Countries react to power, or to the absence of power. Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin elite claim that the West has ignored, neglected, underestimated or bullied Russia for more than a decade. Perception can mirror reality. Post-imperial Russia has been characterized this week as a country that matters little in the post-1989 world. According to the Kremlin narrative, Russia has become a victim of Western arrogance.
Currently, a favorite title for a policy conference might read: "Is Russia back?" To which Russian participants usually respond: "Russia was never gone." Except that the West believed it was. Russians often present a litany of complaints about Western behavior over the last 15 years. There is no common thread that connects all of these diverse issues, except maybe the desire for "respect." The complaint is this: The West, especially the United States, does not respect Russia and its views. Russia, or so the argument goes, is not seen as an equal.
To gain respect, Russia does what the Soviet Union taught it to do: it threatens and intimidates whoever is in the way. Maybe some gadfly journalist or some pesky Baltic country. Gas is used as a weapon and weapons shall be pointed at Europe again.
Obviously, Vladimir Putin's testosterone posture poses a threat to the West. However, it is a different threat than the last time around. This time the driving force is not an abstract ideology, but nationalism.
The West sees two Russias: the authoritarian bully and the pseudo-imperial wannabe. And then there is the Russia we need: the UN Security Council member with the power to block all of our plans, be they about Kosovo or Iran. The country that supplies Western Europeans with gas and is not ashamed of using energy and energy prices to make a political point.
Europeans love to forget that the West has leverage over Russia. Putin and his band of autocrats can only survive as long as they deliver growth. The new middle class will not consume and shut-up forever.
Russia will need close attention again. The term "muscular diplomacy" is probably appropriate.
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