By Gwynn Guilford (July 22, 2018)
Russia is a nuclear power. But an economic power it is not. Last year, the country’s GDP totaled around $1.6 trillion, less than that of the state of Texas. Nor is its wealth growing: Russia’s GDP in 2017 was smaller than it was in 2013, adjusting for price changes.
And yet there’s no question of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s international influence. Witness his ability to hack bigger, richer countries’ democratic elections, or, as this week’s Helsinki summithighlighted, to cow Donald Trump. The Kremlin’s knack for punching above its weight when it comes to geopolitics is a reminder that wealth sometimes matter less than what you do with it.
Or, more precisely, to whom you give it. Oligarchs are an essential partof Putin’s power apparatus. And as a recent working paper (pdf) by economists Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman, and Filip Novokmet reveals, the wealth that won their fealty came directly from the country’s reserves—and, indeed, from the pockets of the Russian people.