Judging by recent remarks by Donald Trump and Mike Pence, you’d think Russia was challenging the United States to become at least an equal superpower. The GOP presidential nominee has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “very strong leader” with “strong control” over his country, and both he and running mate Pence say Putin has been a stronger leader for his country than Barack Obama has been for ours.

But while Trump, Pence and some of their supporters portray Putin and the country he presides over as powerful, it is at its core very weak.

With Russian hackers disrupting the American election, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in Syria, and a long list of other provocations, there’s a case to be made that Russia has once again become America’s chief geopolitical adversary. (Or “foe,” as a wise man once said.) But a special report in the newest issue of the Economist argues that “Russian belligerence is not a sign of resurgence, but of a chronic, debilitating weakness.”

Russia’s biggest problems involve a shrinking economy that can be blamed in part on declining oil prices, corruption and Western sanctions.

Russia has abundant natural resources, including oil and natural gas. It also has a great deal of intellectual capital in the form of a highly educated, entrepreneurial and innovation-minded population. But endemic corruption prevents many of these citizens from flourishing. A few oligarchs, for instance, control much of Russia’s energy sector.

Putinism is a repressive and centralized state system. Journalists and political opponents are regularly jailed. Much of the media, particularly TV and print, work as propaganda tools for the regime.

Russia spends too much money on its military, which it has used to make war in Syria, Ukraine and Georgia in an attempt to project strength.

The Economist mentions Russia’s demographic crisis only in passing, but it’s a serious problem. Russia’s population is projected to shrink by 10 percent by 2050. Russia is aging, not having enough children and seeing its young die off.

More than 1 million Russians have HIV or AIDS and the vast majority of them don’t have access to medical care. A recent study in The Lancet found that 25 percent of Russian men die before they are 55, and most of those deaths are due to alcoholism. Russia also has the highest abortion rate in the world.

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Looking ahead, the Economist argues that Putin’s challenge is to retain power while transforming the system he presides over. Putin’s government has expanded, doubling as a share of GDP in just the last 10 years. Russia, a diverse country that’s twice the geographic size of the U.S., needs less centralization and more federalism.

“Unless Russia can complete the transformation into a modern nation-state that began in 1991,” The Economist concludes, “what Mr. Putin tries to represent as his country’s resurgence may in fact be one of the last phases of its decline.”

Daniel Allott is deputy commentary editor for the Washington Examiner

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