The Russian Janus

LONDON – Russia presents two opposing faces to the world: one menacing, the other benign. Both have now combined, somewhat unexpectedly, to break the momentum carrying the United States, and possibly other Western powers, toward a disastrous military intervention in Syria.

Russia’s domestic situation remains deplorable. With the collapse of the planned economy in 1991, Russia proved to be not so much a developed as a misdeveloped country, unable to sell most of its products in non-captive markets.

So Russia regressed into a commodity-based economy, mainly selling energy, while its talented scientists and technicians sought jobs abroad and its intellectual life decayed. Russia is also, no surprise, blighted by corruption, which drives away foreign investment and costs the country billions of dollars annually.

This underlying debility has been masked by high energy prices, which, over the 14 years of President Vladimir Putin’s rule, have allowed Russia to combine the features of a kleptocracy with per capita income growth sufficient to quell dissent and create a shopping-mad middle class. The accumulation of reserves from the oil and gas industries can be used to develop much-needed infrastructure. But, for all the Kremlin’s talk of diversification, Russia remains an economy with a Latin American, rather than a Western profile.