We can’t be sure that, in the tragedy of Vladimir Putin and Russia, the tragedy of the privatisation of a beautiful old prison by one of its former jailers, a new act has begun. The governments of Europe may hold their breath, move on, tut and do nothing while France sells Russia a powerful new warship in the autumn. Or they may decide that letting Russia invade and promote killing and destruction in neighbouring countries is a bad thing. As the Financial Times writes in an editorial, ‘Russia will become an international pariah and a dark new era in East-West relations will begin.’
Not selling Russia weapons, or trying to break Russia’s stranglehold on European gas supplies, doesn’t make Russia a pariah. And the notion of a ‘dark new era in East-West relations’ is a good example of the widespread fallacy that Russia is ‘the East’ to Europe and America’s ‘the West’. If Russia is ‘the East’, what does that make Malaysia? Equating Russia with ‘the East’ feeds into another popular fallacy, that Russia is a big country. It is not as big as it seems.
I was talking to an MP the other day who had been casually lobbied by a businessman with interests in Ukraine and Russia. The MP shook his head and talked of the dangers of provoking Russia, a country of 300 million people. I pointed out to him that he was referring to the population of the old USSR. When the Soviet Union broke up, half its population, mainly Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and so on, became citizens of the other new countries. The actual population of Russia is about 143 million, and falling – about the size of Germany and Britain combined, and smaller than Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nigeria. The figure is also about the same as the former communist countries of Eastern Europe plus Ukraine.
One of the reasons Russia appears to be a very big country is that it looks large on the map. In terms of square mileage, it is still the biggest country in the world, by a huge margin. But geographical ‘bigness’ can be misleading. Standard map projection bloats, visually, northern countries like Canada, Greenland and Russia, and all but a fraction of Russia’s land, like Canada’s, is empty and too cold for agriculture.
Another explanation for Russia’s apparent ‘bigness’ is that many male journalists and commentators, rather like Putin himself, link ‘bigness’ closely to military ‘bigness’. One of the reasons Britain appeared ‘big’ to the world in the 1930s, when it was already hollowed out economically, was because of the size of its navy. The United States today is much less ‘big’ than the number of its aircraft carriers suggests. Russia appears ‘big’ because it has a nuclear arsenal commensurate with the superpower it no longer is.
A third reason for Russia’s apparent ‘bigness’ is the legacy of its past: the decisive role of the Soviet Union’s vast armies in defeating Hitler, its 20th-century advances in space, the influence of its 19th-century writers and its role in the spreading of socialist ideology around the world. Just as American jingoists like John McCain flatter the Kremlin by portraying Putin and his colleagues as new-generation Brezhnevs, there are still those on the left in Europe and America who seem to find in speaking up for the mendacious, militarist kleptocrats of the Kremlin a sublimation of guilt at their own failure to inspire armed revolutionaries around the world with progressive alternatives to religious fundamentalism and patriarchal capitalism.
Finally, there is the bigness of Russia’s natural resources. It has a lot. It has a lot of oil. It has a lot of gas. It has a lot of metals. So do other countries. Paradoxically, the reason Russia’s natural resources make it appear to be ‘a big power’ is not because of the prospect that it might sell these resources to other countries, but the prospect that it might stop. And with any such cut-off would go a concurrent cut-off of money; for an outrageous proportion of the money European countries pay Russia for gas and metals immediately leaves Russia as payment for European goods and investment in Europe.
So Russia is map-big, nuke-big, history-big and gas-big. But it is not, in reality, as big as it appears. Its neighbours are not obliged to define their existence as props and brackets for its weight. It would be a tragic consequence of Putin’s worldview were the world to shun his country for a time; it would also be expensive in the short term, which makes it unlikely. But if the question is ‘Can the world get by without Russia?’ the answer is ‘yes.’