Russia is both a tragedy and a menace. In the Financial Times this week Sergey Karaganov offered an arresting insight into the blend of self-pity and braggadocio currently at work in Moscow. It is as depressing as it is disturbing. Western policy makers seem to believe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis) is the greater danger. But Russia is the nuclear-armed rump of a former superpower and, ruled by an amoral autocrat, it frightens me even more. For Europe and, I believe, the US, there is no greater foreign policy question than how to deal with today's Russia.
The west "proclaimed itself victor in the cold war", according to Mr Karaganov. Maybe the origin of the tragedy can be found in this remark. The west did not just proclaim itself victor; it was the victor. A defensive alliance defeated the Soviet Union because it offered a better way of life. That is why so many wanted to escape the Soviet prison, including many once-optimistic Russians.
Yet President Vladimir Putin, the latest in a long line of Russian autocrats, has stated, instead: "The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century." It was, in fact, an opportunity, one that many in central and eastern Europe seized with both hands. The transition to a new way of life proved unavoidably difficult. The world they now inhabit is highly imperfect. But they have mostly joined the world of civilized modernity. What does this mean? It means intellectual and economic freedom. It means the right to engage freely in public life. It means governments subject to the rule of law and accountable to their people.
The west has too often failed to live up to these ideals. But they remain beacons. In the early 1990s they were beacons to many Russians. As a great admirer of Russian culture and Russian courage, I hoped, fondly perhaps, that the country would find a way through the debris of its collapsed ideology, state and empire. I knew it would be difficult. I wanted Russia to choose western values, however, not just for our sake but also for its own. The alternative of continuing the cycle of despotism was too depressing.
With the selection of Mr Putin, a former KGB colonel, as his successor, Boris Yeltsin delivered that outcome. The president may, for now, be a popular despot. But a despot he is. He is also heir to the project of Yuri Andropov, former KGB head and Soviet leader, for a modernized autocracy. As a loyal servant of the state, he believes results alone matter. Lies are just another tool of statecraft. Only the willfully blind could fail to see that evident truth in recent months.
The west is partly responsible for this tragic outcome. It failed to offer the support Russia needed quickly enough in the early 1990s. Instead it focused, ludicrously, on who would pay the Soviet debt. It acquiesced in the larceny of Russian wealth for the benefit of a few.