With the end of the summer recess, a new political season begins
on Saturday. It will probably be the last season for President
Vladimir Putin, and it promises to be stormy.
A curious pattern emerges when examining Russia’s politics over
the last quarter century. Fundamental changes come in eight-year
cycles, and the transitions from the end of one cycle to the start
of the next are accompanied by flare-ups in foreign relations.
An intense struggle for power took place from 1999 to 2000 at
the end of President Boris Yeltsin’s term. Those years saw the
start of a second war in Chechnya, the rise of former KGB officer
Putin, a corruption scandal involving members of Yeltsin’s family
and the Bank of New York affair — all of which brought relations
with the West to a critically low level. The situation began to
stabilize only in the spring of 2000, when Putin took office and
Western leaders started building bridges with the Kremlin.
The previous crisis began with the putsch of August 1991 and
continued through the spring and summer of 1992. This was a period
of sheer chaos, when nobody knew what was happening or how it was
all going to end.
There was another turning point eight years before that. On
Sept. 1, 1983, a Soviet Air Force jet shot down a South Korean
jumbo jet, killing all 269 people on board. This was the beginning
of the final stage in Cold War tensions. U.S. President Ronald
Reagan led the campaign against the «Evil Empire» and deployed U.S.
nuclear weapons in Europe. Soviet leader Yury Andropov died in
February 1984, and the appointment of Konstantin Chernenko to
replace him was nothing more than an effort to delay the
The end of Putin’s era will be no exception to this rule.
Tensions between Moscow and Western capitals have been increasing
for almost a year and may hit their peak during the coming
The current crisis in foreign relations was inevitable, however,
because it was impossible to remain in a schizophrenic state
forever. Out of pure inertia, officials on both sides continued to
repeat the standard, trite phrases of strategic partnership, shared
global threats and the rejection of a zero-sum game.
It turned out that the West was not prepared for Moscow to
assume a new, stronger position in international affairs. Up until
recently, the Kremlin had been willing to compromise on most
disputes with the West. But now Russia feels its own strength and
is less inclined to give in to its partners’ wishes.
A good example of this is the situation concerning Kosovo.
Moscow has opposed the Ahtisaari plan, named after Martti
Ahtisaari, the United Nations special envoy to the Kosovo
negotiations. Europe and the United States interpreted Moscow’s
opposition as a typical Kremlin strategy to use an international
dispute as a bargaining chip. This is also the case with Moscow’s
opposition to the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe,
the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and U.S.
plans to install elements of an anti-ballistic missile shield in
Poland and the Czech Republic.
In each case, Moscow has been determined to change the rules or
cease observing them altogether. The Kremlin is playing a
high-stakes game, betting everything on the jackpot. It is trying
to change everything at once, and it has managed to spoil its
relations with everyone.
The West has focused on cementing its triumph over communism. It
viewed the Soviet collapse as an epochal moment — one that granted
the free world the role of transforming other nations because it
represents the only true model. Although Western powers have not
always been united on all issues, they are in full agreement that
the West must defend and assert its historical mission.
Now, Russia and the West have essentially switched places. When
the ideological standoff with the Soviet Union ended, the West
stepped forward as the leading global source of political
innovation and progressive change. The West helped countries that
were liberated from the Soviet bloc, offering ways to bring them
into the Western orbit. This was a way for the West to expand its
sphere of influence into areas once considered Moscow’s exclusive
After riding out the turbulent years of the early 1990s, Russia
concentrated on maintaining the status quo. Moscow tried to keep as
much as it possibly could in its former spheres of influence. For
example, it was interested in preserving the regimes of the former
Soviet republics, in freezing regional conflicts and in containing
Now it is the West that has unexpectedly become interested in
preserving the status quo. It is trying to strengthen those
institutions and mechanisms that are either left over from the Cold
War or that have emerged as a result of its victory.
Meanwhile, Russia has gone from being a conservative to a rebel
of sorts. It is striving to change the rules of the geopolitical
game. For example, at the St. Petersburg International Economic
Forum in June, Putin criticized existing international financial
and economic models and called for their democratization.
Moreover, the Kremlin’s argument is often convincing. For
example, is it not somewhat absurd to promote the CFE Treaty as the
cornerstone of European stability when it is based on the logic of
a military confrontation that ended almost 20 years ago? And is it
right to insist upon maintaining the procedure for appointing the
head of the International Monetary Fund that was approved by
leaders of the United States and Western Europe back in 1944?
Even while the Kremlin is working toward revising the rules it
finds unfavorable, it still lacks a comprehensive vision of how the
world should be structured. Moscow has largely focused it attention
on resisting the ideological and political domination of the West,
although the most important events of the 21st century will
obviously be happening elsewhere.
Russia’s ambitions and self-confidence, fed by its oil and gas
euphoria, have become greater than its realistic abilities, given
the global changes taking place in the modern world. Moscow’s
eagerness to make up for what it lost after the Soviet collapse as
quickly as possible has proven stronger than a calmer, more
rational calculation of what it can realistically achieve.
The West is quite disappointed after discovering a distressing
fact: It really is difficult to resolve many important issues
without Moscow’s participation. But Russia is not interested in
cooperating on someone else’s terms. This stems not only from
obstinacy, but also from a growing sense that Western formulas for
managing global affairs are simply ineffective. From Moscow’s point
of view, the situation in Iraq and the turmoil in the Balkans are
convincing evidence of this.
The Kremlin gets furious whenever it hears of an attempt to
«reconsider the results of World War II.» But what is happening now
on the international stage — the increase in Russia’s power and
ambitions, the rise of China, the shifting of the global political
and economic center of gravity toward Eastern Asia and the
political awakening of developing nations — is nothing more or
less than a «reconsideration» of the results of the Cold War. And
it was victory in that war that appeared to have established the
West’s leadership once and for all.
But then, suddenly, everything started to change and the West
finds this irritating. And Russia’s new desire to assert itself is
prompting unjustifiably strong responses. Take, for example, the
inexplicable uproar heard from Copenhagen to Ottawa when two State
Duma deputies planted a flag on the Arctic seabed. After all, it
was really only a harmless public relations stunt with no legal
A crisis can be beneficial. It destroys models governing
international relations that no longer work and forces us to search
for new ones. There is no choice but to work hard at refining our
interests on the basis of the new global centers of power. That
will require concessions from both sides: From the West, this means
an acknowledgement that there is no monopoly on the truth and a
willingness to take Russia’s resurgence seriously, and from Russia,
this means an awareness of the need to take responsibility for its
actions and coming to terms with the fact that it is dependent on
others. If that happens, then this new political cycle will — like
the preceding ones — bring new hope.