The Awakening Russian Bear
By Jeff Lukens
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
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
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
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
During the Cold War, the Soviet
Union was our adversary. Russia need not be our