Many are labeling Russia’s pressure on Ukraine to pay market prices for natural gas as “Cold War” tactics. Of course, the Ukrainian government is paying the full price for their anti-Russian rhetoric and pro-Western orientation. Russia is flexing the only muscles she has: natural resources. But, it’s not so much a message to the Ukraine as to the West. And it’s not so much “Cold War” as Realist geo-politics.
Putin quickly realized that Russia only has one card to play in today’s world of growing demand for natural resources. Domestically, this realization became clear with the takeover of the Yukos oil company. Disguised as retribution for legal transgressions, Putin removed the threat of a western-oriented Yukos by imprisoning its managers, and paved the way for a predictable government takeover of Russia’s oil industry. Today, it is not so clear what the rules of oil investment are (i.e. no foreigner shall hold majority stock in a Russian oil company), but it is very clear who makes the rules.
Externally, while Putin loves to remind former Soviet republics that he keeps them warm at night, he is also actively cultivating relationships with more impressive rising consumers in the East – China and India. Russia has held several joint military exercises with both of the Asian giants in the last year and planned for 2006. China has declared 2006 “the year of Russia,” and if all goes well, Russia will return the favor in 2007 by calling it “the year of China.” Notably, Russian authorities also kept completely silent on the recent Chinese toxic spills, which would be made into a huge fiasco if, say, Poland was the perpetrator.
Russia has always been obsessed with the great power status. More importantly, Putin himself can be described as having one ideological agenda: to make Russia a true regional and global power. From the Russian perspective, the expansion of NATO towards her borders and the spread of anti-Russian revolutions in her neighborhood have all been great insults. So, while the West has been busy fighting Muslim extremism, Putin has taken the long road to regain political significance and pride for Russia – at all costs.
With the new pipelines that will carry Russian oil to Western Europe (bypassing all those pesky pro-American eastern Europeans), with Iran causing the biggest headache in the West (thanks to Russia’s assistance to its nuclear program), and with China and India poised to join the G-8 (as Russia’s strategic allies) – Putin has cleverly maneuvered Russia back into the position of political, economic and potentially military significance, in direct opposition to the West.
This development will give all those US hegemony-phobes some relief. Putin is building a bloc of political counterbalance to the West – in the East. And with anti-American rhetoric on the domestic front – it is reasonable to expect US-Russian relations to get very tense in 2006. President Bush should get his poker face ready.