He rides horses shirtless.
They said I couldn’t describe Vladimir Putin in four words or less, but I think we both know what photo came to mind just now. How many images of shirtless men riding horses do you have stored in your brain? On second thought, don’t answer that.
Regardless of your mental catalog of half-naked horseback riders, Putin’s image is no doubt the most famous. There are also the ones of him fishing, climbing out of a hot tub, and basking in the never-ending glory of being a global superpower.
That last one, however, should raise some questions.
Most of us hear the words Putin, Russia, and superpower in the same sentence and think nothing of it. Consider even that the summit between President Trump and Putin in 2018 was referred to as an act of “cooperation between two superpowers” by Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
But can we really consider Russia to be a global superpower? Here are a couple of variables worth considering…
Russia’s GDP is the equivalent of Pennsylvania and Illinois combined despite having over 63 times as much land as these two soybean states. And yes, that puts Russia one spot outside the Top 10 in the world. But with hardly a fraction of the economic influence wielded by the U.S. and China, it’s hard to put these three countries on the same standard.
The GDP of the U.S. is over $19 trillion. The GDP of China is over $12 trillion. The country with the third highest GDP, Japan: $5 trillion. Eleventh-place Russia’s GDP is a comparatively paltry $1.6 trillion.
2. Life Expectancy
A life expectancy of both sexes just below 73 places Russia well outside the top 100 countries in the world and 6 years fewer than U.S. (which ranks 46th overall). Looking at the nations that surround Russia on this list, you’ll find North Korea and Iraq not too far away. The implications this has for quality of life, medical care, and employment rates puts Russia well below what one would expect from a superpower.
3. Size vs. Population
This is one area where Russia is actually leading… kind of. With 11 different time zones, Russia has a land mass of over 6.6 million square miles. For reference, that’s almost double the size of China, five times the size of the U.S., and the equivalent of 24 states of Texas. Yet despite the country’s massive size, less than 2% of the world’s population live in Russia (compared to 18% in China and 4% in the U.S.).
That ends the list of what Putin might not want you to know about Russia. But what he does want you to know — and what many of us are perhaps most familiar with — is the size of their military.
Despite being outside the Top 10 in GDP, Russia is inside the Top 5 in military spending with a defense budget of $47 billion. They have over 20,000 combat tanks (compared to China’s 7,000 and America’s 6,000). And they have 3.5 million military personnel (second only to India), which means that 2.5% of their total population serve in the military (that number is .6% for the U.S. and .2% for China).
This is a lot of statistics, and there’s one more to come, but let’s take a pause to ask a question. What does Russia plan to do with 20,000 tanks? What practical purpose could those machinations of war serve in a modern world where missiles are launched by unmanned drones? These questions don’t have a simple answer. So, let’s move on to the final, and most important, part of Russia’s military — nukes.
According to the Arms Control Association, there are over 13,500 nuclear warheads in the world, with more than 90% of them belonging to, no surprise, Russia and the U.S. Here, Russia has a few more, with 6,375 compared to America’s 5,800.
Now, this is where we come back to the term superpower. Because if that word is synonymous with nuclear warheads, then yes, Russia is absolutely a superpower. They have the single greatest capability of wreaking havoc on the world. But is that what makes a country a superpower? When we make the term so one-dimensional, we skew the power afforded to a country who clearly has a myriad of other problems they need to solve.
One of which is that the traffic is so bad in Moscow that wealthy Russians hire ambulances to get them around specific jams. That fact is almost completely irrelevant but so interesting that it’s impossible to leave out.
Still, we think of Putin as the final bastion of masculinity — wielding warheads and weaponizing the influence of an increasingly powerful nation. But that’s not what Russia is. In reality, Russia is a massive amount of land, inhabited by less people than you’d expect, whose employment opportunities are limited by the size of their military, led by someone whose self-interest doesn’t preclude him from the occasional shirtless Instagram.
In all honesty, Instagram may be the perfect image for Putin’s Russia. It’s all about appearance. And whether we ever fully understand life in Russia, or the statistics that go into defining what makes a country powerful, we’ll always have an image of this country’s leader riding shirtless on a horse.
Make fun of that picture all you want. Putin understands the value of a photo-op. He knows what shapes the way people perceive the world. And he’s bending those perceptions with all his might.
We can say as much as we want about Russia’s military, economy, and society, but Putin has strength in spades. If, of course, by strength you mean an incredibly toned upper body.
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