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Stepping up

Michael KniggeMarch 26, 2014

President Obama's labeling of Russia as a regional power has ruffled some feathers. But he is right. From a US perspective, Moscow has been allowed to punch beyond its weight for a long time, writes DW's Michael Knigge.


Barack Obama is not known to shoot from the hip. So it's fair to assume that his remarks at a press conference in the Netherlands were intentional. The president's statement signals a policy shift: Until now the Obama administration had treated Russia more or less as an equal on the world stage when in fact Moscow hasn't been for a long time.

No more. In Obama's eyes, the strategy - favored by Germany - to bring Russia into the post-Cold War global order has failed. Obama, however, can say he did his best to make it work. His offer to 'reset' relations with Russia in 2009 was rebuffed by Republicans at home and ignored by Putin.

From Obama's perspective, the Crimea annexation was the straw that broke the camel's back. As a consequence Washington will from now on treat Russia according to its real weight on the global stage - as a regional power, not a global competitor of the United States.

Obama's analysis is correct. Whatever indicator you may want to apply to determine superpower status, Russia is nowhere near the United States.

No competition

Russia's GDP per capita in 2012 was that of the United States in 1981. The latest global competiveness ranking puts the country in 64th place just ahead of Sri Lanka while the US is fifth. Russia ranks 127th in the latest Corruption Perception Index, the US 19th. US patent applications outnumber Russian ones by a factor of more then 10.

Militarily, Russia - just like every other country in the world - does not play in the same league as Washington. The US spends more on its armed forces than the next 10 countries combined and has unparalleled global reach and capabilities.

But even when you consider the broader social and health issues - not necessarily a strong point for the US - Russia fares worse. Infant mortality is higher and life expectancy is much lower than in the US. Russia in recent years has even managed to surpass the US - the most unequal of developed nations - in income inequality.

Polite Obama

Coupled with Russia's demographic problems and the fact that Russia self-declared spheres of interest have shrunk dramatically since the fall of the Berlin Wall, all those indicators clearly prove Obama right. While the Russians may not like what he said, he actually showed restraint. If Obama had wanted to be downright mean he could have called Russia a power in decline.

Obama's assessment that Russia's threats and moves on its neighbors are not a sign of strength, but of weakness, is spot on. The fact that Vladimir Putin felt that he had to annex tiny Crimea with its military base under the threat of force was an act of desperation, not of global prowess.

Message to Moscow

Today's global power struggle is played out economically, not militarily. To project power, a superpower needs to deploy boots on the ground only as a last resort as it has many other weapons in its arsenal. Russia doesn't, the US does. That's why all Washington had to do to give Putin pause and make him think hard about any further aggression was to nix all credit card payments of the US finance giants Mastercard and Visa to and from customers of a single Moscow bank favored by Russian elites.

The message was clear: With a stroke of a keyboard Washington has the capability to hit the Kremlin and its leaders where it hurts: their wallets. Only time will tell whether President Putin gets it this time around - not just in his own interest, but also in the interests of his people and Russia's neighbors. He probably won't get another chance.