Putin’s Year of Living Dangerously

MOSCOW – In the spring of 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on top of the world. Oil and gas prices were sky high, with export revenues flooding the Kremlin’s coffers. The country’s once powerful military, which collapsed with the demise of communism in 1991, was being rebuilt. And Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitri Medvedev, had been eased into power, while Putin downshifted into the premiership.

The United States, moreover, remained a perfect foil for a leader with pretensions to global leadership. The Bush administration’s incoherent foreign policy included a plan to build a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, which allowed Putin to revive the Old Europe/New Europe divisions that began with the Iraq war, with this split appearing to enhance Russian influence on the continent.

Russia’s seeming military revival also played a part in boosting the domestic economy. Arms sales, worth close to $8 billion, were again competing globally with Great Britain and the US, going to nearly 80 countries, including Venezuela, China, India, Algeria, Iran, Malaysia, and Serbia. And those arms sales were often closely tied to Putin’s foreign assertiveness, with the Russian army training and holding exercises in many places for the first time, including Venezuela, as if in preparation for another Cuban Missile Crisis, with Hugo Chávez assuming the role of Fidel Castro.

So good did things seem that Russia suddenly discovered that, perhaps for the first time since the early days of the Soviet era, the country actually had some “soft power.” This first became apparent when the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2014 Winter Games to the Black Sea resort of Sochi. In 2007, Putin addressed the Olympic Committee (in English), and persuasively argued that the Games will “play a major role in Russia’s future. They will help Russia’s transition as a young democracy.”