So it is hardly surprising that many commentators are getting very worried about him and re-using the language of the cold war. Extremes of wealth. Extremes of nationalism and military aggression do not make Putin's Russia an attractive place. But before we rush back to a 1960s style standoff with Russia and spend very large amounts of money in Trident, it is worth thinking a bit harder about the current state of affairs in Russia and the best way to deal with it.
In actuality Putin is nowhere near as strong as he looks. Rather he is in an exceptionally vulnerable position. His popularity at home comes from being seen to be a strong defender of the Russian people and someone the country can rely upon to provide stable government. After all the Russians have had quite enough instability and chaos in their history. Not least the period of shock therapy under Gorbachev and then Yeltsin that over enthusiastic free market zealots encouraged naive leaders to impose on the country.
However, the thing about Putin's promises of strength, security and prosperity is that sooner or later he has to deliver. That is starting to become much more difficult for him. Under the Tsars the Russian economy depended largely on agriculture and in particularly from the grain exports from Ukraine. Russian now imports grain and its agriculture is in a dreadful state. Under the Soviet Union the pride of the country was its heavy industry with steel mills, gigantic dams and massive factory production lines. Most of that is now obsolete. If you go to the outskirts of most Russian towns now you can see the declining ruins of these factories rusting into the landscape. The country now imports far more manufactured goods than it sells. Much of it from China. A country that used to be massively poorer than Russia not so long ago. Instead of being an economic superpower Russia has declined to such an extent that it's GNP now represents only 2.4% of world output and declining. Modern Russia depends not on agriculture or industry but on raw materials and energy. The country hasn't built a successful high tech service sector economy. It has earned its keep by drilling for oil, mining for gold and stripping forests of trees.
When a country lives off selling resources it faces two major problems. One is what happens when the raw materials have all gone. In Russia it could be a very long time before that happens but not so long before the cheaper, relatively more accessible resources have been taken and the costs of getting the others start to go up drastically. The second and much more important problem is that the country is utterly dependent on the world price for commodities. If that price is rising then the government can afford to do quite a lot and its leader will tend to be popular. If the price is falling then it is much harder for the government to pay its way and the opposite becomes true.
The price of oil has fallen. The price of gas has fallen. The price of gold has fallen. Putin's government can cope with that happening for a relatively short period of time. These price falls seem to be lasting a long time. The lower raw material prices go and the longer and sharper the decline the weaker Putin's position becomes. How long can he remain popular if the rouble keeps dropping in value, the price of all those lovely goods in the shops goes sky high and people start losing their jobs?
In such circumstances it is quite common for politicians to look to foreign adventures to cover up for the domestic problems. A land grab in the Ukraine followed by a quick and successful war in Syria might just buy Putin enough time to paper over the cracks until the world economy expands again and the demand for Russian raw materials rises.
But what happens if the war in Syria drags on and Russian troops start coming home in body bags? Russia's last military adventure was in Afghanistan and that didn't turn out so well. Putin may have looked like a strong man when he started bombing Syria but he didn't do it out of strength. He did it because Assad was losing ground. If Assad continues to struggle on the ground and more Russian soldiers get dragged into bloody fighting then opinions could quickly change. Putin's adventures in Ukraine are always going to be popular in Russia. He can always get a domestic audience to back actions that can be presented as taking the side of the Russian speaking people of eastern Ukraine. The same isn't true of Syria. The deaths of Russian troops in an adventure there is unlikely to be well received for long.
In these circumstances the West needs to think carefully about its strategy. Investing in Trident is just about the worst policy we could adopt. Pointing nuclear weapons at Putin plays straight into his hands. It enables him to tell the Russian citizens that the country is threatened by the West's missiles and that the country has to make sacrifices to build up its own military and support its strong man leader if it wants to protect itself. There are very few Russian citizens who wouldn't back their country's leader 100% in a second cold war.
There is, however, an alternative approach that undermine him much more thoroughly and rapidly. Keep the price of his raw material exports low and buy as few of them as possible. Whilst Russian oil and gas is being exported in enormous quantities to the rest of Europe including the Ukraine then strategically that region utterly depends on Russia and financially it funds his economy, his weapons and his popularity. Effectively we are sending shed loads of money to an extreme nationalist leader that we don't trust. On the other hand if we cut down on the purchase of his raw materials then he will very quickly be in a really serious mess. He would either have to cut the incomes of Russian people drastically or cut back on his military expenditure and try to change the Russian economy over to producing more modern and sustainable products and services.
The obvious way of achieving this is to follow the Germans in investing rapidly and heavily in the move to a low energy consumption economy based on renewable energy and low use of raw materials. Put simply if we really want to take on the Russian regime then we have to stop sending money to it and stop buying its oil. The only secure and sustainable way of doing this is investing in green technology.
Put simply spending money on Trident is the single best way to help Putin remain secure in power whereas investing in green energy is the best way to undermine him. So the next time someone tells you that we must be responsible and defend ourselves against bullies by wasting money on some general's out of date toy then you know what to say. Investing in renewable energy isn't just saving the planet. It is the best way to be patriotic, win the next cold war and get rid of that extreme nationalist manipulator of sham elections - Vladimir Putin.