Putin the Poker Player

Perhaps it takes an ex-KGB spy for a Kremlin ruler to play diplomatic poker with skill. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin shows as much mastery at international diplomacy as he does in handling Russian domestic affairs. Not since Gustav Stresemann, Weimar Germany's foreign minister, played the Soviet Union and the West off against each other, has a leader with so weak a hand played his cards so effectively. Putin's latest moves in North Korea, and his careful tap-dance over Iraq, are just the latest examples.

Diplomacy, in its traditional form, was never Russia's strong suit. Under the Tsars, Russia was often isolated. Even when part of alliances--the Triple Alliance with Bismarck's Germany and the Habsburg Empire, or the Entente with France before the First World War--Russia was kept at a distance.

Russian leaders typically dealt with their fear of isolation--and encirclement--by going out of their way to appear threatening. In the Soviet era, the distances between Russia and its neighbors became unbridgeable chasms, with the USSR ringed either by hostile states or weak, servile ones. Stalin wasted no time in antagonizing Communist China after Mao's revolution of 1949.

Not until Boris Yeltsin did Russia make its first steps to bridge these divides. But Yeltsin could never get over Russia's lost superpower status; his periodic growls to assert Russia's wounded pride ultimately made him seem unreliable. True, his democratic Russia was permitted some role in global diplomacy. In Yugoslavia, former Premier Victor Chernomyrdin joined Finnish President Matti Ahtissari in resolving the Kosovo crisis of 1999. But this hardly amounted to recognition of Russia's indispensability; after all, NATO troops entered Kosovo without Russian consent.