Summit Cannot Mask Russian Decline

Telegraph View: the gulf between America's national power and Russia's weakness is glaring

Telegraph View
Published: 7:34PM BST 06 Jul 2009

One figure should dispel any delusions of grandeur that Russia might harbour in the wake of President Dmitry Medvedev's meeting with President Barack Obama in Moscow. By 2050, Russia will have only 14 million more people than Uganda, a country less than two per cent of its size. A parlous health system, widespread alcoholism and the shocking fact that Russian women have more abortions than live births mean that the population of the world's largest nation falls by about 800,000 a year. There are 142 million Russians today, but there will be only  107 million in 2050, according to United Nations forecasts, while Uganda's population will treble to 93 million.

Far from recovering its status as a great nation, or even extending its global influence like China or India, Russia is locked in long-term decline. We take no pleasure in pointing this out, for the achievements of the Russian people are exceptional: their literature is justifiably renowned and their stubborn heroism was indispensable to the defeat of Hitler. Yet this only adds to the tragic aspect of a country with so many grounds for national pride seeking to posture as a false superpower. By leading Mr Obama through the mirrored halls of the Kremlin, Mr Medvedev was consciously reviving the image of Cold War summitry when the leaders of the two superpowers met on roughly equal terms to decide the future of the world. "Such powerful states as Russia and America have special responsibility for everything that is happening on this planet," the Russian president declared.

These vainglorious words came from a man who is not even master of his own house. Few doubt that Russia's most powerful politician is Mr Medvedev's
old boss: Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, who
may be planning to return as president at the next election in 2012. Mr Obama generously went along with the illusion of equality, but the gulf between America's national power and Russian weakness is glaring. Despite all Mr Putin's efforts, Russia's total defence budget is still only 11 per cent of America's. Meanwhile, the economy of the United States is 14 times bigger than Russia's.

There are other fantasies, notably the pretence that Russia has anything other than the appearance of democratic freedom or has embraced capitalist reforms. This is a nation where independent journalists risk murder. Mr Medvedev's administration is also willing to use force against smaller neighbours: the shameful invasion of Georgia last August must not be forgotten and will, one hopes, be raised at the G8 summit this week. Russia's leaders should remember that nothing is more dangerous than to delude oneself.