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Russia has nothing to fear from the West

Of all the risible suggestions that have emanated from British politicians recently, the most ludicrous is Nick Clegg's suggestion that Russia should be prevented from hosting the 2018 World Cup.

If the UK Deputy Prime Minister is so concerned that President Putin should be punished by the world community in general, and the sporting community in particular, why must we wait four years? There are plenty of sporting and cultural sanctions that could be applied at once. For example, Russian football clubs are involved in the current Uefa Europa League (in which St Johnstone and Aberdeen are also participating). Why not expel the Russian clubs from this competition, right now?

Mr Putin's good friend, the celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, is to appear in a starring role at the forthcoming Edinburgh Festival. Does Mr Clegg want him to be welcomed here?

Mr Clegg is trying to clamber on to the world stage. Before he does so, he might look at his own backyard: London. This is a city awash with Russian money, and, by extension, Russian soft power. I'm talking about influence, and cynical, clever people who know how to use it.

Meanwhile, sport and politics should be kept apart. Alex Salmond had the sense to go against his own instincts and refrain from politicising the enormously successful Commonwealth Games. If Mr Putin and his Russian state are to be punished for the appalling destruction of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, Western leaders should first make certain that Mr Putin was indeed directly involved, and then explore the more sensible options they have to hand.

They could simply stop selling armaments to the Russians. In the mid term, they could work out strategies to make key European nations less dependent on Russian oil and gas. They could encourage Nato to build up military forces on the western fringes of Europe, although that might be playing Mr Putin's game for him.

The main problem for the West is that it is led by woefully weak men. I use the word "men" advisedly; the only effective Western leader is a woman, Angela Merkel. But Mrs Merkel is notably cautious in her dealings with Mr Putin. She understands Russia, and the mindset of its top military and political cadres, better than most of her colleagues round the European top table. She was brought up in the then East Germany, where a callow KGB operative called Vladimir Putin learned the basics of statecraft (and espionage). Mrs Merkel also knows that her powerful country would suffer more than most if Mr Putin turned off the gas. She is not weak; she is a realist.

Mr Putin may be a present threat to the West's security, although this is exaggerated; if there is an immediate danger it is rather to be found in the slackness and incompetence exemplified by the current leaders of the UK, the US, France and Italy. That dismal quartet - Messrs Cameron, Obama, Hollande and Renzi - are lacking in moral and political strength, and generally deficient in the ability to exercise power. What is even more alarming is that there is no sign of more effective leaders in the wings, ready to take over.

So Mr Putin could become more dangerous than he need be, simply because those ranged against him are so unimpressive. If Mr Putin is indeed a bully, people should stand up to him. (Mrs Merkel prefers, for reasons mentioned above, to accommodate him).

Most of our western leaders are glib public relations constructs, not genuine statesmen. They have little experience of anything other than the superficial gloss of presentational politics, and in any genuine crisis their political currency is bluster and outrage. When they talk tough, people see through them.

As for Mr Clegg's psychological grasp, it is pitiful. If Russia were prevented from hosting the next World Cup, that would obviously punish, insult and infuriate the ordinary people of Russia. Mr Putin would milk this resentment; it would actually make him even stronger, in an embattled "us against the world" kind of way.

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