Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is Russia really that strong?

Richard Beeston in The Times thinks not:

Flush with billions from the sale of oil and gas, the Kremlin may calculate that it does not need allies in the West and would rather be respected and feared than befriended.

That too would be a serious mistake. For all its big-power bluster, Russia is weak and vulnerable. Russian tanks and aircraft may have smashed the fledgeling Georgian Army with ease, but most of the weaponry was Cold War-era and many of the troops conscripts. Anyone who has seen the Russian Army operating in the Caucasus knows that the military will need a generation to modernise. Meanwhile America, and its main Nato allies, are decades ahead in military technology and combat experience.

Russia is also facing a severe demographic crisis. Its population is shrinking by 700,000 people a year. The UN estimates the population will fall below 100 million by 2050, down from around 146 million today.

Indeed, Russia's economy is only booming because of oil and gas. It has nothing else. Now Saudi Arabia, Brunei and other countries have thrived just on energy, but that's it. Not technology, not manufacturing beyond arms, not services.

It doesn't mean Russia shouldn't be deterred, but it is not an equal to the USA, or even China. What it can do is so limited by generations of crushing conformity, authoritarianism and the suppression of innovation, variety, diversity and entrepreneurship. It is not a reason to be complacent, but also not a reason to really fear Russia - it hasn't got anything else to scare the world besides its aging nukes.

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