Don't fear the Russian bear?

The structure over which Yeltsin presides ranks as one of the most ineffectual central states on earth
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IT WOULD be the irony of all ironies to savour, were it not so terrifying. Could it be that, where fire-breathing Soviet regimes tried and failed for 70 years, the blundering, pitiably weak successor of the Communist state will succeed ? For, just maybe, Russia will prove to be the straw which snaps the camel's back of capitalism at the very moment when the creed seems to have conquered the planet.

It is, I hasten to add in the interests of readers' nerves, merely a possibility, and a fairly remote one at that. In global terms, Russia is little more than an economic tiddler, and central banks have learnt much since 1929. Even so, the news from Moscow grows more alarming by the day. A sickly and erratic leader flounders, abruptly sacking in its entirety a government he installed just five months earlier.

The country's currency has been massively devalued; the Russian stock market has imploded; swathes of the domestic banking system face bankruptcy. Foreign creditors are threatened with default on many billions of dollars of debt. If the very worst scenario does unfold, Russia could be the catalyst for a wholesale collapse of emerging markets, from East Asia to Latin America. In that event, a chain reaction of competitive devaluation might set in, toppling Wall Street and sending first the American and then the European economies crashing to earth.

"We will bury you," Nikita Khrushchev used to thunder at his capitalist rivals in the West, and was laughed at for his pains. Just conceivably, the present occupants of the Kremlin might pull off the feat. But this time their weapon is weakness, not strength. Or, put another way, Russia both does not matter - and yet matters enormously.

On the eve of the new millennium, Russia, in relative terms, is perhaps as weak as it has ever been in all the centuries of its existence as a nation state. Things were bad enough when I left Moscow at the beginning of 1991, when the demise of a superpower was a matter of a few months away. Even then there were queues and shortages in the capital and appalling privations in the provinces. Since then, output has dropped by 40 per cent and investment, the seed corn of future output, has fallen by 75 per cent. In whole sectors of industry, workers go for months without pay. Only the stoical fortitude of ordinary Russians has enabled them to tolerate suffering that, in any other European country, would have brought bloody revolution.

Just as the Soviet Union before it, Russia has an economy which subtracts value and functions largely by barter. The difference now is that its borders have opened. Much of the country's riches and many of the best of its minds have migrated abroad, probably never to return. Putting a figure on Russia's gross domestic product is well nigh impossible. But its importance to the real global economy, other than as a supplier of raw materials, is, in reality, quite minimal. Only for Germany among the major economic powers is Russia an important trading partner.

In political and military terms the picture is just as grim. At least until Mikhail Gorbachev loosened the reins, the Kremlin was synonymous with omnipotence. But the structure over which Boris Yeltsin presides must rank as one of the most ineffectual central states on earth, whose writ runs barely beyond the Kremlin's redbrick walls. I do not advocate the return of tsars or general-secretaries. I merely make the point that today's Russia is both ungoverned and ungovernable.

The rot has long since spread to the armed forces, upon which the Soviet Union's claim to exceptionalism rested. Total personnel strength has shrunk from 5 million to little more than 1 million. The army was humiliated in Chechnia. Russia retains a moderately efficient navy and submarine deterrent, but the airforce has crumbled; flying standards are now "below basic safety levels, let alone combat efficiency", wrote the respected International Institute for Strategic Studies last year. Shorn of its military threat, therefore, cannot Russia simply be ignored ? After all, it has returned to its proper place in history's scheme of things - a large European power, currently going through a very bad patch. So why not let the place stew in its own juice? What, after all, can the West do? Money, as the latest squandering of $5bn of IMF money to defend an indefensible exchange rate proves, is not the answer.

But this argument is not only unfair, it is untenable. It is unfair because to dismiss Russia now is to overlook the extraordinary double revolution under way. Yes, it is in a mess. But that is because it is being asked simultaneously to replace an authoritarian political system and a collectivised command economy with liberal democracy and free markets - of neither of which does it have the slightest serious experience. Both processes, moreover, require nothing less than a change in the national character if they are to be seen through to success. Normally they would take decades, even centuries. Russia is being pilloried because it has failed to complete these two parallel revolutions in just seven years.

Personally, I must confess to a measure of relief at the reappointment of the much-vilified Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. What Russia needs at this moment is not a coterie of brainy young men, more at home in Harvard than Khabarovsk, inflicting a cure which is alien to the patient's body and gradually killing him. Yes, Chernomyrdin is a plodder, a product of the command Soviet culture of yesteryear whose rules govern his thinking. But, in these miserable, desperate times, he is at least the devil the people know. His return is the sign of a bleak and simple truth. Stripped of its power, its certainties and, above all, its self-respect, Russia is currently a land without a saviour.

But it must be saved, and not just for the economic reasons outlined above, compelling though these may be. For politically, as well, Russia has substantial residual wrecking power. In economic terms, it has something of the power of the debtor who, by dint of borrowing not thousands but millions of pounds, becomes not the servant of his bank but its master. In geo-political terms Moscow has the power of the veto. Maybe it cannot make things happen, but it can still stop them happening.

Russia's nuclear decrepitude may be summed up by the rusting hulks of attack submarines that litter its northern harbours - a repeat of Chernobyl waiting to happen - or the nightmare that some unpaid, disgruntled scientist will present to Saddam Hussein a home-made nuclear bomb.

The immediate truth is more prosaic. Measure a country not by what you think it will do, but what it can do, the old diplomatic maxim runs. The Cold War may be over, but Russia still possesses 10,000 nuclear warheads. Even in its current shambles, it remains the one country on earth capable of wiping America off the map.

Diplomatically too, Russia can still make a nuisance of itself. Its support is essential if global non-proliferation agreements are to work. As events have shown, without Russian support, any solution to the Kosovo problem slips out of reach. Here, moreover, the West has already paid for treating Russia as if it did not exist, pressing ahead with the expansion of Nato, against a non-existent Russian military threat, but forfeiting the co- operation of Moscow over Iraq, nuclear arms control and the Balkans. In politics as in economics, Russia is not to be ignored.

In a few days President Clinton will be in Moscow, where he will again urge President Yeltsin and his new government to "stay the course". Never has an American leader entered such a meeting in so dominant a position. Never has the temptation to write Russia off been so great. But, as economic events may show even before he arrives, Russia's very weakness contains a Doomsday scenario of its own.