Putin's Russia Acts Like a Great Power Again

With its military assault on Georgia, Moscow signals that it shouldn't be regarded as a has-been.

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Russia's military occupation of parts of neighboring Georgia has sent a decisive signal that the Kremlin intends to behave as great powers traditionally have done—forcefully pursuing their interests where they can.

Moscow may now pull back troops to the separatist Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, if not yet all the way back to Russia. But the display of Russian power will likely have lasting consequences for relations between the principal heir to the Soviet legacy and the United States.

This does not necessarily portend a new Cold War. That wouldn't be in Russia's interests, given its economic engagement with the West, and today's Russia has neither the ideological presence nor the appeal that the old Soviet Union held in some parts of the world. Practically, Moscow has serious constraints on its ability to project military power globally, though it still fields a sizable nuclear arsenal.

What has changed is that Russia, impoverished after the Soviet breakup, has been re-energized by state-encouraged nationalism and booming oil and natural gas revenues. Free of the need for Western largesse and with its military machine on the mend, Moscow enjoys a freedom of action that would have seemed unlikely when President Bush took office in 2001.

U.S. officials acknowledge a new perspective. "My view is that the Russians—and I would say principally Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin—are interested in reasserting not only Russia's great power or superpower status but in reasserting Russia's traditional spheres of influence," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently. "Everyone is going to be looking at Russia through a different set of lenses as we look ahead."

Graham Allison, a former Pentagon official and defense thinker who heads the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, sees a pattern in Russia's moves on Georgia. "As a first approximation, this is consistent with the behavior of great powers," he says. As for Georgia, he adds, "A little guy attacking a big guy usually gets his nose broken."

The plunge in U.S.-Russian relations to their lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 may be particularly galling to Gates, who spent much of his early career as a CIA analyst on Soviet affairs. Likewise, his counterpart at the State Department, Condoleezza Rice, is trained as a Russia scholar and speaks Russian.

Rice has warned Moscow not to go deeper into Georgia and topple the pro-Western elected government led by Mikheil Saakashvili. She warns that today's Russia, which has forged stronger economic ties with the world, could not evade the consequences, as the USSR did after its infamous 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia to quash a democratic opening there.

The precise interplay between Saakashvili's decision to send Georgian forces into pro-Russian South Ossetia and the Russian counterthrust is still being debated. But once underway, the Russian invasion dramatically symbolized an emboldened Kremlin. "They clearly want to demonstrate that Russia is back as a great power and should be taken seriously," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington and a leading Russia-watcher.

Russia's willingness to risk international condemnation reflects a deeply felt set of resentments against the West—and the Bush administration in particular. The reigning, if disputed, narrative in Moscow is of a historically great power that was systematically humbled in its period of weakness by an overbearing U.S. government.

There are numerous elements to that narrative, and they date to the Clinton as well as the Bush administration. Among them: NATO's expansion into parts of the former Soviet Union over Russian objections; the U.S.-led war on fellow Slavs in Serbia in defense of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo; U.S. support for the prodemocracy "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine; Bush's withdrawal from the landmark antiballistic missile treaty to allow for missile defenses that could handicap Russia; and the U.S. plan to build elements of a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland.