The Telegraph reports:
Russia’s nuclear bombers are permanently airborne once again and President Vladimir Putin loses no opportunity to strut the world stage and flex his country’s muscles. Yet all the sound and fury disguises one essential fact: far from being a rising power like China or India, Russia is locked in long-term decline. At present, high oil prices give Russia’s economy a temporary lift – and afford Mr Putin the cash to display his military prowess.
But demographics underlie every dimension of national power. Mr Putin cannot avoid the fact that Russia’s population falls by about 800,000 people every year. Instead of the present level of 142 million, Russia will probably have fewer than 100 million people by 2050 and vast swathes of the country will be depopulated. Nations with a real chance of shaping events in the late 21st century do not have falling populations. National decline is virtually guaranteed by low life expectancy, alcohol abuse and the remarkable fact that Russian women experience more abortions than live births.
Power in the 21st century will divide between America’s 300 million people, the European Union’s 460 million and China and India with more than a billion each. Against this background, Russia looks insignificant.
Mr Putin’s second Achilles Heel is the Russian economy. Its dependence on oil and natural gas is a blessing when, as now, prices are high. If prices fall or a long period of volatility begins, Mr Putin will quickly feel the pinch. The uncomfortable fact is that Russia is not a centre of innovation. There are no world class Russian manufacturing companies, no universities churning out new inventions. Instead, the economy is largely resource-dependent and rises or falls with global energy prices. In other words, Mr Putin has virtually no control over Russia’s economic destiny. The vagaries of the world energy market will decide how belligerent he can afford to be.
Hence Russia’s gross national product is only about £800 billion. Britain, with less than half its population, has one worth £1.3 trillion.
While every rattle of Mr Putin’s sabre raises new memories of the Cold War, today’s military situation does not compare with the era of the Iron Curtain. In those days, Central Europe was a Russian fiefdom and the Kremlin deployed 18 armoured divisions in the old East Germany, projecting its military power to the geographical centre of Europe. Today, by contrast, the satellite states are independent. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, once republics of the Soviet Union, are members of both the EU and Nato. Nato’s eastern border is now a short drive from St Petersburg. These fundamental realities betray Russia’s essential weakness – which Mr Putin is doing his utmost to mask.