R&D and the Great Power Sweepstakes

The part of Twitter I’m in is adjacent to some rather heated debates as to the fundamentals of Russia versus NATO in the Ukraine war, with some of the less-bright pro-Russian types coping about how the tremendous GDP of the Western bloc doesn’t matter for one reason or another, and more sober voices in their ranks trying to open their eyes to the rather bleak reality for Russia. To wit, Russia sits at a great disadvantage versus a top-tier power like the United States or even China.

The Backwardness of Putin’s Russia

One of the starkest indications of this is Russia’s performance, or lack thereof, in scientific output. In The Nature Index, a metric favored by Anatoly Karlin (who in 2018 put out a great writeup of Russia’s scientific and technological situation), Russia ranks #18 in the world, just ahead of Denmark and just below Singapore. This isn’t the former scientific and technical colossus that was the Soviet Union; after you adjust for its much larger population compared to Denmark or Singapore Russia’s performance is that of a rinky-dink country. The #3 country in the world, Germany, has nearly 10 times Russia’s score on The Nature Index. And of course there’s the United States and China, #2 and #1 respectively, who occupy a league of their own, scoring nearly 40 times as high as Russia.

The Nature Index is based on total amounts of scientific papers and citations, which allegedly adjusts for quality, but for a variety of reasons if you ask me this is a really sketchy way to go about it. A more straightforward metric I’d favor would be research and development (R&D) spending. Russia looks somewhat better on this measure, but it still scores a rather unimpressive #10 in the world, just ahead of Brazil and just behind Taiwan. Not terrible, but Brazil and Taiwan aren’t exactly top-tier countries to say the least.

You’ll notice that Russia’s spending on research and development as a share of GDP is unusually low, indeed tied for the lowest among the top 24 countries, standing at just 1.1 percent. The United States, which is frequently bashed by those in the know for systematically underinvesting in R&D, still spends 3.5 percent. South Korea, a country famously successful at developing its economy, spends a respectable 4.8 percent; the champion, though, is Israel, spending a studly 5.4 percent of GDP on R&D. Even more impressively in Israel’s case, very little of that comes from the government. And there are expert opinions that Israeli R&D investment should be still greater than 5.4 percent.

A Progressive Russia

If Russia invested 5.4 percent of its GDP into research and development its spending would increase by 4.9x, vaulting its total R&D expenditures to $189 billion, ranking #3 in the world, ahead of Japan and behind only the United States and China. Arguably Russia should invest even more than Israel does, considering the need to make up for the multi-decade post-Soviet degradation in scientific and technological prowess. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Russia’s space program, which has done virtually nothing new or interesting since it participated in the International Space Station 20 years ago.

From spaceflight to artificial intelligence, underinvestment in research and development means the future will pass your country by, and Russia is in the early stages of reaping those results now. There’s been something of a recovery in R&D under Putin, but he’s not done anywhere near enough in the R&D space to prevent an inexorable decline into a second-rate player on the global stage. The worst part is that this was an unforced error. Russia is not a small country, nor is it all that impoverished; as it is it has enough resources to become the clear #3 in the world in science and technology given the will to do so. Alas, Putin is more interested in conquering the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Plant than inventing the fifth generation of nuclear fission reactors.

If anything the $189 billion figure underrates Russia’s true potential. Russia has the world’s sixth largest economy, at $4.6 trillion in GDP, behind Germany and ahead of Indonesia. It could easily be much bigger, though; Russia has 147 million people, #9 in the world by population. It’s just that its GDP per capita is relatively low; at $32,000 per head, it ranks a mediocre #55, less than half the United States’s figure of $75,000 per head. Convergence with the US’s living standards, therefore, would grow the Russian economy by 2.3x.

In this eventuality, Russia’s economy would expand to $10.8 trillion, ranking #4 in the world, behind India and comfortably ahead of Japan. If Russia still spent 5.4% of GDP on research and development, total R&D spending would spike to $435 billion. That’s now playing in the same league as the big boys; China spends $515 billion and the US spends $612 billion. To vault ahead of the US to be #1 in the world would then take spending 7.6% of GDP on R&D, which while higher than what any country allocates now is probably doable.

Considering the success of Poland as well as a few other former Soviet countries, to say nothing of how even Putin managed to double Russian GDP in his first presidency, Russia could probably have at least approached full convergence by now if the leadership had been focused on economic development. Russia could also probably have devoted higher-than-Israel spending to R&D, if the leadership had been focused on owning the future. So there is a plausible, if rosy, scenario where Russia is #1 in the entire world in this very important field of human endeavor.

