Can the world get by without Russia?

James Meek

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.'


  • 20 July 2014 at 3:53am
    therapsid says:
    Your blithe dismissal of an entire nation, a country of 143 million people, is symptomatic of the degeneration of the Western left.

    More than a decade ago the American liberal magazine the Atlantic posted a cover story crowing in its headline that "Russia is Finished".

    Western intellectuals seem to have been gunning for Russia's dissolution for a very long time indeed.

    To put it bluntly, it amounts to a virulent yet political acceptable form of bigotry. Anti-Slavic and anti-Russian prejudice is even more fashionable than anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment.

  • 20 July 2014 at 12:50pm
    Simon Wood says:
    This piece is reassuring in a mad world. Russian belligerence is unsettling - it was only in 1993 that Yeltsin's tanks shelled the parliament building.

    Planes blasted from the sky, rockets launched from tunnels, land bombarded from sea... I was walking somewhat subdued up Denmark Hill the other day when a hare-eyed clerk running to catch the 'bus thrust a piece of paper into my hand, on which was scratched in a mad hand:


    Instead of hating
    everything, sow
    some seed and
    watch it grow.

    OK, you think
    this is banal,
    so here is
    my gun.

    Watch it
    There. Now
    you are gone.

  • 21 July 2014 at 9:26am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Russia-bashing, or in recent weeks, Putin-bashing seems to have become a popular pastime in western media but using 'big' as a criterion for anything seems to be avoiding the issue. And what does 'shun' mean in this context? The media I have access to doubt if Putin's election was fair and portray him as a latter-day czar (or in some cases as a latter-day Stalin), a dictator ready to use whatever means he wants to achieve his goal of a new, bigger Russia, which will include those bits they lost in the nineties. Somebody should be working on a comparison of the USA and Russia in terms of foreign policy, active intervention in other countries, willingness to abide by international law, treatment of political prisoners ...(you can add your own comparisons). We might find that the USA is big but getting smaller while Russia is trying to get bigger. Which nation is currently working on trade agreements that will bring most of the developed world under its control? Oh.

    • 21 July 2014 at 12:58pm
      jabberdafunk says: @ Geoff Roberts

      You may not have noticed, but the title of the article is "Can the world get by without Russia?"

      Not "Which nation is working on trade agreements", or "a comparison of russia and the usa in terms of foreign policy" or whatever other made up article subjects you've decided this should have been about

      You're literally ranting about the fact that this article isn't a completely different article.


    • 28 July 2014 at 1:46pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ jabberdafunk
      Thanks for living up to your pen name. I think I noticed the title, so maybe if you re-read (or read) my comment you might understand my point. But I don't expect so.

  • 22 July 2014 at 2:03am
    Golo says:
    Typical of the cussed autism of the US-UK gang. What 'world' are you talking about....India, China, Brazil, I suppose.

    They all want to get along with Russia. Have just set up a big international bank with her.

    You guys are living in some private Dark Age of your own.

    • 30 July 2014 at 12:56pm
      semitone says: @ Golo
      Golo please stop your pejorative use of the term "autism". There are better words for what I think you're after (self-absorbed, maybe?), and also those of us with autism or with autistic friends & family might take offence.

  • 22 July 2014 at 2:06am
    Golo says:
    The imposition of slash-and-burn US ''free market'' ideology with the concomitant destruction of Russia's social and health services in ''golden'' 1990s is estimated to have killed 10 MILLION Russians. A bigger holocaust than Stalin's.

    Maybe that is why Russia is not so big today.

  • 22 July 2014 at 2:22am
    tony lynch says:
    'Can the world get by without Russia"? That is a serious question? Are we meant to replace "Russia" with other places and say "No the world can't get by without X"? Sounds to me like the "World can't get by without the US" is Meek's implies reference frame here, and that is troubling. And anyway what/who is "the world"? here? Is it that funny thing "the international community" which notoriously consists of the US and whoever makes up here "the coalition of the willing"? Or is "the world" without Russia as Russia isn't part of the world? (Is China part of the world?) Why has Meek got himself into such a mess here?

  • 22 July 2014 at 4:14pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Yep, Meeks seems to have gotten himself into some kind of confused rhetorical lather here, and the criterion of "bigness" falls apart all over the place. Russia is still certainly a "regional Great Power" in the 19th century sense (remember the Great-Power status of Prussia for about a century and a half, despite its small size in comparison to the other accepted Great Powers). And it may continue to be a global Great Power for a variety of reasons, including its control of resources others want and need and the size of its nuclear arsenal. As to "getting by without Russia," this seems to be a real piece of fluff, a rhetorical question that makes no sense from any point of view. It implies that everyone else ("the world") can safely pretend that Russia doesn't exist - politically, economically, or even demographically - what kind of silly notion is that? "The world" is not a tea party that refuses to invite Putin, but a complicated weave of networks comprising almost 200 nations, many of whiom will look to Russia for this, that, or the other. I'm not sure what Meeks was trying to at with this piece, but I don't think he achieved any clarity.

  • 29 July 2014 at 12:15pm
    Alan Benfield says:
    Personally, I blame the parents: anybody whose mum calls him "Prince of the World"* is bound to grow up with a big opinion of himself. And I'm not talking about James Meek.

    On another tack, I seem to have read an entirely different piece to all the other contributors above, some of whom seem to have used it as a tabula rasa upon which to inscribe their own opinions. James Meek's point (if I read it correctly) is largely that the Russia we see today is still being viewed as if it was the USSR of the past. In reality, while it has geographical size, nukes and abundant natural resources, the Russian Federation of today is, as he rightly says, a shadow of its former Soviet self.

    *Think about it, or learn some Russian.

  • 31 July 2014 at 12:11pm
    girlfriendmeuk says:
    Russia is a great country, which occupies a third of the Earth's land, not do without it.

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