President Dmitry Medvedev signaled Tuesday that Russian foreign policy, ostensibly now under his control, will not stray from the often contentious course set by his predecessor. Former president Vladimir Putin clashed with the West on a host of issues, including the proposed installation of a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe and the eastward expansion of the NATO alliance.
Medvedev said that Russia, buoyed by oil revenue and increasing self-confidence, will continue to pursue the assertive global role that Putin made a centerpiece of his foreign policy. “Russia has become stronger and is capable of assuming greater responsibility for solving problems on both a regional and global scale,” Medvedev said, speaking to a gathering of Russia’s senior diplomats at the Foreign Ministry here.
So Russia is back. Well, sort of. Despite all the hysterical cries of a new Cold War and an incipient dictatorship in Moscow, Russia is simply coming back around to exerting the influence it has traditionally enjoyed in the Near Abroad (Georgia, Ukraine, etc.) and Central Europe for hundreds of years. They consider it part of their sphere of influence, much as the US claims Central and South America, and aren’t very happy with the Western powers meddling in what they see as their affairs.
What people in the West fail to understand is that the Russian people loved Vladimir Putin, and will gladly follow his successor and protege, Medvedev, to the gates of Hell. Post-Soviet, pre-Putin Russia was a nightmare, beset by starvation, disease, hyperinflation and other Third World maladies. The sudden shift to free-market American-style capitalism, almost literally overnight, created a new class of oligarch, a fusion of the organizatsiya (the Russian mafiyas) and former Communist Party apparachiks that in short order ran the Russian economy into the ground for their personal gain.
So, yes, Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian strongman who certainly had people who opposed him murdered and jailed. And, yes, Medvedev is his puppet. But he restored order to a country that ten years ago was a failed state, and curtailed the influence of the oligarchs and the mafiyas, and the people couldn’t be happier about it. There’s a long-winded academic explanation of how Russia never had an Enlightenment and so forth, but I think it’s much simpler: The people were terrorized and hungry and broke, and Putin became a symbol of the strength of the Motherland. Picture the post-9/11 cult of personality that sprung up around George W. Bush, and multiply that by a hundred, and that still may not do it justice.
Missile defense is likely to be the biggest sticking point between Moscow and Washington in the near future. Really, the term “missile defense” isn’t the right one, because the Russians view it as protection against retaliation from an American first strike in the Near Abroad or Middle East, and given the Bush Doctrine of preventative war, who can blame them?
Because the fact is that George Bush the Elder struck a deal with the Russians, as the Soviet Union came tumbling down around their ears, not to expand NATO into the former Warsaw Pact countries, a deal which Bill Clinton promptly reneged on. So for a decade-plus NATO has been creeping closer and closer to the actual Russian border, and is making noises about incorporating the Near Abroad countries. To Moscow, which views the area between their country and Eastern Europe as a buffer against invasion (and with good reason), this situation is going to become less and less acceptable to them.
And the real problem is going to be that Russia, with massive natural resources and the price of oil and natural gas shooting through the roof, now has the muscle to put the arm on Europe and America in a big way. Before this, Russia had to play ball with the West because, well, there was nothing they could do to stop us. Now, they are in a position to dictate terms to us; witness the panic when they cut off the natural gas pipelines heading westward just to prove a point.
So when President Medvedev talks about assuming responsibility for solving regional and global problems, the real message is: “We’re going to be re-exterting our influence west of the Urals, and east into the Stan countries, and don’t try to mess with us.” The balance of power has changed hugely in the last two or three years, and I can only hope America is wise enough to adapt to the new situation.
by Tommy Brown
“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous.”