After President Bush first met Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said he had looked into his soul. The friendship implied in that meeting has now thoroughly soured. Today, Putin looks at America and despises what he sees-judging by his headline-making remarks at a recent international conference. America's military actions are "illegitimate," Putin says, and have created only more instability and danger in the world as it acts unilaterally and disregards international law.
Putin has taken Russia in the opposite direction from the democratic one pursued by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. More and more, power is concentrated in the hands of the Kremlin, with Putin conducting the state's business in an increasingly autocratic fashion. Putin is dedicated to the state. Restraints on its power have been so dramatically loosened that the executive, once again, dominates the legislature, the judiciary, the police and security services, the formerly self-governing provinces, and the national mass media-especially television.
By undercutting democracy, Putin satisfies the Russian thirst for order. His support exceeds 70 percent in a country where 75 percent rate order as their most important priority (only 13 percent plump for democracy). Overwhelmingly, Russians place their economic well-being ahead of social justice. They hated the humiliating turmoil of Yeltsin's first stab at democracy, which was accompanied by a collapse of the ruble. The Yeltsin years left many Russians yearning for a strong leader, a stable economy, and stores with western consumer goods.
The Kremlin, under Putin, has frozen liberalizing reforms. This is a state where power counts far more than the law, but make no mistake: It is not the totalitarian Soviet Union. Russians today enjoy freedom to live as they choose, to travel abroad, start businesses, watch foreign movies, and surf the Internet.
Obstructionist. Putin is committed to transforming Russia into an energy superpower. He has retaken the commanding heights of the economy, especially in oil and gas, a move that can be traced back to a 1999 essay under his name, before he was president, where he singled out raw materials as the basis for Russia's revival as a major world power. No wonder some people call him Vladimir Gasputin. Putin's top lieutenants generally serve not only as cabinet ministers or Kremlin aides but also as chairmen of various state-controlled companies, notably those in the energy sector.
All this is plain to see, but it is Russia's foreign policy that requires concentrated analysis. The Kremlin has declared, through its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, that Russia should not take sides in the global conflict and that it must act as a mediator. In other words, Russia isn't going to join the West and no longer seeks to integrate itself into the family of western capitalist democracies. Russia will cooperate with the West, but only on its own terms and only in certain areas; it reserves the right to be obstructionist in others. The Russians favor working directly with a range of countries, many unsavory, and will use their assets as leverage, be they arms, nuclear technology, or energy resources.
Putin's decision to pressure former Soviet states in Russia's "near abroad" strained those relations, but he defends what he sees as Russian interests with ruthless pragmatism, supporting despicable but friendly regimes in Uzbekistan and Belarus and punishing wayward ones in Ukraine and Georgia.
Now the Russian president is making moves in the Middle East that are, to put it charitably, unhelpful. He has sent tactical air-defense missiles to Syria. He invites leaders of Hamas to Moscow in an attempt at diplomatic arbitrage, hoping to emerge as an indispensable mediator in the region. Of greatest concern is Putin's attitude toward Iran. He has resumed arms sales and provided support for the billion-dollar nuclear plant at Bushehr while continuing to oppose effective sanctions or their enforcement to restrain Iran's march toward nuclear enrichment and to sell Tehran high-quality arms, including ground-to-air missiles.
This reveals the extent to which Russia is playing its own game at the cost of its partnership with the West. There is little influence we can have today on Moscow. Soaring oil revenues mean that Russia is no longer the economically weakened country it was a decade ago, in desperate need of help from abroad. If Russia is going to change, it will be from within or not at all.
The West must somehow achieve a delicate diplomatic balance to deal with this new Russia. We must avoid isolating it without seeming to legitimize its bureaucratic authoritarianism. We must continue to speak out against Putin's moves away from democracy and his use of energy to intimidate neighbors. We must selectively find ways of helping developing democracies in Russia's near abroad that want to escape its influence. Russia is, once again, a problem for the West. But at least now the game is not one of nuclear checkmate, as it was in the past.