BACK in 1992 I was in Moscow, staying at the city’s iconic Intourist Hotel. The boxy, very un-Russian skyscraper near Red Square was where foreign visitors normally resided. I arrived a few scant months after the Soviet Union had finally expired, on December 26, 1991. The country had shattered into 15 independent states. There were signs of political and economic chaos everywhere.

My abiding memory of that visit is of the burly chap with a loaded Kalashnikov, who guarded my hotel floor. In fact, every floor at the 20-storey Intourist enjoyed similar armed protection. Moscow in those days was like the Wild West, and the hotel was keen that its foreign customers – mostly visiting business folk from abroad – were not kidnapped, robbed or otherwise abused.

READ MORE: Progress on land reform must not stand still

Here was a country caught in the jaws of hell. So what did the West do, having “won” the Cold War? Did it rush to the aid of the people of the former Soviet Union with a new Marshall Plan, of the sort that rebuilt western Europe after the Second World War? Did we go out of our way to turn former “enemies” into friends, not seeking to humiliate Russia in its hour of despair? No, the West continued to treat Russia as a potential enemy. For example, in 1995, the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) went out of its way to recruit Sergei Skripal, a colonel in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence.

Now why were we recruiting Russian agents in 1995, well after the Soviet Union disappeared into the dustbin of history? We might, conceivably, have been interested in Russia’s involvement with the genocidal Balkan wars then raging. However, Colonel Skripal was based in Madrid, when he was recruited by the British (which, incidentally, raises interesting questions regarding SIS activities on Spanish soil). One can’t help thinking the SIS might have been better occupied tackling al Qaeda than Russia – 1995 was the very year Osama Bin Laden’s group seized control of Jihadist groups in Bosnia.

But that is history, as they say. Unfortunately, it is a history that has come back to bite us. The decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union saw Russia’s publicly-owned assets stolen by a gang of kleptomaniac gangsters. For ordinary Russians, these were dark days, as the economy contracted by a third. Little wonder then that Russians welcomed a strong man to restore order, a certain former KBG operative called Vladimir Putin.

Putin was no angel. He was knee-deep in corruption and more than willing to use his roots in Russia’s security apparatus to settle scores with both business and political competitors. He has controlled Russia for the past 18 years, both in his own financial interest and for those of a narrow clique of Russian billionaires – provided the latter stay out of politics and stick to enjoying their London hideaways, Mediterranean yachts and expensive mistresses.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson accuses Russia of ‘creating’ Novichok nerve agent

How did Putin away with it? Partly because the KGB, rechristened the FSB, was the only institution left standing after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Putin was the FSB. Partly because he got lucky – Putin’s presidency coincided with a surge in global commodity prices that filled the Kremlin’s coffers and (until recently) boosted economic growth. And partly because Vladimir was an opportunist.

Every time he gambled – restarting the war in Chechnya, blackmailing foreign companies into returning Russian-owned assets to his cronies, seizing back Crimea, or assassinating rivals (such as Boris Nemtsov in 2015) – he got away with it. In all this, the West was compliant – the Brits in particular.

With the lacklustre UK economy running a humungous permanent current account deficit with the world – four or five per cent of GDP every year – we need somebody to give us the foreign capital we need to pay our way. That somebody, in large measure, consists of Russian oligarchs with their ill-gotten billions invested in the London property market. Which is why, when FSB whistleblower (and British agent) Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in 2006, Tony Blair’s Government did … well, not a lot.

So why have relations with Moscow turned toxic? Certainly not because Putin’s Russia is some existential threat to the West. Russia is an economic minnow – its GDP is roughly the same size as Spain’s. The British economy is roughly twice the size of Russia’s, while the eurozone area has an economy getting on for 10 times that of Putin’s state. And Russia’s income per head is down there with post-crisis Greece.

Anyone who really thinks Putin could go head-to-head with the West, far less sustain any long-term conflict, is being delusional. Certainly, Putin has been chancing his arm recently. But that has to do with domestic factors, not a desire to take on the West. At the time of the last Russian presidential elections in 2012, oil prices had collapsed and Putin’s “economic miracle” was over. Result: rising internal dissent, including street protests over vote-rigging.

A rattled Putin responded with bribery, offering a rise in public-sector wages. But to provide the cash, the workforce had to be cut. No wonder that barely 30 per cent of voters turned out in the major cities, including Moscow.

Today, Putin is feeling vulnerable – hence the bumping off of opponents and fresh appeals to patriotism. Unfortunately for the Kremlin, the normally-compliant West has new priorities, mainly economic. Backward Russia was allowed to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2012 – when it patently wasn’t ready – in order to open up its economy to European and American imports. Putin responded to the inevitable surge of foreign imports by bending WTO trade rules to protect the Russian economy.

That – not bumping off opponents – was a clear violation of the tacit “live and let live” by which the West left Putin alone provided everyone made money.

Capitalist economic competition soon turned political and military. Puny Russia has become the target of a new Cold War, partly as a way of telegraphing to China to behave, partly because Western defence firms need a new excuse to sell their weapons, and partly because the West itself needs a diversion from rising public hostility to austerity. Also, for the growing number of openly racist regimes in eastern Europe, positioning Russia as an immediate threat serves to minimise liberal opposition in the EU. Even in the UK, bashing Russia has proved a boon for Theresa May, allowing the Tory Party to paper over its Brexit divisions – while still brazenly pocketing donations from Russian oligarchs.

Putin’s petroleum-funded despotism is no existential threat to western Europe, even if it still has a few nuclear bombs. In the security stakes, I’m more frightened of the consequences of British-armed Saudi Arabia’s covert war with Iran. Putin does murder his enemies. But he is only a danger to the West if we make him into one. At home, he is on a shooglier peg than Western media outlets admit. Talking up the threat from the Kremlin only plays to Putin’s need to present himself as Russia’s strong man.

Meanwhile, the old Intourist hotel in Moscow has been pulled down and replaced with a new, five-star Ritz-Carlton. That says everything about Putin’s decadent Russia.