The Awakening Russian Bear

The fearsome Russian Bear appears to be coming out of a 16-year hibernation. President Vladimir Putin says he wants to regain Russia's prominence in the world community, and his actions are backing up his words. Unencumbered by Marxist dogma, he is attempting to regain Russia's superpower status by the old Soviet method of intimidation.

Putin has directed the seizure of assets of the oil giant Yukos, and restricted oil supplies to Eastern Europe. But if he can decree such gross confiscation of property, then there is no rule of law and Russia's reforms mean nothing. Moreover, Moscow has drastically raised energy prices and threatened an oil cutoff in former client nations that have had the dared to pursue economic and political independence apart from Russia.

Putin sees Russia's vast petroleum reserves as more than a means to economic growth, but as an avenue to superpower status once again. Last year, Russia was the second-highest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia. Their GDP has grown at an average rate of 5.5% since 2000, largely by energy exports.

Now that world oil prices are high, and rising, his strategy is working. But if they fall, Russia will be in trouble, as was the USSR following the price collapse of oil in the 1980s.

Russians wearily remember the early days of democracy following the collapse of the USSR. That was a time when an erratic, and perhaps alcoholic President Yeltsin governed the country. It was a time when their money became worthless, and crime ran wild.

Most Russians would rather have a strong and secure nation than one that guarantees personal freedoms. This sentiment, and the growing economy, is the basis for Putin's broad popularity. A recent poll found only 16 percent of Russians surveyed want to see Western-style democracy remain in their country. Predictability is perhaps the greatest comfort to the average Russian.

Demographically, however, Russia is a nation that is slowly dying. The country has dwindling birthrates, and amazingly, declining life expectancy. That portends a bleak economic outlook unless they can leverage their energy resources to attain higher growth rates. This is Putin's strategy.

Since he became president, rising oil revenues have allowed the Russian defense budget to grow enormously. Defense outlays for 2007 are at a post-Soviet high of $32.4 billion, rising 23 percent in the past year, and four times expenditures of 2001.

Any discussion of energy prices ultimately leads to the Middle East.

Instability in the Middle East leads to higher oil prices, and works to Russia's financial advantage. For obvious reasons, therefore, Moscow wants to stir the pot. But it's a balancing act. They don't want to unnerve things so badly that the Saudis, or anyone else, feel so threatened that they glut the market with cheap oil.

Other sources of revenue come from sales of arms and nuclear technology. In arms sales alone, Moscow exported $6 billion in 2006 to more than 70 countries. Before Putin, most Russian arms sales were those of old Soviet-era armored vehicles and military aircraft. Since they shipped them to Africa and other remote places, no one was overly concerned about it.

But recent sales have increasingly turned to sophisticated weapons, including precision-guided munitions, and advanced air-defense systems. And they are selling them to rogue regime Iran and to Venezuela, among others. They have the dual purpose of aggravating the U.S. while earning Russia money.

For its part, Washington may have unnecessarily provoked Putin as well.

Following 9/11, Putin agreed to allow Americans to stage the Afghanistan invasion from bases in former Soviet central Asian republics. Washington's reluctance now to depart from these bases has become troublesome to Moscow.

Overreach by NATO hasn't helped either. With China to the east, radical Islam to the south, and NATO's advancement from the west, Putin fears Russia is being threatened and encircled.

When the Soviet Army departed former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe, they were not expecting NATO to expand eastward. But that is exactly what happened. Not only did Poland and the Czech Republic join NATO, the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have joined too.

These days, the most important political question in Russia is over who will succeed Putin when his second term expires in 2008. He is much admired, and almost certainly would be reelected if he were eligible to run. Though the Russian Constitution forbids him from running for a third term, it doesn't stop conjecture that he may do so anyway. No matter what the law or his legitimacy may be, many believe he has the support and authority to stay in power. His actions in 2008 will foretell much about which direction, whether cooperative or confrontational, the country is heading.

Russia's culture and history are tied to Western civilization. While recent events may give pause, we should encourage those foundations, and work to advance our common interests. The fight against radical Islam -- whether in Iran, Iraq, Chechnya, or elsewhere -- is one that Russia should unite with the West.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was our adversary. Russia need not be our adversary today.

Jeff Lukens can be contacted here.
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