Make Russia Great Again! (in space)

The space program could have, and still can, do far better than it has in its post-Soviet dark age. Spaceflight is honestly a low-hanging fruit for establishing global leadership, much more so than even R&D investment. The best-funded national space agency, the US’s NASA, only receives around 0.1% of GDP. Yes, it’s true; all of NASA put together has a budget of only $25 billion. Russia’s economy is currently about a fifth the size of the US’s, so to match NASA’s funding 0.5% of Russian GDP would have to be allocated to Roscosmos. Aggressive, but far from implausible. Apollo-level NASA funding was $58 billion, a bit more than twice current levels; to match that Russia could spend 1% of GDP on spaceflight, which isn’t exactly outside its capabilities to say the least. If the Russian economy grew to first-world standards then the figure becomes an even more manageable 0.4% of GDP.

With that level of commitment starting from the time Putin came to power Russia would have made it to the Moon by now, established permanent bases there, and be eyeing Mars as Roscosmos built out something like NASA’s post-Apollo Integrated Program Plan. That would have really left a mark, the biggest propaganda and morale booster since at least the Khrushchev years if not of all time, telegraphing to the world that in the 21st century Russia was back as a superpower. For 1% of GDP a year that would have been a bargain.

Strategic Pathways

So there you have it, the scientific superpower path for Russia to play with the big boys (the US and China). Even if developed to first-world standards Russia just doesn’t have the population base to go head-to-head with the US and China across the board, but properly managed Russia can be a great power that specializes to the point of global leadership in a few important sectors.

Helping immensely with this goal would be integrating with the West as a member of the European Union and NATO, removing geostrategic threats by converting them into close allies that may additionally be used to augment Russia’s power in the world and even offset its deficiencies and weaknesses. The Russian world joining with Europe makes eminent sense for a variety of reasons, and none other than Vladimir Putin himself recognized this in the early 2000s. Hmph. Despite the difficulties, buttering up the West and especially Europe as much as possible, and transforming into a free-market liberal democracy, was and still is the smart long-term play for Russia.

Russia, the Dying Nation?

Last but not least, Russia’s long-term future is often characterized as doomed because of bad demographics, but at this point its birth rates are no worse than a typical European country, and considerably better than a typical East Asian one. Nevertheless, augmenting population would help expand Russia’s economy and thus its position as a great power.

Putin is kinda sorta trying to do this now with the $10,000-ish payouts for childbirths, but to really move the needle incentives would need to be closer to $1 million per birth. Whether this is viable or not is an open question. Years spent in school, though, have a steeply negative effect on birth rates, and compressing that time would actually save money, so that’s some low-hanging fruit right there. A more prosperous Russia that seems to have a bright future should see a rise birth rates to considerably higher than they are now regardless. Not quite back to replacement level, but probably most of the way there would be my guess.

Russia could be Number One in Immigration; yes, really

A richer, more liberal, more democratic, and more beloved Russia would likely be a much more attractive target for immigration, which may be the lowest-hanging fruit of all. Interestingly, Russia is already #4 in the entire world in the number of immigrants, 12 million, and the foreign-born share of the population is a respectable 8%. Despite having a core nationality, namely ethnic Russians, the country is enough of a multinational empire in self-conception to easily integrate newcomers in much the same fashion as America!

Quadrupling immigration is realistic in this context, and that yields an Australian-style foreign-born share of 32%, and an American-style foreign-born population of 48 million. That’s within striking distance of dethroning the United States, with its foreign-born population of 51 million, as the world’s #1 immigration destination! Wow.

In this case Russia’s population rises to 183 million. Add on fresh waves of immigration as the children of previous waves accrete to the native-born share and within decades the Russian population could easily rise to 200 million. No problem; just fold the accommodations for them into the infrastructure program, with an emphasis on populating Siberia and the Far East more intensely. The whole plan honestly has a certain synergy between all its components and fits together very well, forming a kind of virtuous circle.


Really, there’s so much work to be done in just developing the lands and resources Russia already has that it has to be considered an enormous strategic blunder to risk it all by invading Ukraine, and perhaps an even bigger blunder for Putinism to have amounted to little better than the establishment of an economically, scientifically, and technologically backward autocracy. Russia can be far more than the second-rate power Putin has bequeathed to whoever ends up being his successor; it has the capacity to be a first-rate player on the world stage, and show, to the benefit of both the Russian people and to humanity, that the future is not the United States versus China, but rather truly multipolar.

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