Putin steps … up?

Most people expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to maintain control, which is not unusual in Russia.

In Casino Royale, the latest Bond film, ‘M’ declares, “Christ, I miss the Cold War!” Is the world catching up with that sentiment? Yesterday marked the culmination of Vladimir Putin’s second term as Russia’s President. He is to be replaced by his hand-chosen (though “elected”) successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Since being elected in 2000, Russia has had a remarkable economic turnaround under Putin’s guidance. But, at the same time, such prosperity has come with an active, robust military reconstruction and a consolidation of political power by a kleptocratic elite.

President George W. Bush once remarked that it was in Russia’s blood to have an authoritarian government. And why should he be doubted? Scanning public opinion polls around the world, Putin has enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings of any leader (over 80 percent). Yet, to some fanfare, Putin has steered Russian foreign policy in a sometimes irrationally confrontational direction.

Indeed, some Russian hostility is understandable. The missile defense shield that the Bush administration has proposed almost begs opposition, even though it is designed to counter Iranian missiles. Given the low accuracy of the American interceptors (roughly 57 percent), it seems foolish to think the sheer number of Russian nuclear missiles could not overwhelm the system. That may not be the point. A viable defense against ballistic missiles will give pause to any nation, for it gives the potential rival a first strike capability. This was the case in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan enacted the Star Wars program, which spurred massive Soviet investment in new missile technology.

Still, the nonsense of the missile shield aside, it seems rash for Putin to threaten to aim Russia’s missile arsenal at Europe again for offering America a place to build installations. But that is not even the start of Russia’s newfound assertiveness. For the first time since the Cold War, Russian bombers have resumed routine patrols with a live nuclear payload. The West did not take that lightly. Incidentally, your correspondent was at a conference at the RAND Corporation, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., on the day the patrols were resumed. Many of his fellow attendees worked for various defense agencies, and their phones seemed to come alive with the news.

What the intent of these actions was is anybody’s guess, but air shows are not the end of the story. Russian diplomats have been noted starting speeches with the plainly useless fact that NATO now has more tanks than the Nazis did before World War II. While the analogy is hard to swallow, the Kremlin has taken it to heart, withdrawing from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe that limited the militarization of central Europe.

Russia also has been using its energy pipelines that Europe relies on as a strategic bargaining chip, often exacerbating the energy strains already faced. It has made European leaders unable to protest for fear of reprisal. Speaking in Minneapolis last week, John Mickelthwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist newspaper, recalled a 2006 conversation he had with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the paper running a cover critical of Putin. Blair’s only response: “better you than me.”

Is Russia so vulnerable as to warrant Putin’s aggressive reaction? Hardly. In all fairness, such overt hostility is, likely, a way of forcing the world to take Russia seriously once again. After all, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 1998 financial crisis had left Russia in torpor. The economy rebounded impressively, primarily due to rising energy prices (Russia has envious natural energy reserves).

The economic resurgence has rallied Putin’s popularity in Russia, but it is deceptive. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, both Professors at Stanford, point out the myth of Putin’s success. Rather than being responsible for the newfound good fortune in Russia, he has simply enjoyed coincidence. For one, he obviously had no control on the surging prices of gas and oil, which make up a large portion of exports. For another, many of the reforms that led to a stronger economy were designed and implemented by Yevgeny Primakov, Putin’s predecessor.

Still, that should not suggest Putin to be merely fortunate. He has followed sensibly liberal policies that have helped sustain economic growth. The seeming golden time in Russia ends there, however. The government has become increasingly infected with cronies of Putin – typically former KGB types – who have done their part to remove any semblance of democratic process. Opposition parties have been dismantled, media outlets shut down and journalists even killed.

Now that Medvedev assumes the presidency, Putin has arranged to become Prime Minister. Most expect Putin to maintain control, which is not unusual in Russia. Throughout the Soviet era, the country was run not by the president, but by the head of the communist party. Given Putin’s iconic status in United Russia, that trend may continue.

It is unlikely Medvedev will prove an independent leader. He is the only high-ranking official without a KGB background. Economic forecasts do not bode well, and tension may arise between the president-elect and prime minister.

Next year’s incoming freshmen class will be the first to have never lived during the Cold War, but they are not walking into a new one. Still, governments everywhere can expect to, again, deal with an assertive and influential Russia. And they will have to live with it.

Those at St. James’ Street welcome comments at [email protected]