Skip to main content

Russia is Canada's neighbour; Ukraine is not. Russia has 143 million people; Ukraine had about 45 million before the loss of Crimea. Russia is a European and Asian power; Ukraine is neither.

Russia has a seat on the United Nations Security Council; Ukraine does not. Russia is indispensable for negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran or any settlement in Syria, assuming either is possible; Ukraine is irrelevant in both instances. Russia has a large military, including a blue-water navy and nuclear weapons; Ukraine has neither. No long-term multilateral arrangements for the Arctic can be made without Russia.

Russia's economy is the eighth-largest in the world, according to the World Bank; Ukraine's is 53rd. Russia's per capita income is about $14,900, according to the International Monetary Fund; Ukraine's is about $3,800.

Both countries are incredibly corrupt. Russia ranked 127th of 177 countries on Transparency International's 2013 Corruption Perception Index; Ukraine was 144th.

Russia's population is declining. Its population is smaller than two decades ago: 149 million then, 143 million now. Life expectancy, although better than a decade ago, is shockingly low at 70 years, compared to 80 to 83 in most Western countries and 74 in China. Twenty-five per cent of Russian males die before the age of 55. Alcoholism, which the government has described as a "national disaster," has dropped in the past decade but remains a societal plague.

Russia produces next to nothing that the world wants, except natural resources (and perhaps vodka, fur hats, artists and hockey players). Getting anything done there can be a nightmare, what with corruption, bureaucracy, favouritism and absenteeism. Ask the brilliant Canadian architect Jack Diamond, who designed the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, about the travails of doing business there.

All of which is to say, in snapshot form, that Russia can neither be ignored nor ostracized, no matter how chauvinistic its behaviour, nor should it necessarily be feared. Russian chauvinism has always been one-part nationalism, one part awareness of internal weakness, which is why Russia's historical relations with the countries of Western Europe have oscillated between co-operation and confrontation.

The reaction of Western countries to the putsch in Crimea has bordered on the farcical. Russian leaders banned from visiting the West and Canadians banned from Russia have both declared the exclusion a badge of honour. Schoolboy talk, in other words.

Removing Russia from the Group of Eight makes sense, since it is a club for Western democracies, which Russia is now in name only. But criticism of Russia hardly exists, including in the other so-called BRIC countries, Brazil, India and China, which have nothing in common except a sense of their self-importance.

What Russia wanted, and still wants, is a sphere of uncontested influence. When the West, possessed of a post-Cold War triumphalism, would not grant that sphere, as Vladimir Putin and his cronies defined it, Russia rebelled.

The West hoped that Russia would be content with membership and co-operation in various ways with Western institutions, for reasons of economic growth, international prestige and further internal liberalization. But it turned out that Russia, apart from its small Europhile elite (whose ambitions have historically always been frustrated), wanted the reverse: fealty from neighbouring countries and authoritarian rule so that Russia would be "strong." The Russian fear of internal weakness, even chaos, is hard for foreigners to fathom.

More than the takeover of Crimea, it was the speech Mr. Putin delivered last week that signalled the end of Western illusions about the new Russia, which is actually a variation of the old Russia. It was a thoroughly creepy speech, full of references to the "stab in the back" rhetoric like that heard in interwar Germany, grievances real and imagined heaped on Russia by the West, virulent and ugly nationalism, self-satisfaction born of having shattered the shackles of law and morality.

It is now for Europe to reshape its energy policy to become much less dependent on Russia, to expect the possibility of assertive Russian behaviour in the long term, to understand the limitations of assisting Ukraine (which did so little to help itself through terrible government and endemic kleptocracy) and to understand, belatedly, that Russia sees itself through different eyes than the West does.