This truth about the Russian 'threat' could be either reassuring or alarming

Joseph S. Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the phrase “soft power,” appeared on Radio 4 last night and in just 30 seconds delivered the most complete, cogent analysis of Putin’s Russia we’ve heard this year.

The context, before you listen to the clip, is that Europe currently feels as if it’s in thrall to Russia: Putin’s forces are meddling in Ukraine; he’s threatening to cut off gas supplies to the West; and the other European countries have imposed sanctions on Russia in an attempt to get Putin to back off.

Even the routine appearance of Russian warships in the English Channel this week sets British nerves jangling, and that’s because
Russia is also building up its military, in a scary echo of the Cold War.

At the same time, Russia is in a state of economic collapse. It has rampant inflation and its oil economy is in tatters as the price-per-barrel is far below what Russia needs to drive growth. Russian banks are on state life support.

So Russia is both roaring more loudly than it has in years, while at the same time it is more enfeebled than it has been in years.

PutinREUTERS/Maxim ZmeyevRussian President Vladimir Putin, doing his thing.

So what is the best way to think about Russia, and how threatening is Putin, really?

Fast forward to 12.50 of Radio 4’s Start The Week show and Nye sums it up in just a handful of sentences. Russia, basically, is weak:

I see Russia as a country in decline. It’s a one-crop economy; two-thirds of its exports are energy. It has a terrible demographic problem; the number of Russians is shrinking. It has a huge health problem; the average Russian male dies at about age 61. And it’s got such enormous corruption that it can’t reform itself. So I think it’s a country that’s seriously in decline.

Putin’s adventurism, such as we’ve seen in Ukraine, which has led to Western sanctions, cuts him off from the sources of Western technology that they really need for modernisation and he’s turning Russia into China’s gas station. So I’m very pessimistic about the future of Russia.

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and stop worrying about Putin, consider Nye’s caveat:

… sometimes declining countries are more risk-accepting and dangerous. Look at Austria and Hungary a century ago.

He’s referring to the brink of World War I, which was triggered by Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The conflict killed 16 million people.

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