|Putin's neo-imperial ambitions
Russia has stabilized under Vladimir Putin's watch, but should the Kremlin try to regain its superpower status?
By Dmitri Trenin
As Russian President Vladimir Putin's re-election approaches on March 14, it is time to take stock of his presidency. The biggest thing to happen on his watch is that Russia stabilized itself. With stability, the face of 21st century Russia was revealed.
What much of the world sees in Putin's Russia is a neo-authoritarian regime based on a state-directed capitalism interlinked with the ruling bureaucracy and flanked by an immature civil society. In terms of raw power, Russia is clearly inferior to the former Soviet Union. This Russia is neither capable, nor desirous of, full integration with the West.
But weakened, as it no doubt is, Putin's Russia still regards itself as a great power. The ruling elite rejects transforming Russia into a junior partner of the US or an unimportant member of the West. As far as Russia's elite is concerned, realpolitik in the 21st century is a fusion of geopolitics and geo-economics, with military might thrown in. Ideology and values play little role.
Thus, Putin does not view closer relations with the West as an ideological imperative, but as a resource for Russia's economic modernization. In relations with the US and EU, Putin wants to boost Russia's status. This is what his modernization policy aims to achieve.
Russian leaders no longer expect real assistance from the West. Self-help has replaced the discredited notion that foreign countries will come to Russia's rescue. Foreign investment is still viewed as desirable, but no one attaches primary importance to attracting it anymore. Russia, it is widely believed, can rely on domestic capital.
The same sort of thinking holds true in military/strategic affairs. Because America only respects strong partners, Russia will modernize the components of its national power that make it comparable to the US, in particular its nuclear arsenal. Overly close contacts with NATO (let alone membership) would deprive Russia of strategic independence.
Of course, confrontation with America must be avoided. But, because an alliance of equals is impossible, a flexible combination of limited partnership and local rivalry seems the most likely course. Russia's leaders clearly recognize the country's true current condition, so they accept the need to concentrate on vital interests. They remain convinced that Russia is a great power, but one that for now must act primarily as a regional one.
The major objective of this strategy in the near future will come down to restoring Russian influence in the states of the former Soviet Union. Call this strategy "Operation CIS." The objective is not to revive the Soviet Union. All CIS countries -- with the possible exception of Belarus -- will retain their sovereignty. When President Alexander Lukashenko departs, Belarus may fold into Russia as East Germany was absorbed by West Germany in the early 1990s.
Russia's transformation into an economic magnet for the CIS will be the major force of renewed Russian strategic influence. In exchange for economic support, the Kremlin will demand political loyalty. The criteria for that loyalty will be fairly simple -- participating in the security framework headed by Russia and eliminating the "excessive" influence of third parties (the US, EU, China, or Turkey) within CIS nations.
Agreements with the CIS ruling elites will become the main instrument for implementing "Operation CIS." This will require painstaking efforts to promote pro-Russian groups and gradually weaken and neutralize pro-Western circles.
This task will be lengthy, but the similarities between the CIS political and economic systems with what exists in Russia will make it easier. Besides, in most cases, Western integration is impossible for these CIS states. Many elites in these countries, because they seized power and became rich rapidly, feel insecure. Russia's support on promising terms may attract them, particularly because the matter of forfeiting sovereignty will not be raised.
But Russia will encounter problems in pursuing this strategy. Putin's attempt last year to have US President George W. Bush recognize Russia's "special interests" in the former Soviet Union failed, just as former president Boris Yeltsin's bid to gain that recognition failed a decade earlier. Unlike Yeltsin, however, Putin won't give up and expects that he can take advantage of the fact that America will be too busy fighting terrorism and WMD proliferation, rearranging the Middle East and containing China to object too strongly.
Russian activism in the CIS will also bring it into direct rivalry with the EU. If the Kremlin uses force to establish its regional hegemony, Europe may again see Russia as a security threat, which would bring about a renewal of the Cold War/NATO policy of containment.
Likewise, China might oppose