The Russian Giant Returns

After Georgia, will Moscow try to teach Ukraine a similar lesson? Time will tell. But the era of ignoring Russia has come to an end.

The war in Georgia provoked sharp, contrasting reactions around the world, from support for the small democratic country fighting for its survival (with a critical nod about what looks like incitement against Russia by President Mikhail Saaskashvili) to shock at the aggressive brutality of the Russian offensive. This war, above all, is a symbol of Russia's return to the playing field of the Great Powers. As is customary for Russia, whether czarist or Soviet, its policy is authoritarian to its own citizens and belligerent to the rest of the world.

Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika created a dual illusion in the West, first, that Russia was on the high road to democracy, and, second, that the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and the severance of the East European countries from Communism had left Russia a weak country.

The first illusion led to dreams of Russian democracy, the second was responsible for disdain for Russia as a player in the international arena. Both proved mistaken.

It turns out that unlike Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other countries in which there really was a relatively easy transition to democracy and a market economy, that was not the case internally in Russia. In those countries there was a tradition of a civic society, volunteer organizations and autonomy of church and academic institutions. With the disappearance of Communist repression, it was possible to anchor the transition to democracy in these traditions and institutions.

All that was lacking in Russia: Its pre-Communist tradition was hierarchical and authoritarian, lacking a civic society, without representative or elected frameworks. In the absence of all these, the disintegration of the Communist regime led to the anarchy and chaos of the Boris Yeltsin period. This was reflected not only in a weak and insufficiently clear president, but also in the country's disintegration. Districts and regions divorced themselves from the central government, and Soviet economic assets were stolen by those close to the government and by corrupt oligarchs.

The rise of Vladimir Putin symbolized an end to this anarchy, but an end to the dream of democracy as well. Putin must be credited with the rehabilitation of the Russian state, the subordination of local bullies to the rule of Moscow and the restoration of some assets, mainly in the field of energy, to central control. It wasn't done by persuasion, but with brutality and aggressiveness: The free press was reined in, the opposition parties were pushed aside, although not eliminated, the parliament was neutralized and moguls with political ambitions were expelled from the country or arrested.

Although Russia as a country was rescued, a duplicate of the authoritarian czarist regime emerged. The brutal repression of the Chechnyan rebellion broadcast a clear warning. Even the way in which Putin bypassed the constitution to gain two terms as president is testimony to his determination and his ability to maneuver. It is no coincidence that a picture of Peter the Great hangs in his office.

All this had external repercussions as well. During Yeltsin's time the West became accustomed to seeing Russia as a giant cut down to size. The European Union and NATO expanded eastward without hindrance. But this proved a passing weakness. The entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated the limits of U.S. power, while soaring oil prices gave Russia a tremendous economic advantage, as well as European dependence on Russian gas. Thus Putin began to restore Russia to the status of a great power that cannot be ignored.

There were many signs: the unwillingness to help the U.S. to curb Iran's nuclear program, to prove to America it is not omniscient; power games in the supplying of energy to Ukraine and the Czech Republic, which are looking Westward; and all accompanied by belligerent rhetoric, which is adding to Putin's popularity among a population that has felt humiliated since the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The West had no strategic response to this development, and the differences of opinion between the U.S. and Europe on the issue of Iraq only made things more difficult.

The Russian demonstration of force in Georgia will obligate the West to develop a new overall policy toward Moscow. It will be quite a difficult challenge for the next U.S. President. No longer will there be an asymmetrical conflict and a delusional search for Osama bin Laden in the back of beyond, but a return to traditional great power confrontations. This is not a return to the Cold War, since Putin's Russia is not the bearer of a universal ideology like the Soviet Union; however we can reasonably assume that it will attempt to establish its own regional hegemony.

After Georgia, will Moscow try to teach Ukraine a similar lesson? Time will tell. But the era of ignoring Russia has come to an end. The question now centers on the West's ability to formulate a suitable response to this challenge.