“Britain is a small island – nobody pays any attention to them apart from the Russian oligarchs who have bought up Chelsea.”
Dmitry Peskov, Russian government spokesman to the Russian press, 5 September
The G20 summit is full of snide briefings, pointed remarks and press posturing. But this offhand remark by Mr Putin’s spokesman on Thursday seemed to hit a nerve for the British prime minister, perhaps because it has a ring of truth to it.
In context, the remark by Mr Peskov, a spokesman for President Putin was aimed at quashing a question about chemical weapons in Syria, based on new evidence unearthed by Britain.
Cameron responded almost immediately: “I don’t accept that for a moment,” he said, insisting that Britain remained a power in world affairs. Downing Street has asked the Kremlin to clarify its statement.
It’s more attack than analysis, but what facts can we dredge up about Britain and Russia’s relative place in the world? Events bring different countries, people and regions to prominence at different times but a few things are a little easier to measure and predict.
Both Britain and Russia are in the global power-monger G8 and G20 groups. And both hold a seat on the five-strong UN Security Council. Let’s compare Russia and Britain on a few key indicators. Not everything can be measured, but some things can.
Since Mr Peskov started with size: yes, Russia is big, the biggest in the world.
Russia’s land mass is 16.4m sq km, almost twice the size of the next closest country, China, which is 9.3m sq km. The UK is small, 240,000 sq km, putting it 78th in the world’s nations ranked by land mass. And it definitely is an island.
Russia is significantly bigger in terms of population too. The UK has 63.6m inhabitants, making it the 22nd most populous country in the world.
Russia has 142.5m citizens making it ninth most populated country. 0.9 per cent of the world’s population live in Britain, 2 per cent of the world’s population live in Russia.
China of course is first with 1.4 bn inhabitants, 19 percent of the world.
Despite a much smaller population, Britain still manages to pip Russia on economic might, though the 2008 crash hit Britain much harder, slowing down growth and making it likely that Russia will overtake Britain in the next few years.
Britain is sixth largest economy in the world with GDP of $2.4tr, growing at 0.5 per cent.
Russia is eighth, with an economy of $2.01tr, growing at 3.9 per cent. The USA, China, Japan, Germany and France all have bigger GDPs than the UK.
Winner: UK, but only just
Energy is another trump card for Russia. Russia is the third biggest producer of energy of all sorts in the world, producing twice as much as the Saudi Arabia (fourth) and eight times more than the UK – 20th in the world energy production rankings.
This is a measure of a country’s punching power in the important area of specialised industry, areas such as in aerospace, computers, pharmaceuticals. It shows how desirable that country’s products are and how healthy these valuable companies are.
The UK is eighth in the world by total value of these exports, $68.9bn, behind South Korea and France. Russia has only $5.4bn worth of high-tech exports a year, putting it 28th globally below Poland, and Mexico.
This is one way to measure the emphasis on research and investment and the creativity of a nation. It’s used as an indicator of future economic strength. Russia does well here.
Russian residents filed 26,495 patents in 2011, putting them sixth in the world by total number of patents, ahead of the United Kingdom at seventh with 15,343 patents filed a year. China, Japan, the US, South Korea and Germany topped the list.
Military spending total
Russia has always been a big spender on its military. And it still is. Russia has ramped up its defence spend in past years, tripling it since 2000.
Spending per year on the military is around $90bn in Russia. Russia’s armed forces are just under a million-strong. The UK’s 2012 military spending was $65bn and Britain’s armed forces are 180,000 strong.
See more on our global power player Factcheck.
Here, the UK does have an advantage. 4.83 per cent of the world are native speakers of English, the world’s third most spoken language.
Only 2.1 per cent of the world speak Russian – roughly the same as the number who live in Russia. 12 per cent of the world’s population speak Mandarin Chinese, 4.85 percent speak Spanish.
Soft power was defined by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye in 1990 as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion”.
Britain tends to do well here, but of course, the measurements are subjective. American magazine Monocle graciously allowed Britain to top their 2012 soft power list, following the Olympics. Still, commenters including parliament’s foreign affairs committee have warned that cuts to the British Council, the World Service and the UK Film Council may take Britain down.
But it’s unlikely Russia will be topping any soft power lists soon. Asian countries with strong music and tech scenes are more likely to step in.
Ballet aside, the biggest cultural news to come out of Russia has been tales of repression – the imprisonment of punk band Pussy Riot, or thuggish violence – the acid attack on the Bolshoi Ballet director last year.
Maybe the Russian spokesman was just quashing an awkward question about Syria. But maybe he was picking up on a trend in British politics toward isolationism, away from Europe and away from America – something our Political Editor Gary Gibbon has discussed here.
A lot of hot air and strong words. It will most likely come down to the economic power, rather than bluster. And Asian countries are best placed to do well there.
By Anna Leach