Russia will never recover from this devastating collapse

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 1 April 2023. © Richard Kemp

Last June – on the day the UN gave a Ukrainian civilian casualty count of 9,931 so far in Russia’s war – I sat at the UN Human Rights Council as the Russian ambassador excoriated Israel over its latest defensive operations in Gaza. Such unjust condemnation of Israel is common fare at the Human Rights Council and we are all used to the Kremlin’s hypocrisy, but how could the Russian Federation use the council as an international platform for its anti-Western bile, despite being suspended in April last year?

In the parody of international order that is the UN, that is no more surprising than Russia’s assumption yesterday of chair of the Security Council, despite its president being indicted for war crimes. It epitomises the failure of the UN, formed to bring world powers together to maintain international peace and security. There have been more wars in the 78 years since its founding than in the equivalent period beforehand. The Security Council has failed to put any kind of brake on nuclear proliferation, with Russia’s accomplice Iran now on the cusp of becoming a nuclear state. Its impact on the war in Ukraine, the most deadly in Europe since 1945, has been zero.

The danger of the Russian Security Council presidency is more in optics than reality. Foreign Minister Lavrov can use his temporary platform to grandstand, but the inbuilt impotence of the Security Council means he can do nothing to advance Russia’s cause. With the exception of China, the other permanent members are likely to show their contempt by downgrading diplomatic representation while Russia is in the chair. Lavrov’s lack of authority in the council reflects his country’s marginalisation. The successor to a superpower – albeit a malign one – is no longer even a great power.

Its economy is flatlining and its leader, through incompetence, is systematically dismantling an army that was once so powerful that half a million US troops were permanently stationed in Europe to counter it. Russia’s demographic turmoil has long been a nightmare for Putin and all he has done is exacerbate it, as thousands of young Russians are slaughtered in Bakhmut and, according to Moscow’s media, upwards of 700,000 young men have fled the country to avoid mobilisation.

To many countries Russia is a pariah, with even its status as an armed gas station in ruins. It will probably never be able to recover from any of this and will struggle to be taken seriously – except by other rogue states who scent the opportunity to buy oil and gas at a discount, or perhaps a few fighter jets.

Yes, Moscow has nuclear weapons, and Putin never misses an opportunity to threaten to bring them into play, but he knows that China is unlikely to allow their use. That encapsulates the parlous depths that Putin has dragged his country down to. For the foreseeable future, Russia will be nothing more than a Chinese vassal. During his recent visit to Moscow, Xi Jinping’s barely-concealed disdain contrasted humiliatingly with his host’s lavish hospitality and knee-bending aggrandisement.

We don’t know what was agreed behind closed doors, but if Xi promised Putin weapons and ammunition, as US intelligence fear, it would not have been to strengthen Moscow but to fuel what is becoming a proxy war between China and the US. Indeed, Xi encouraged this war with a pact of ‘friendship with no limits’ on the eve of Putin’s invasion, just as the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Russia and Germany vouchsafed Hitler’s attack on Poland.

As Russia’s dependency on Beijing deepens, Putin and his successors need not expect any favours from the Chinese Communist Party. Only in February, Beijing issued a decree that eight Russian cities in east Siberia, which China claims as its own, must be marked on international maps by their Chinese names, including Vladivostok. Xi’s eyes may focus increasingly on this long-running territorial dispute and a self-eviscerated Russia may not be able to do anything about it.

Image: First meeting of the Security Council, 1946. United Nations, Flickr