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Russia – an irritant but hardly a rival to the US
The idea that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin remain genuine peers today is a delusion left over from the era of superpower confrontation

At the height of the Cold War, Russian and American leaders would meet on equal terms to bargain over the fate of the world. If one titan abruptly refused to meet the other, the news would cast a chill over humanity. Yet the idea that Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin remain genuine peers today is a delusion left over from the era of superpower confrontation. For all the bombast of the flint-eyed occupant of the Kremlin, the inescapable reality is that America possesses a yawning advantage over Russia on every possible measure of national power, ranging from economic strength to military might and cultural appeal.

So Mr Obama’s decision to cancel a proposed summit with Mr Putin in Moscow, ostensibly because of the latter’s decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, was a justified response to the posturing of a weaker rival. Mr Snowden offered himself as a convenient foil to needle the US. Mr Putin duly seized the chance – and Mr Obama responded in a sensible and measured way.

No one doubts that the global balance is turning against the West, but there are two reasons why Russia cannot be classified among the world’s rising powers. First, the country’s population remorselessly declines almost every year. Poor health, alcoholism and emigration are steadily reducing the number of Russians. One UN forecast suggests that the country will have lost 36 million people by 2050, reducing its total population to 107 million – not much above the 103 million who will inhabit Uganda, a country whose territory is less than 2 per cent of the size.

Compare and contrast America, with more than 300 million people – or indeed Britain, which now has the fastest-growing population in Europe. Our island adds about 400,000 people every year, which is close to the annual rate at which Russians are dying off. While the scale of immigration has made many Britons uneasy, it is true that fewer people mean a weaker economy.

That, indeed, leads us to the second reason for Russia’s long-term decline. Today, America’s economy remains eight times bigger than Russia’s. Remarkably, Russia’s gross domestic product is still 30 per cent smaller than Britain’s. Its economic strength has been artificially inflated by high oil prices and the possession of vast energy reserves. But Russia’s customers are turning to shale gas and future oil prices are an uncertain lodestar for economic health. True, Russia can act as a troublesome spoiler on a range of international issues, most notably Syria. But it is worth remembering that, for all his bluster, Mr Putin has the power of an irritant and an obstructionist to the West, rather than a rival.


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