Russia Rising: Moscow's Quiet Resurgence

Article excerpt

When a calamitous earthquake and tsunami struck the east coast of Japan in March 2011, few could have guessed just how far the aftershock would reach. Japan, one of the world's largest economies and a powerhouse in East Asia, was left utterly devastated and economically crippled, with entire regions flooded and thousands dead or missing. The disaster also set off a chain of events that would eventually lead to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, under pressure from a mobilized German public and a growing green movement, to announce that Germany would close all its nuclear power plants by 2022.

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Just a few weeks later, Poland signed an agreement with Germany and France to create a joint military force. This came two months after Poland committed itself to the formation and leadership of a battle group with Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

Then, in early July, Russia stepped up its efforts to act as a mediator in the Libyan conflict, welcoming the Secretary-General of NATO and the President of South Africa, who has offered to help negotiate with Colonel Qaddafi. The president of the World Chess Federation, a former president of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, traveled to Tripoli for a second time to discuss the possibility of a negotiated end to the conflict with Qaddafi.

Taken together, these seemingly disparate developments point to an important trend that has been overlooked in a year filled with revolutions, natural disasters, and fiscal crises: the slow but steady resurgence of Russia. With the United States tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan and focusing its attention on the Arab Spring and debates on domestic spending, and Europe lurching from one debt crisis to the next, Russia is taking advantage of opportunities to reassert itself throughout Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Compared with the roar of headlines pronouncing default and impending deadlines, however, Russia's slow rise has gone largely unnoticed.

More Than a Man

There is a popular theory, both in Russia and around the world, that any signs of a resurgent Russia are thanks to the strong and charismatic leadership of former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin, a former KGB agent with an eccentric personality and a flair for dramatically machismo tasks like fishing shirtless and practicing judo, has nurtured a cult of personality since first becoming president in December 1999. Though Dmitry Medvedev formally took over as President in 2 008, it is widely acknowledged he remains one of, if not the key power player, in the Kremlin. Indeed, deputy administration chief Vladislav Surkov, a Kremlin power broker and aide to President Medvedev, went so far as to tell Chechen television that Putin was sent to the Kremlin by God to help address its troubles in the post-Soviet period. According to an article by Alexei Nikolsky of the AFP news agency, Putin has been made the hero of pop songs and brands of vodka, and a small female sect even believes him to be the reincarnation of Paul the Apostle.

According to George Friedman, founder of STRAT-FOR global intelligence, a resurgent Russia is due less to Putin's skilled leadership than to the geopolitical forces that were certain to restore Russia to a position of global prominence after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. "Had Putin been hit by a car in 2000," Friedman says, "another Putin would have emerged. The direction in which Putin took Russia, rebuilding the security apparatus to control the state, rebuilding the state to control Russia, rebuilding Russia to dominate the former Soviet Union--this was a natural course for any Russian president to follow." Putin may be a dominant, beloved figure, Friedman says, but Russia is simply too large--politically, economically, and geographically--to be entirely at the whim of one man.

But Putin was not hit by a car, and his influence on the development of Russia since 2000 has been profound. …