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Western Europe’s future stability and well-being will depend on many factors, but among the most important will be peaceful co-existence with Russia, all the more important with all the recent tensions.

Russia will remain strongly nationalistic, as a mega-tribe of 160 different ethnic tribes, 140 million citizens spread across 11.5 time zones. Russia is a nation that has been forged by hardship and comradeship in adversity. Siberia makes up more than three-quarters of Russia’s landmass, with average temperatures below freezing, while 50% is forest and 11% is tundra, a bleak and treeless, marshy plain.

Russia’s future economy will depend on energy prices and exchange rates, both of which collapsed in 2014: Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil, second only to America in gas production. Oil and gas account for 70% of export revenues and government spending is hugely dependent on them.

Russian desire for strong leadership and nation

The Russian tradition is of strong, autocratic leadership, and powerful figureheads like President Putin will continue to enjoy popular support, so long as these figures deliver increased living standards, improved security and better public services, or at least so long as living standards do not drop too much as a result of the leadership’s actions. President Putin is likely to continue his strong grip on media and political movements, by popular consent.

Just 110 of Russia’s many oligarchs control 35% of Russia’s wealth, some of it gained rapidly by dubious means, at a time of chaos following the fall of communism. Government agencies have a long-term strategy to place great pressure on oligarchs who are ‘living off Russian money’ in other nations, as well as in Russia.

If you talk with members of the generation who grew up under the Soviet regime, you will continue to find warm nostalgia, tinged with slight sadness, when they look back to life as it was under Brezhnev. They will continue to point to full employment, regular pensions, stability, public order and respect for Russian traditions. But Russians born after 1980 have no such adult memories, and are already 35 years old today.

Daily life in big Russian cities can be expected to be similar to that of many European nations, with vigorous consumerism, capitalist culture, and middle-class wealth. However, we may also see what many Russians would describe as loss of ‘soul’ or ‘dushá’ in smaller cities like Samara or Tolyatti, with very high divorce rates, addiction, depression, and lack of purpose or moral strength.

Russian foreign policy and military renewal

Russian leaders are likely to promote an enlarged free-trade area with border nations such as Georgia and Ukraine (but not China), to rival the EU, with some success. They will seek to influence former CIS nations with a combination of diplomacy, economic measures, media messages, military pressure and less obvious actions.

President Putin will continue to fret about what he sees as persistent American efforts to undermine Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, military or covert. He will also worry about similar activities by some European nations. The stronger the EU becomes and the more united NATO is, the more threatened Russia will feel.

Russia lost over 20 million lives in the Second World War, which is 60 times the toll of UK military deaths, and 90 times the toll in France. It is very hard for non-Russians to fully grasp the emotional force of that disaster on the national psyche, and on Russian pride. It explains the ‘Never Again’ and ‘Don’t mess with Russia’ mantras that are set to influence foreign policy for several decades.

The nation is also deeply scarred by the loss of the Soviet empire, as Britain was with regard to its own empire in the 1950s‒1980s, and is fiercely proud of its heritage, culture and military strength.

Deep unease and anxiety over NATO and the EU

Therefore, Russia is likely to remain bitterly opposed to any further extensions of EU or NATO influence or control, close to its borders, and will be easily provoked by fear and mistrust to vigorous actions of many kinds to prevent this. Such steps would be likely to damage Russia’s economic growth, and we will see Russian rhetoric that may feel like a throwback to the Cold War.

However, such rhetoric will be popular at home, unless people are hit by major, prolonged declines in living standards that they come to blame on the government rather than on sanctions or other actions by foreign powers.

Russia is likely to want to spend more on defence than any other nation except China and America over the next two decades, and to seek strategic alliances with China, to reduce political and trade risks to the West.

Russia is already an unbeatable power in the wider European region in terms of tanks and rockets, artillery and troop numbers, but also in locally stored tactical nuclear weapons. NATO has little local strength in comparison, without resorting to the threat of first nuclear strike, which is almost unthinkable.

Russia will also increase spending on foreign aid, to win friends in regions such as Africa, and strengthen military ties.

Challenges for Russia

Despite former superpower status, Russia’s economy was only the size of Italy at the start of 2014, and shrunk to the size of Spain with the collapse of oil prices and EU sanctions. A sustained regional conflict would rapidly destroy a significant part of Russia’s wealth.

Internal security will remain a key issue: the interior ministry bill exceeds by far state spending on health.

Other challenges include capital flight by Russians moving wealth to ‘safe havens’ ‒ $170bn in 2014 alone; low life expectancy in men (64 years – 50th in world), partly related to alcohol; corruption – ranked 127th in the world by Transparency International; lack of strength in manufacturing; Islamic separatists; threat of a ‘coloured revolution’ inflamed by social media; and a crumbling legacy from tens of thousands of Soviet-era tower blocks.

Despite these things, expect a more vibrant, self-confident, militant and wealthy Russia within 15 years, but still bound tightly to global markets, and constrained by them.

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