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Do not underestimate Russia. That is just what many commentators are doing these days as they look at its declining population, its collapsing stock market, its dangerous reliance on oil and gas exports, the dismal style of its political leadership, its docile parliament, its aggressive foreign policy, its revoltingly rich oligarchs, its rampant crime and corruption and much else.

But things may not be nearly as bad as they appear and it could be that beneath the unattractive veneer a very different and far more appealing Russia is waiting to escape the past and shed its gloomy image.

Unfortunately, the country’s political leaders and policymakers are doing very little to help it along this happier path. Russia comes across as a surly and aggressive former giant, quick to take offense and ready to play the bully with its smaller neighbors. Its concept of a commonwealth of surrounding countries, the relic of old Russian empire, seems to be to threaten or invade outright, as in the case of Georgia, rather than coexist with respect and harmony. Its idea of using its energy dominance as a political weapon is utterly shortsighted and will certainly backfire, as its Western European customers make it a priority to reduce their reliance on Russian gas supplies.

This is an aim in which they will succeed in a few years, with the construction of gas pipelines from Central Asia that bypass Russia, with a big increase in local gas sources and with the expansion of nuclear electricity.

Meanwhile, the Russian political style remains redolent of the communist era, or even the czarist era, with Moscow’s dreadful traffic jams cleared for political bosses to speed through and a remote Kremlin administration dominated by the absurdly orchestrated personality cult of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, still the president in all but name. Ministers are appointed at whim, rising and falling as in a medieval court, and accountable not to the public but only to the top boss.

Yet there is another Russia with quite a different image. This is the bustling Russia of art, innovation, design, diversity, theater, music and musicians. It is the Russia of technological brilliance and creativity, of a high degree of culture and education, of a level of mass literacy and appreciation for great writers and artists that puts the West to shame.

And these are just the qualities that will lift nations and societies to greatness in this age of global networks.

A Russia of this kind could be the attractive center of a supportive commonwealth. It could take a leaf out of the British book and learn how to transform old dominions into new and equal friends. The Russia of Putin, with its nationalist drum-beating and silly posturing, as well as its yacht-loving plutocrats and its pervasive criminality, was fed by the cascade of riches from high oil prices. Now these have gone, and are unlikely to return for some time, there could be changes.

Far from being a disaster for Russia, the oil-price collapse could be the opening for Russia to achieve glorious and powerful diversity and build on its true qualities. Personalities like the dazzling young Daria Zhukova could set the new tone as a sort of renaissance woman combining all the potential assets of a new and different Russia — art, enterprise, amazing beauty.

Perhaps this is what modern Russia really needs above all — a woman’s touch. The women of Russia could surely do a better job than the backward-looking machismo men who have led it to nowhere. The world badly needs such a Russia, not just for its resources but for its positive influence in building new international institutions to replace the faltering or hollowed out 20th-century structures such as the U.N. Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and many others.

Perhaps above all, it needs Russia to help revise the regime to curb nuclear proliferation and to carry forward the emerging Obama vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. In particular the world needs Russia to handle the prickly problem of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Russia’s present leaders just do not seem to have thought through what a nuclear Iran would do to the whole Middle Eastern and Central Asian regions, and to the security of Russia itself.

Russia is everybody’s neighbor — Europe’s, China’s, Japan’s. It is the pivotal territory between Asia and Europe, and between the Arctic and the Middle East. It is in everybody’s interest to see the Russian people secure and prosperous and making the best of their colossal talents. So yes, let’s see the women of Russia take over, not because they would somehow be a softer touch or lose sight of Russia’s interests, but because they would understand the modern world more perceptively and how Russia could best to contribute to it. That would be a great change for the better for the whole global community.

David Howell is a former British Cabinet minister and former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He is now a member of the House of Lords.

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