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Measuring National Power: Is Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Decline?

May 04, 2018
Simon Saradzhyan and Nabi Abdullaev

This report is part of a new debate from Russia Matters. The response can be read here: "Russian Power Under Putin: Up and Down and Flatline" by Andrew Kuchins.

Executive Summary

As Vladimir Putin embarks on another six-year term as Russia’s president, Western pundits and policymakers are left wondering whether his reelection means that Moscow’s muscular policies toward America and other Western powers will continue or even escalate. But what is the reality of Russian power in the Putin era? Is Russia a rising, declining or stagnating power? How does its standing in the global order compare to other nations, including the United States, China and European powers? This report by Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Nabi Abdullaev, a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, seeks to systematically answer these questions, which have been the subject of considerable debate in recent years. While some scholars have expressed the view that 21st-century Russia is in decline, others have dubbed it the No. 2 nation in the post-Cold War world.

Gauging Russia’s performance is important because the country continues to have a profound effect on America’s vital national interests and on the global order in the 21st century. To begin with, Moscow’s possible positions on issues central to U.S. national interests powerfully impact America’s security. The size and reach of Russia’s nuclear arsenal make it the only country that can destroy the U.S. in half an hour. Without Russia’s cooperation, efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons—whether among countries or non-state actors—are bound to fail. Also, whether Russia enters a full-blown military-political alliance with China will have far reaching consequences for the future of the global order. And the list goes on: Moscow’s cooperation remains essential in preventing Afghanistan from relapsing into a failed state, where the likes of al-Qaeda and ISIS could thrive again, plotting to attack the Western world. Russia has veto power on the U.N. Security Council, which allows Moscow to block any decision the U.S. may want adopted there. Russia’s potential as a spoiler, therefore, is difficult to exaggerate. Russia is also the largest country in the world, and transit through its territory—particularly as Arctic ice melts—can be important not only for the global economy, but also for American security, as the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan once showed. Finally, Russia has been the largest supplier to the world’s energy market for much of the past decade, and while the U.S. is increasingly self-sufficient in gas and oil, its European allies are not. Russia’s ability to impact all these issues of vital importance to the U.S. and its allies is to a large extent determined by its national capabilities—specifically, whether they are growing or shrinking. As important, America’s and other great powers’ policies toward Russia, and vice versa, are largely determined by how these countries’ leaders view Russia—as a rising power or a declining one.

To determine whether Russia is rising, declining or stagnating, the authors of this report have measured changes in Russia’s national power by analyzing a broad range of data, including economic output, energy consumption, population, life expectancy, military expenditures, government effectiveness, patents and even tourist visits. For a comparative perspective, Russia’s national power has been measured, first, in terms of the world as a whole and then alongside several categories of “comparands,” including key competitors and peers: five of the West’s leading powers, all four fellow members of the BRICS group, all former Soviet republics except the Baltic states and selected countries whose economies depend heavily on the production of hydrocarbons.1 To quantify their results the authors used variations of three existing models for measuring national power developed by Western and Asian scholars and devised a fourth experimental model. The research period, 1999-2015 or 2016 (depending on the most recent available data), was chosen because it begins after Russia’s economic free fall of the 1990s and corresponds with Putin’s time in office.

Key Findings

  • Contrary to claims of Russia’s imminent demise, two of the three models2 used to measure the country’s power vis-à-vis the world as a whole indicate that it has grown in the 21st century, while the third showed a decline of less than 1 percent. All four methods used to compare Russia to the above-listed comparands show that it has gained on its five Western competitors while remaining behind the U.S. in terms of absolute national power. (One of the methods also showed Russia’s national power to be less than Germany’s in absolute terms.) Russia’s gains, however, were not continuous over the research period and appear to be petering out as its economy struggles to regain the robust rates of growth it enjoyed in the first decade of the century and as Russia’s demographic improvements continue to lag behind the growth rate of the global population.
  • When comparing Russia to its peers—the post-Soviet republics, hydrocarbon-dependent countries and fellow members of the BRICS group—three of the four methods show the country to be neither the top nor bottom performer in terms of the growth of its national power. Significantly, according to most of these measures, Russia has lagged behind China and India both in the rate of growth of national power and in absolute power. The authors posit that Russia’s decline relative to China and its rise relative to its Western competitors could have been among the factors that made Moscow more accommodating toward Beijing, on one hand, and more assertive in its competition with the West in the post-Soviet neighborhood, on the other, emboldening the Russian leadership to stage military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine. If that proposition holds true, then monitoring changes in national power can help to predict nations’ behavior toward their competitors and peers.
  • The authors’ research reaffirms the proposition that the post-Cold War period of global unipolarity is coming to an end and that the world is returning to an era of competition among great powers. Two of the four methods used show that China has overtaken the U.S. in terms of national power, while the other two show that the U.S. has so far retained the No. 1 ranking but that the gap between the two is narrowing. China, however, remains far from becoming the sole dominant global power in the mold of America in the early 21st century or the British Empire in the late 19th. It remains to be seen whether the emerging multi-polar global order will be a new edition of the Concert of Nations among great powers—in which, as Moscow hopes, Russia will play an indispensable role—or will be based on relentless competition among these powers. One thing is clear: Russia’s place in the emerging world order will depend on whether or not it continues to rise.

