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The Russian Bear Roars Again

Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006

We detect a distinct theme among recent analyses of Russia's foreign policy. While commentators are all over the map in their assessment of the rectitude of Russia's foreign policy as implemented by President Putin, a critical mass of opinion-shapers that at least grudingly recognize a kind of brilliance in Russian foreign policy seems to have coalesced.

We offer as evidence for this first -- and, yes, foremost -- today's commentary in WPR by Marissa Payne. She writes that, in its foreign relations, Russia is having its cake and eating it too -- or, as they say in Russia "The wolves are full and the sheep are still alive":

Russia currently has three conspicuous tools by which it can divert Western attention in order to pursue what has been described as a neo-imperialist policy in the [Commonwealth of Independent States]: Iran, North Korea and its vast energy supply, the last of which has gained increasing status as a foreign policy issue as opposed to an economic one since Putin came to power.

The second piece of evidence for this new zeitgeist vis-a-vis Russia comes courtesy of today's Asia Times. In "Moscow Plays Its Cards Strategically," F. William Engdahl emphasizes how Russia has been using its energy resources as a lever. Like Payne, he concludes that Europe and especially Washington have been outclassed strategically by Putin's shrewd realpolitik:

These developments underscore the re-emerging of Russia as a major global power. The new Russia is gaining in influence through a series of strategic moves revolving around its geopolitical assets in energy - most notably its oil and natural gas. It's doing so by shrewdly taking advantage of the strategic follies and major political blunders of Washington. The new Russia also realizes that if it does not act decisively, it soon will be encircled and trumped by a military rival, the US. The battle, largely unspoken, is the highest stakes battle in world politics today. Iran and Syria are seen by Washington strategists as mere steps to this great Russian End Game.

And, finally, the new issue of The American Interest contains at least two articles that could be submitted as evidence in our case. But we'll confine our comments to the one that is offered for free online. In "The Bear is Back," Paul Dibb argues that Russia "is not finished as a major power":

On the contrary, it is making a comeback and will very likely continue to do so in the years ahead. The ingredients of Russia's comeback consist of both the will and the way. As far as its will to be a great power once again, Russia's leadership and elite class—arguably the broader population, too—devoutly wish for a return to great power status. Russian history is largely to credit for this will, and the particularities of that history also suggest that great power status is likely to be interpreted in Russia as largely military in nature.

As to the way, four factors combine to give rise to the larger picture. First, the Russian economy has bounced back and, given the world's likely increased demand for energy in the decades ahead, Russian fossil fuel assets are almost certainly going to rise sharply in value. Second, the Russian Federation is a large country with a highly educated citizenry. In an age where human capital is a far greater predictor of national vitality than raw population numbers, the quality of Russia's people can and likely will outweigh any issues with quantity. Third, in military terms, Russia has the potential to surprise the world with technological breakthroughs. And fourth, perhaps less "material" but no less important a factor, Russia finds itself in a position to ally with a wider range of powers than any other major state. Power, of course, is relative, so the benefits of being able to integrate an intelligent diplomacy into a broader national policy should not be underestimated.

Might Washington have something to learn from Russia as to the benefits of both an "intelligent diplomacy" and an integrated grand strategy? We'll let you draw your own conclusions.