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Will the Meek Inherit Russia?

MOSCOW – In a recent interview, Russia’s President Dmitri Medvedev proclaimed that he wants a second term in office following the 2012 election, but that he would not run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who put him in power in the first place. Such a rivalry, Medvedev implied, would damage the country’s well-being and image.

Medvedev’s statement should end speculation about whether he is running, yet it keeps the suspense alive regarding Putin, whose influence is far greater than that of Russia’s meek president. Many, particularly in the West, would like to see Putin and his prickly, anti-Western authoritarianism pass from the scene.

Indeed, over the last ten years, Russian foreign policy has been animated by defensiveness and suspicion. Russia even has uneasy relations with the congenitally non-threatening European Union. It is touchy about the independence of the near-abroad countries, especially those politically or geographically close to the West – Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. More than a decade after the fact, the Kremlin still decries NATO’s eastward enlargement as a security threat.

The reality, of course, is that NATO is as much of an offensive threat to Russia as Switzerland is. But it is not NATO’s military power that Putin’s Kremlin finds alarming; the real threat is the alliance’s potential to “swallow” Moldova or Ukraine at some point. Creating a precedent for the democratization of post-Soviet space is a nightmare scenario for Putin and his cronies.