Russia’s national revival and new assertiveness under President Vladimir Putin is not really home made but reflects highly auspicious international conditions. Oil and gas prices are sky high, the United States is overwhelmed by serious problems in Iraq and the Middle East, and the West is divided about how it should deal with Russia.
Putin’s administration has been keen to take advantage of this favorable environment. Yet, although some of the Kremlin’s moves seem clear and reasonable, others can scarcely be described as rational or forward-looking.
For example, Russia’s desire to take ownership stakes in Europe’s gas distribution markets makes perfect sense and is fully legitimate given Russia’s energy assets and pipeline capacity. Likewise, Russia’s effort to expand its influence in the energy-rich countries of Central Asia is aimed at consolidating Russia’s stature as a major energy supplier. Asserting itself as a major power outside the Western realm, Russia has boosted the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China and most Central Asian countries. Indeed, Russia is increasingly attaching ever greater significance to its relations with China, something of a strategic shift in foreign policy, even if it is not yet clear how close Russia wants to be get to China.
But bullying Georgia and Moldova, demonstrating support for Hamas, or indulging North Korea do not seem to be guided by any strategic sense of Russia’s far-reaching interests. They seem guided by pure and simple spite. Russia’s heavy-handed pressure on Georgia and its support of secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two unrecognized republics within Georgia, inflames passions and risks destabilizing the already tense Northern Caucasus. Should instability ignite into open warfare, Russia will find it impossible to avoid the consequences.