Russia has some distinct advantages over Ukraine in fighting a war — more people, a larger economy, more trained fighters, huge fossil fuel reserves — and, of course, the threat of nuclear weapons that keeps other nations from sending in troops. But Russia’s outsized role on the world stage belies its economic weakness. The country and its people should be much better off financially, at least when compared to other world powers. Russia is often described as a kleptocracy, and the criminal exploitation keeps the country from realizing its full economic potential. It’s hard to know for sure, but that fragility might help explain Russia’s stuttering results on the battlefield so far. The weakness could make it harder for Russia to sustain a long siege of its neighbor, especially given the strong sanctions that the U.S. and other allies have enacted. For the Ukrainian’s sake, let’s hope so.
But even if Russia isn’t quite the big bad bear of popular imagination, it still towers over Ukraine in nearly every way. This context is worth remembering in weighing every decision the United States will make and, as always, things are never as simple as they seem.
As the war continues, here’s a look at how Russia ranks in five broad categories.
Russia’s population is slightly lower than it was when the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s. The country has slipped in the world population rankings in the past two decades, though Russia’s population still dwarfs Ukraine’s.
Russia’s an economic lightweight given its relatively large population, abundant natural resources and massive military. In fact, Russia’s per person gross domestic product of $11,273 is less than Costa Rica’s and only slightly more than Kazakhstan’s, two countries no one would mistake for world powers. That said, Russia’s per person GDP is more than twice as high as Ukraine’s.
For more context, Russia’s economy is larger than Florida’s, but it can’t match New York’s, let alone Texas or California.
Russia may punch below its weight economically, but it has a large military, with a little more than 1 million active-duty personnel and 2 million reservists. Compare that with Ukraine with about 209,000 active-duty and 900,000 reservists — although who knows how many citizen-soldiers have picked up a rifle in the past week?
Russia also possesses one deadly serious wildcard — nuclear weapons, and a lot of them.
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Rankings like these help provide context, but they are only a fraction of the factors that will determine whether Russia prevails or not. History is replete with examples of mighty aggressors like Russia rolling over weaker adversaries and outmatched defenders like Ukraine defeating much more powerful foes. But if Russia fails to win this war, there’s a good chance its economic Achilles’ heel will have played a role.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.