Putin's Russia may echo the Soviet bloc, but it is far smaller

April 7, 2022

It has become commonplace to analyze Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the international response to it, through the prism of the Cold War. This framing makes sense, but it is also important to keep in mind that today's Russia, even together with its allies such as Belarus, is much smaller than the Soviet bloc[1] was in 1990—the last full year that both the USSR and Comecon existed.

In that year when the Cold War ended (blue points in the PIIE Chart), the Soviet bloc represented 9.2 percent of the world's population and 10.5 percent of its economy, measured at purchasing-power parity (PPP). The equivalent numbers for Russia and its allies (Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria) in 2020 (red points—the latest date for which data are available) are 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent. If measured at market exchange rates, even before accounting for the ruble's recent depreciation, the current share of GDP is even lower: 1.8 percent, versus 6 percent for the Soviet bloc at the end of the Cold War. The corresponding population has receded by about 60 percent, from 483 million in 1990 for the Soviet bloc to 197 million in 2020 for Russia and its allies. This is the combined result of reduced geographical scope and of the remaining group's declining demographics and poor economic performance.

The relative size of US-centric and fence-sitter blocs are also shown.[2] China is counted in the US-centric group at the end of the Cold War (even though the China-Russia relationship was at an early stage of revival with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to Beijing in 1989, and the Tiananmen crackdown had temporarily cooled the China-US relationship) and among the fence-sitters in 2020. That situation could change, and opinions vary about that critical matter. For the time being, at least, and on the nonmilitary metrics considered here, Moscow's global heft is but a shadow of its former Soviet self.

Notes

1. The Soviet bloc refers to the members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1990: Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Mongolia, Poland, Romania, Vietnam, and the USSR.

2. "Fence-sitters" at the end of the Cold War are the countries that attended the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Belgrade in September 1989 (minus Cuba and Vietnam, since these were also in the Comecon). For 2020, fence-sitters are those that either abstained or did not vote on the March 24, 2022 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution requesting Russia to immediately cease hostilities in Ukraine. "US-centric group" refers to countries that do not belong to the other two groups. For 2020, that means all countries that voted in favor of the March 24, 2022 UNGA resolution.

Data Disclosure

The data underlying this analysis are available here.

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Nicolas Véron Senior Research Staff