Results by Research Method

1. The only single-variable approach used by the authors was the Gross Domestic Product Index (GDPI), which measures the ratio of Russia’s GDP to that of the world as a whole and to the GDPs of individual countries (in terms of purchasing power parity, or PPP, in constant 2011 international dollars). This method of measuring national power shows Russia to have gained on the world as a whole in 1999-2016 and on all five of its Western competitors, whose share of global GDP declined by double digits while Russia’s rose by 3 percent. Russia’s performance vis-à-vis its BRICS peers landed it right in the middle of the group in terms of rate of growth. Russia’s share of global GDP was the largest among the hydrocarbon-dependent countries in 2016, but four of the six outperformed Russia in terms of rate of growth, as did all the former Soviet republics except Ukraine. In absolute terms, Russia’s GDP on the index was behind China’s, the United States’, India’s and Germany’s, but ahead of the rest of the comparands.

2. The second model for measuring national power was devised by Chin-Lung Chang of Taiwan’s Fo-guang University and takes into account a nation’s “critical mass” (its population and land mass), GDP and military strength. According to this calculation Russia’s national power grew by 10.31 percent in 1999-2016, a faster rate than all of its Western competitors. A comparison within the BRICS group reveals that Russia lagged behind China and India in terms of rate of growth of power but surpassed South Africa and Brazil. Russia also lagged behind most of its post-Soviet and hydrocarbon peers in terms of rate of growth of power, but its absolute power was greater than that of its post-Soviet and hydrocarbon-producing peers.

3. The variables used in the third model, the Revised Geometric Index of Traditional National Capabilities (RGITNC), include countrywide population, urban population, energy consumption, military expenditures and value-added manufacturing. Under this method, Russia’s national power decreased by 0.98 percent from 1999 to 2016. In comparison, the power of Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the U.S. decreased, respectively, by 34.17 percent, 29.6 percent, 29.6 percent, 26.85 percent and 18.47 percent. The same period saw the power of China and India, Russia’s BRICS peers, grow by 106.53 percent and 29.84 percent, respectively, while the power of Brazil and South Africa declined by 14.42 percent and 4.39 percent, respectively. Most of Russia’s post-Soviet peers also saw their power increase in the research period, as did Russia’s hydrocarbon peers, with the exception of Venezuela, which declined by 38.68 percent. In terms of absolute power, Russia ranked the fourth-most powerful nation, behind the U.S., China and India. 

4. The fourth model for measuring national power is adapted from American intelligence analyst Ray S. Cline’s index of the perceived power of nations. This Experimental Index of National Power (EINP), as the authors have termed it, measures national resources, including territory, population, economic power, military power and technological prowess, along with a nation’s “capability to employ resources,” i.e., government effectiveness. Using this model, Russia’s national power grew by 118 percent between 1999 and 2016. In comparison, U.S. national power declined by 16 percent, while that of Italy, Germany, Great Britain and France—all of which cut their military budgets during this period—declined by 57 percent, 38 percent, 31 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Russia’s national power also expanded faster than any of the few BRICS, ex-Soviet and energy-producing peers for which data is available, including China and India. The dramatic growth in Russia’s national power was largely fueled by an increase in government effectiveness as defined by the World Bank (101 percent).

The authors also attempted to account for soft power, defined here as a nation’s attractiveness in the eyes of other nations. The method they came up with, dubbed the Experimental Index of National Power with Soft Power (EINPSP), was used to measure the national power of the U.S., China and Russia for 2007-2016—the only years for which comparable data was available. While Russia trailed the U.S. and China in the absolute value of its national power, its power grew by 15 percent; America’s, by contrast, declined by 13 percent, while China’s grew 41 percent. However, the results of the EINPSP have been excluded from this report’s final tally because it lacks a sufficient number of countries to make any meaningful comparisons.


While yielding differing results, nearly all the models used by the authors refute the notion that Russia’s national power has been in decline in the 21st century. Russia’s resources—as evidenced by the absolute value of its national power, no matter what method of measurement is applied—ensure that Moscow will remain a global player that affects the Western world and the global order in profound ways for years to come. Paradoxically, the impact on America’s national interests promises to be profound even under drastically different scenarios for Russia’s evolution: The U.S. and its allies would obviously find it difficult to benefit if Russia’s rise transforms it into the kind superpower that the U.S.S.R. once was; a failing Russia, however, would not be good news for the U.S. either, given that America’s adversaries might then be able to tap its resources and capabilities, including the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with or without the Kremlin’s consent. To be sure, Moscow still faces formidable challenges in maintaining or increasing its national power in the 21st century. Whichever way those trends shift, the rest of the world should be tracking them closely. Both competitors and partners of Russia would do well to shape their policies toward this country based on a realistic assessment of its national power rather than on some far-flung forecasts of its “inevitable collapse.”

The opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the authors.

Download PDF of full report here.


  1. For comparisons in this category the authors have selected six countries that rely on oil and gas for 40 percent or more of their budget revenues.
  2. One is a single-variable method and the other two are modifications of multi-variable methods. Only these three methods were used to measure Russian power vis-à-vis the world as a whole, while all four methods were used to compare Russia to individual countries.

Simon Saradzhyan

Simon Saradzhyan is the director of the Russia Matters project.


Nabi Abdullaev

Nabi Abdullaev is a lecturer at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences and associate director at Control Risks. 

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