Russia's intervention in Crimea has led to much talk about the return of Russia as an actual or potential superpower. President Putin has made no secret of his wish to restore his country to the sort of geopolitical status that, in his eyes, it enjoyed before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In May 2002 he twisted a famous quotation (which he attributed, debatably, to Churchill) by saying, "Russia is never so strong as it wants to be and never so weak as it is thought to be."
In the modern world the ultimate determinant of diplomatic clout is a nation's share of world output. The capacity to produce goods and services in general is not the same thing as the capacity to produce advanced weapons, but the two tend to be related. Meanwhile in peaceful cooperation between states their ability to export to and import from each other is what matters above all. The ability to export and import is obviously linked to productive potential.
On this most basic of economic criteria, how is Russia placed today? Newspaper coverage of the crisis in Ukraine remains influenced by a well-known misperception due to cartography. The size of Russia, with its vast Siberian hinterland, is exaggerated by the standard Mercator projection. In most atlases every map of the world has Russia with a larger territory than Europe or the United States of America. This exaggeration still colours beliefs and perceptions.
The truth is that Russia is at best a middle-ranking nation in economic terms. According to the International Monetary Fund's database, its share of world output was just under 3 per cent last year. But that figure was calculated in terms of so-called "purchasing power parity", a technical method which is best if living standards in different countries are being compared. If the economic size of a nation is instead to be measured by its ability to import from other nations and to participate in international trade, the right technique is to calculate gross domestic product "at current prices and exchange rates".
On this basis Russia may still be a medium-sized nation, but it is overshadowed by four much more significant powers. World Bank data show that in 2012 Russia's output was $2,015 billion, the same as Italy's, whereas the outputs of the US, the European Union, China and Japan were $16,245 billion, $16,687 billion, $8,227 billion and $5,960 billion respectively. Even Brazil has a slightly higher GDP than Russia. In the EU four nations (Germany, France, the UK and Italy) produce the same as or more than Russia.