The bear swaggers again

Russia's moves against Georgia and Poland are prompting fears of a new Cold War between Moscow and the West.
Russia's former president, Vladimir Putin, has presided over a resurgence in his country's economic and military might, largely thanks to a booming oil sector. ((Mikhail Klimentyev/Associated Press/ Presidential Press Service))
Russia is back.

Flush with petro-rubles and one year into a huge rearmament program, the world's largest country is flexing its muscles. Georgia, Ukraine and perhaps even Poland know this only too well.

And it's not just the military.

While the West slumps, the Russian economy leaps ahead at seven per cent a year. Moscow has more billionaires than any other city on Earth.

Just 10 years after a financial implosion that drove the country into near-bankruptcy, today's Russia has all the glitz and confidence of a nouveau-riche entrepreneur-on-the-make.

In European capitals and Washington, there are fears of a new Cold War, or worse.

After all, Russia still has nuclear missiles pointed west, and plenty of them.

The bear and the new world

The growling of the Russian bear is resounding through what the first President George Bush once called "the new world order," the post-Communist scenario where democracy, capitalism and liberal social values were supposed to predominate.

It's a scary thought, but maybe, just maybe, not as bad as the worst-case scenarios suggest.

For starters, those who help shape American foreign-policy thinking say today's Russia isn't yesterday's Soviet Union.

"I do not think it is accurate or useful to see this in terms of a new Cold War," says Strobe Talbott of the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The cold war had very specific characteristics. It was a global geopolitical, ideological contest or struggle between two armed camps and we know what they were.

"This is a new phenomenon, although it derives a lot from history."

That history is recent — bitter memories of humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Russia's economy shrank alarmingly and its voice was ignored by a triumphant West.

Modern-day Russian soldiers in Second World War uniforms ride through Red Square in November 2006 in an enactment of the call-up to fight off Hitler's advancing army. ((Sergey Poromarev/Associated Press))
There's also the legacy of Russian Imperialism in the 1900s when the Czars projected their country as a military, economic and cultural behemoth like Britain, France or Germany.

The wars and geo-politics of the 20th century hit Russians hard. World wars killed tens of millions of soldiers and civilians; Communism promised much but delivered little.

It was a wounded, humiliated Russian bear that staggered into the current century.

But many commentators warn against easy analogies, quick conclusions. This is a country, they say, where things are often not as they seem.

Remember the Potemkin village

"Russia was never as weak as it seemed, nor as strong," says Aurel Braun of the University of Toronto, "It's a country that's very good at stage management. There are centuries of experience. Don't forget, the Potemkin village is a Russian invention."

Braun is referring to the fake facades of thriving villages built along the route taken through the Crimea by Catherine the Great during an 18th century royal tour. They were supposed to fool the Empress into believing that her kingdom was full of happy, loyal, prosperous subjects.

Through bellicose rhetoric and the bullying of neighbours like Georgia, Russia — Braun believes — is trying to make the West believe it's stronger, richer and more confident than it actually is.

"This is a vast entity with oil wealth and nuclear weapons," he says, "but it's also a place with a per capita incomes that are well behind other industrialized states, and a place with a catastrophically shrinking population that will be a real problem in the years ahead."

Braun is referring to the fact that more Russians die every year than are born, or settle in the country from abroad. The average annual per capita  income in Russia is around $15,000, behind even poorer European countries like Portugal or the Czech Republic. Oil wealth doesn't trickle down particularly fast.

Georgians with their eyes covered sit atop a Russian armored personnel carrier while being detained by Russian troops in the Black Sea port city of Poti, western Georgia, in August 2008. ((Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press))
Another explanation for Moscow's furious response to the Georgian situation can be found in a new pipeline being built between the Caspian Sea and Turkey, argues BusinessWeek magazine's Steve Levine, a long-time Central Asia hand.

The politics of pipelines

The pipeline passes through Georgia and bypasses Russia completely, Levine told CBC's The Current.

"Russia has opposed these pipelines from the beginning," he says, "They reduce Russian influence in what are in effect former colonies. By bombing Georgia, and sometimes near the pipeline, Moscow is sending [the U.S.] a message: you don't control this region."

The old Soviet Union had direct authority over most of Central Asia and the countries around the Caspian Sea. Russia's invasion of Georgia, Levine believes, is a message to local leaders to keep Moscow in mind at all time when they're signing big petroleum deals with Western multinationals.

So how to respond to Russia's muscle flexing in the neighbourhood it once controlled, and yearns to dominate again?

The United States and Europe, through NATO, have condemned Moscow's military aggression but done little else. A military alliance designed to thwart a Soviet invasion of Western Europe can seemingly do little to stop a relatively small number of Russian troops from menacing a tiny neighbour.

Again, says Strobe Talbott, the answer lies in what Russia has become, not what it was. This is a country that yearns to be accepted in the West, whatever posturing it does.

Diplomacy, not tanks

"Russia [doesn't] want to go back to a system where they're squared off against the rest of the world and have a different system of government and economics," Talbott says, " What they do want to do is rejoin the world on their terms and on the basis of their strength, some of which they are demonstrating now in the Caucasus."

In other words, Moscow needs to be told that it will be taken far more seriously as a global power if it uses diplomacy and trade to get it what it wants, not tanks and missiles.

That's all fine, says Aurel Braun, if you're dealing with a government that isn't corrupt, authoritarian already, and rich with oil wealth. The challenge of Russia resurgent, he says, is a little more complex.

"We need to be balanced, respectful of Russian nationalism, of course we do," he says, "but if Russia discovers that this whole Georgian exercise has been cost-free, then we'll have made one huge miscalculation. I'm very skeptical that this is a regime that will start behaving responsibly anytime soon."

Domestic discontent and demographics may have more impact on Moscow in the long term than Western diplomacy and disapproval, Braun says, and that may be too long to wait.