreign policy – and could continue to do so for a couple of decades at least.

Both competitors and partners of Russia would do well to shape their policies toward Russia based on a realistic assessment of its national power rather than on some far-flung forecasts of its “inevitable decline”.

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