The West has really got to get its act together in its dealings with Russia. It is simply not credible for us to pretend that we are confronting a threat on the scale posed by the USSR throughout the cold war.
Of course, President Putin is dangerous – any charismatic, nationalist strongman with expansionist ambitions and a nuclear arsenal is worth worrying about. But Russia is also Europe’s largest failing state, a country riven by corruption that permeates every aspect of its civil and public life. Its oligarchs have not built their fortunes through honest endeavour. They have plundered their nation’s natural resources aided and abetted by a governing class that is keen to take its share of the spoils.
There is no better example of Russia’s political failings than the £31 billion spent on the Winter Olympics when, just four years earlier, Vancouver put on a great show for £4 billion. How could a country that wishes to be regarded as a great nation squander such precious financial resource on the Sochi vanity project when male life expectancy within its borders is barely more than sixty, nearly twenty years less than across the EU? And it is demographics that are at the root of Russia’s problems. This vast and often beautiful country may be blessed with plenty of natural resources but to be a global superpower you need a global population and it is in this category Russia falls well short. Its enormous acreage is home to a population of only 143 million – a figure that is diminishing rapidly with the country’s plunging fertility rates and one that is forecast to be little more than 130 million in twenty years time.
President Putin may have persuaded his compatriots that their most pressing problems are to be found on their western borders but this is at best a technique in distraction. The real threat to Russia’s long-term stability and territorial integrity comes from China, a country that will increasingly cast covetous glances towards the largely empty lands of its under populated northern neighbour. Indeed, where the Chinese have been invited to cross the border they have succeeded in making parts of southern Siberia “bloom” in a way that no Russian, past or present, has been able to achieve.
President Putin strives to project strength but he is a limited politician who, in common with so many of those who went before him, lacks the imagination and capacity to establish Russia as an admired, serious and constructive player on the global stage. Beating up your weaker neighbours abroad and suppressing homosexuals at home are hardly the actions of a self-confident and serious world leader on top of his game.
In acknowledging Russia’s weakness there is no excuse for appeasement. If Russia wishes to act as a pariah then the West must treat it as a pariah. There are 900 million of us and only 143 million of them. So, if returning its oligarchs to Moscow and St Petersburg means some discomfort for the City and Europe’s financial institutions then so be it. If BP looses an oilfield or two then, quite simply, tough – high shareholder returns come with high risks. If Germany has to pay more for its fossil fuels then it only has itself to blame for its naivety in its domestic energy planning.
President Putin wants his Country to call the shots but Russia simply lacks the real demographic muscle to sustain itself as a credible superpower in the 21st century. President Putin should be taken seriously because he is dangerous but not because he leads a great nation. He does not.
Charles Walker is the Conservative MP for Broxbourne