When the world’s athletes gather in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympiad in February, they will be entering a country that most had given up for dead 23 years ago. The Soviet Union had just collapsed, Communism had failed, and a newly-independent Russia – the ancient nation that comprised the vast majority of the former USSR’s territory and population – was spiraling into a severe economic and political crisis.
What’s more, the country’s arch nemesis for 40 years – the U.S. – reigned supreme as the world’s only remaining superpower. Russia, in contrast, was weak, getting weaker, politically unstable, and drowning in the corruption inherent in unregulated, post-communist gangster capitalism. The country’s educated middle class, poor by world standards, disappeared while wealthy oligarchs snatched up the country’s economic crown jewels for a pittance.
It was, to say the least, a deeply humiliating experience for a proud people long used to seeing themselves as a superpower of equal weight with the U.S. Shorn of their empire in Eastern Europe and their array of allies overseas, Russia shrank in importance among those who calculated the geopolitical balance of power. Worse, lands that had once been part of the old Russian empire even before the 1917 revolution, like Ukraine, were not only now independent but drifting into a Western orbit, too.
Russia, in this pitiable state, was reduced to asking for alms, both diplomatic and economic, and serving as an oil and gas reserve for the growing economies of Western Europe and East Asia. Moscow’s defeat, for a time, seemed total – and all without a shot ever having been fired. Given that the Russians had defeated the Nazis almost singlehandedly, such a state of affairs was intolerable.
All this began to change, however, when Vladimir Putin came to power near the end of in 1999. Putin, a former lieutenant colonel in the Soviet KGB, had used his connections with the Russian security services and influence with St. Petersburg-based politicians in the new, democratic Russia to obtain a series of higher positions in the administration of Boris Yeltsin – Russia’s first democratically-elected president.
Elevated to the position of premier in 1999, Yeltsin’s sudden resignation later that year – due to health and a snowballing corruption crisis – allowed Putin to assume the presidency and run as an incumbent in the 2000 Russian presidential election. This the former KGB officer won handily due to popular disgust with gangster capitalism and a longing for stability after the chaotic, roller-coaster Yeltsin years. Effectively in power ever since, Putin and his allies and associates inside the Russian security state have created a new Russia that is now once again a force to be reckoned with on the world’s stage.
Putin has done this in three ways. First, he ruthlessly rebuilt the power of the Russian state and used it crush the power of Russia’s oligarchs – the new wealthy business class that most average Russians believed, rightly, had robbed the country blind during the reform era in the early 1990s. One-by-one, these alternative sources of power to Putin’s central government in Moscow were systematically eliminated or brought to heel by hook or by crook – usually both. Democracy and rule of law was mostly discarded in the process, but Russians approved because the Putin years were good – the country finally began to prosper economically – and the infuriatingly haughty power of the oligarchs was, if not totally destroyed, leveraged to serve the Russian state.
Second, once assured that the threat from the oligarchs was eliminated, Putin then began to put Russia’s most valuable assets – its vast oil and gas reserves – back into the government’s hands by creating two gigantic state-owned companies, Rosneft and Gazprom. These companies were then used by Moscow as both geopolitical tools and piggy banks. Instead of sending armaments abroad as it did during the Cold War, Russia now sent out oil and gas executives to compete for exploration and production rights in other countries and supply contracts in consuming nations. For a Western world thirsty for energy, Russia’s energy riches were both a blessing and curse as the country’s profits were used to rebuild Russian power.
Third, Russia’s new position as an oil and gas superpower gives the country and the man running it a degree of influence that Washington – bogged down in the Middle East and pressed in East Asia by a rising China – cannot easily contain. Russian power accrues whenever oil prices spike, so the prospect of conflict in the Middle East, for example, translates into a potential economic bonanza for Russia whenever sabers are rattled in that volatile region. Similarly, for Europeans who are dependent on Russian gas exports for their energy needs, this means that they simply cannot ignore or sanction an increasingly autocratic Russia as they see fit.
Far more than missiles and tank divisions, it seems, the prospect of running out of gas in the middle of winter makes one willing to look past small things like democracy or the supplying of arms to the Assad regime in Syria. Indeed, it is this oil-and-gas fueled freedom of geopolitical action that is making Russia such a powerful actor today nearly a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlike the U.S., Moscow isn’t bogged down militarily or pitted against a rising superpower like China. Unlike China, Russia also isn’t boxed in by militarily-powerful states terrified by its rise.
Furthermore, Russia, unlike Europe, is unified and able to act coherently on the world stage. And while Russia is not yet nearly as rich as its competitors, its vast natural resources, educated population, modernizing economy, high-tech industries, and position astride the whole of northern Eurasia gives it an enviable position and multiple venues in which to act. Global warming, likely a disaster most everywhere else on Earth, even holds the potential to open up Russia’s vast arctic region to commercial development. Everywhere Russia looks, then, it sees opportunity – either economic, as in the oil and gas trade with Europe and East Asia, or strategic – as in Moscow’s security relations with Iran, Syria, and India.
This is a far cry from the Cold War, when Washington’s containment policy walled-in Russia behind its Iron Curtain. Then, every frontier was threatened, nothing was safe, and Moscow found itself constantly confounded by the huge resources the U.S. could bring to bear against it. Now, the opposite is the case, and it is Russia that is deciding where and when to intervene to best serve its interests, not the U.S. Russia today may be much weaker than the Soviet Union of old, but in terms of its foreign policy and ability to influence events to its own advantage, Moscow is in an incomparably better position – as its success in Syria of late should demonstrate.
So Russia is back, and it looks like it isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. This may be an uncomfortable fact for Americans who have grown used to seeing Russia as a weak, has-been power that can do little to thwart American designs on the rest of the world. But it is nonetheless true. The 2014 Olympics, like Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 summer games, are thus something of an announcement by the Russians themselves that Russia is once again on the march. To where they are marching remains to be seen, but for the time being it is enough to know that the fact they are headed anywhere at all is a remarkable achievement, and one largely due to that most unsavory of anti-democratic figures, Vladimir Putin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.