It has long struck me that we have many misconceptions about Russia. A common perception is that it is a powerful superpower that militarily threatens its neighbours. But how strong and powerful is Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Firstly, we are misled by the projection of standard maps. Because Russia is so far north, it looks bigger than it actually is compared to other countries and continents further south. Only on a globe can you get an accurate picture of the surface. The alternative is to read tables.

Russia’s surface area is about 17.1 million km2. More than half of that area is north of the 60th parallel. The latitude that in our country runs a few miles north of Uppsala. North of that latitude there is hardly any arable land in Russia. There is all the taiga and tundra. Tundra are areas where the frost never leaves the ground (permafrost). The taiga area has forests, gas, oil and minerals, but few people. There is no road network and hardly any railways. Northern Siberia also has no harbours. Northern Russia and much of Siberia are virtually uninhabited. Of all Russians, 110 million live in European Russia (west of the Urals) and only 34 million in other parts. About one third of the territory is located in the two areas that Russians refer to administratively as ‘Far North’ (Крайний Север) and ‘Far North’ (Дальний Север). The area of these regions is about 5 500 000 km2, compared to Sweden’s area of 449 000 km2. In these two regions, the population is entitled to a wage supplement to compensate for all the difficulties of living and working in these areas. Until 1994, civil servants in Sweden were entitled to a ‘cold weather supplement’ to compensate them for working in the northern parts of the country. In late winter and spring, many villages and communities in northern Russia and Siberia are completely cut off from communication because of the annual floods. The only contact with the outside world is by air transport. The reasons are that the frost is deep in the ground and remains when the snow melts and that the major rivers flow northwards. They are still frozen when the snowmelt begins in the south of the country.

Russia’s area is 17.1 million km2, the USA’s area is 9.1 million km2 and Australia’s area is 7.7 million km2. Counting only the area south of the 60th parallel, the USA and Russia are not significantly larger than the USA (when Alaska is excluded, the USA’s area is 8.1 million km2). The 60th parallel in North America runs straight through Hudson Bay in Canada. The surface area of the USA and Russia is almost the same if we consider only the areas south of the 60th parallel, where almost all arable land is located. About 13.3% of Russia’s area is cultivated land and fertiliser applications are about 16.5 kg/ha. In the USA (apart from Alaska), 44.4% of the area is cultivated and fertiliser applications are about 137 kg/ha. That’s a big difference.

In large parts of Siberia, annual precipitation is less than 400 mm. Annual precipitation in Stockholm is about 530 mm. The number of days with snow-covered ground varies in Siberia between 120 and 250 days per year. In our country, the number of snow-covered days in Götaland is about 60 and in upper Norrland about 190. The growing season is extremely short in Siberia.

Throughout Russia, the majority of towns are more than 400 kilometres from the sea, which makes the transport of heavy goods difficult and expensive. It is still not uncommon for Russians in the interior of the country to have never looked out over a sea in their lives.

In terms of gross domestic product (GDP or GNP), the differences are very large. We believe that Russia is a rich country because of its vast resources of gas, oil and minerals. However, it is not rich compared to other countries. The Russian GDP amounts to approximately USD 1 658 billion. The US GDP amounts to USD 20 494. This means that the American economy is almost 12.5 times larger than the Russian one. The Chinese economy is USD 13 200 billion. The Swedish GDP amounts to 551 billion USD. If you add up the economic strength of three countries like Sweden, they will have an economic strength equivalent to Russia’s entire economy.

The following countries have a larger GDP than Russia (listed in order from the country with only a slightly larger GDP than Russia, Canada, to the richest of all the countries): Canada, Brazil, India, France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, China, and the United States (largest GNP). The Soviet Union defeated Germany in the war, but today German GDP is 2.4 times larger than Russian GDP. Moreover, the German population is almost half the size of the Russian population. The difference in GDP per capita between Germany and Russia is in the order of 5:1. In addition, German infrastructure is much better than Russian infrastructure.

Comparisons using GDP in USD are always uncertain because of the fluctuating exchange rate against the USD, the size of the population and the infrastructure and buildings that have existed in a country since previous years. If a country has had high GDP growth for a short period of time, it often means that the infrastructure and buildings are still neglected, despite high GDP. Russia is an example of a country with old and poor infrastructure (including buildings). The road network is neglected and the apartment blocks built in the 1950s and 1960s are very poorly maintained. In the US, there are 838 cars per 1000 inhabitants. In Russia, there are 373 cars for the same number of inhabitants, which is significantly more cars than during the Soviet era.

If we add up the economic strength of the states that can be said to “oppose” Russia in terms of security policy, the strength of the “Western powers” is at least 27 times greater than that of Russia. The Western powers include the EU and EEA countries as well as the USA and Canada. If Japan and Australia were also included, their economic strength would be even greater than that of Russia.

Who thinks today that Russia’s economic strength is weaker than each of Canada, Brazil and India? Russia is not really a supremely large country, nor is it a rich country. Russian leaders expect Russia to be perceived once again as the world power it once was when the Soviet Union existed and it ruled much of Eastern Europe. But even then, Russian supremacy was based almost entirely on military power.

The author is a former lawyer and reserve officer (major) in the Swedish Air Force.