Here's a novel idea: the West takes over Russia's management

The emperor is naked - Russia hardly matters in world affairs in any positive, constructive sense

REYKJAVIK 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan came within an ace of renouncing nuclear weapons in their entirety? Or Malta 1989, where Gorbachev and George Bush pronounced the Cold War over? Or, for readers with even longer memories, the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, at which Stalin and the Americans carved up the post-war world ? Well, next month sees the linear descendant of those epochal encounters. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin are to hold a summit in Moscow. A meeting of the degenerate and the dispossessed, you may say. Oh for the great men of yesteryear, those of us reared in the bipolar world of rival superpowers are tempted to sigh. Now, the saddest aspect of the occasion will be its sheer lopsidedness.

The current trivialisation of America's political debate may be regrettable, even dangerous. But the miasma that envelops Bill Clinton cannot obscure the fact that not since Britain at its Victorian apogee has one country called the shots like today's United States. And at this moment, when the gathering crisis seems financial rather than political, the embarrassment caused by Clinton's follies matters less than it might. Arguably indeed, the most powerful men in the world are the ones who control America's purse-strings: Alan Greenspan at the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin, the Treasury Secretary. But Russia's degradation is in an entirely different league.

Not that it is exactly a surprise. I remember arriving in Moscow for this newspaper in the frigid early January of 1987. I beheld the queues, the bleakness and corrosive shoddiness of everything in the capital of world Communism, and, like generations of correspondents before me, I asked myself, was this it? Was this what I had been raised to fear? Was this the mega-state whose GNP was computed by clever men at the Central Intelligence Agency to be the equal of America's own? So I imagined another and shimmering Soviet Union, a parallel secret country beyond the snows which we foreigners were never allowed to visit, where you would find futuristic cities, and terrifying technical virtuosity. Then, when Mikhail Gorbachev eased the rules, I went to the once forbidden industrial centres such as Chelyabinsk and Kemerovo. I saw obsolete factories spewing out pollution of every imaginable hue, to produce goods no one could afford. I saw at first hand places whose male inhabitants were lucky if they lived to 50. I realised at once that it would require half a century, and money undreamt of, if these people were to become like us.

But the illusion lived on. As in the story of the emperor with no clothes, we witnesses and bystanders became accomplices in the deceit. At first the pretence was essential. Bush played the Soviet endgame with consummate skill. For that, rather than for his defeat of Saddam Hussein or for his daily massacre of the English language, we should remember Mr Clinton's predecessor. Bush was accused of being too passive. But he had grasped that ultimately even the US with all its might could do little to shape events. Never did he humiliate Moscow; never did he treat Gorbachev as anything less than an equal. That is one reason why one of the more brutal empires in history came to an end with but a handful of lives lost.

But tact in excess, the continuing propagation of the lie, ultimately benefits no one. Russia was granted full membership of the G-8 as though it were one of the globe's financial heavyweights, not a beggar of the second rank, whose latest currency devaluation has not exactly sent tremors through new York, Frankfurt and London. And the charade goes on. American astronauts continue to tie their fates to Mir, that orbiting Intourist hotel of a spacecraft, again in the interests of preserving Russian dignity.

Above all, there has been the spectacle of the International Monetary Fund bending its rules, time and again, to allow more billions to flow to Moscow, waiving conditions that it has imposed uncompromisingly upon Asian countries whose economic health is far more important to world financial stability than is that of Russia. The cost of such folly is now apparent. Sergei Dubinin, the head of the Russian central bank, admits that $3.8bn of IMF money has been lost, probably for good, while the fund has virtually run out of fresh money to lend. If those right-wing dinosaurs of the US Congress take a pretty dim view of this, for once you can hardly blame them.

The inconvenient truth,which can be avoided no longer, is that the emperor is naked, that Russia hardly matters in world affairs in any positive, constructive sense. Its influence is almost solely negative, wielded by the veto and the refusal to co-operate. In that perspective, American policies might have been deliberately tailored to achieve the worst - above all Mr Clinton's foolish decision to expand Nato eastward. Moscow warned countless times against it - but still Washington seems surprised when the Russians play odd-man-out over Bosnia and Kosovo, oppose Western sanctions against Iraq, and play fast and loose with nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran.

Of all the indignities of post-Soviet life, this slide down the international league table has been among the most difficult for ordinary Russians to bear. Communism, for all its failings, offered a sort of a bargain, of privation at home in exchange for clout abroad. Now the privations, for all but a few, are worse than ever, and the might and respect have all but evaporated. In this dispirited, enfeebled land, shorn of its self- respect, Bill Clinton will arrive next month like Superman. But what is he to do there?

For one thing, he might follow the example of George Bush and do nothing. Of course, the preservation and fostering of democracy in Russia is hugely important. But if no one quarrels with the goal, what means do we have to attain it? The IMF has promised $23bn, but not even double or treble that sum would do the trick in Russia - short of the politically impossible, the full-scale subcontracting of the Russian government and economy to Western management. Why otherwise throw good money after bad, when there are a score of more deserving recipients to be found around the world?

That said, one tantalising historical precedent does exist. In 1867, America purchased the 600,000 square miles of Alaska from the tzars for a few million dollars. What about Russia now selling an even larger swath of Siberia to the US for a few trillion dollars, payable in instalments over several decades? Let me say at once that the idea is not mine. It was advanced, and not wholly in jest, by some academics a few years ago, when Russia's future was a matter for hope rather than despair.

But the scheme has a compelling, if simplistic, symmetry. Russia would be assured the colossal sums it needs, over the period it needs, to turn itself into a clean and modern country, without running up debts it can never repay. Western expertise would be able to exploit Siberia's huge resources. As for this further act of US expansionism - well, America can hardly become more powerful than it is already. Would Russia buy the scheme? Probably not. But only by asking will Mr Clinton find out.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil