On February 10, 2007, at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a candid speech in which he revealed his view of the present state of the world, as well as how it should be. Significant portions of his presentation were dedicated to criticizing the current "unipolar" world (i.e., one with a single superpower) in what Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer calls "a new standard in anti-Americanism." In his invective, Putin charged the United States with "unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions" that have "caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension."
He also railed against "an almost uncontained hyper use of force—military force—in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." "We are seeing," he said, "a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. . . . The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way. . . . Who is happy about this?" Moreover, he alleged that America's dominance "inevitably encourages a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction."
Putin's identified solution to ending the unipolar "power imbalance" was, at first glance, the United Nations:
I am convinced that the only mechanism that can make decisions about using military force as a last resort is the Charter of the United Nations. . . . When the UN will truly unite the forces of the international community and can really react to events in various countries, when we will leave behind this disdain for international law, then the situation will be able to change.
However, at the end of his speech, he betrayed the fact that he had also had other solutions in mind:
In conclusion I would like to note the following. We very often—and personally, I very often—hear appeals by our partners, including our European partners, to the effect that Russia should play an increasingly active role in world affairs. In connection with this I would allow myself to make one small remark. It is hardly necessary to incite us to do so. Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy. We are not going to change this tradition today.
Putin did not speak these words in a vacuum. On the contrary, Russia has recently begun to step back onto the world stage. Though this probably does not presage Round Two of the Cold War—a time, incidentally, that Putin regards with nostalgia—the Russian Bear is nonetheless beginning to rouse itself from sleep. It is now officially asserting itself as a world power and acting accordingly.
Sovereign states commonly use other entities—nations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), rebellious factions, or supranational bodies like the UN—to do their bidding. Certainly no exception, Russia is developing and using such levers of power to enhance its position. Thus, for the past two winters, Russia has cut off energy supplies to its neighbors: It substantially reduced exports of natural gas to Ukraine in January 2006 and of oil to Belarus in 2007. The cutback of gas to Ukraine was especially noteworthy, for the real target was Europe at the end of the pipeline—to demonstrate that Europe's ability to stay warm during the winter was directly tied to its relations with Russia.
Russia's recent activities in the Middle East also demonstrate its willingness to foster chaos to keep other powers—specifically, the U.S.—off-balance. The Russians built Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, yet, despite being contractually obligated to supply nuclear fuel for it, they will probably never complete the project because, if Bushehr were operational, it would undercut Russia's options and influence in the area. In fact, Russia has dragged its feet to remain a core player in this drama. The project's original completion date was in 1999, and the reactor core has been functional since 2004. Russia, however, is best served by appearing to give Iran an ace in the hole, yet keeping it perpetually out of reach, making Russia an essential middleman who cannot be ignored.
Similarly, Russia regularly supports Syria, the Hamas-led Palestinian government, and other states that are thorns in the side of the U.S. Recently, however, it has also sought inroads with America's Arab allies. Right after his speech in Germany, Putin visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, recognizing that, even though they have reasonably close relations with the U.S., these nations are also concerned with American policy in the region. Thus, Russia may have an opening to insert itself again into matters that may not directly concern it but that it can leverage when the time comes.
In short, though Soviet power was cracked, Russia is far from defenseless. Flush with capital from its state-owned oil and gas companies, it is beginning to throw its weight around, particularly in its "near-abroad." While not necessarily seeking a resumption of the Cold War, with policies of Mutually Assured Destruction, Russia is still working to undermine and indirectly challenge the United States in order to enhance its own position. In the months ahead, keep an eye on the wily Bear as it continues to reassert itself.
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