The New York Times' Serge Schmeman, had a somewhat disappointing column recently on Putin and Russia. The best he can come up with, as a long-time observer (back to the Soviet days) is that "Mr. Putin mirros the contradictions, aspirations and insecurities of his country." He's seen as having brought Russia back from the depression the the immediate post-communist aftermath, but notes that he "represents a real -- albeit selective -- authoritarian drift, and a clear nostalgia for lost empire." However, "[f]or all that, Mr. Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union ... it's a far freer place than it was two decades ago: The Internet is still unfettered; newspapers are cautious but lively; intellectual life is thriving; Russians and foreigners come and go freely ... " He just wishes Russia would release Andrei Lugovoi to be tried in Britain for the murder of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko.
A more insightful analysis comes from Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center and a retired Russian military officer. Trenin argues that Russian foreign policy "is informed by a clear material interest." With energy prices up, which bolsters the state treasury, its "ultimate interest is a status of a major world power, on par with the United States and China." While it knows what it doesn't like -- being dissed by the U.S., the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty, the "near-abroad" flirting with NATO, U.S. ABM missiles in Poland, and the U.S. "attempts to build a unipolar world," it's not quite sure what it wants in a positive vein. It ratified the Kyoto treaty but isn't really committed, it blew its chance to take a lead on energy issues during its G8 presidency. It hasn't cultivated real allies and "has not been able to make good use of its soft power." So it's alone and adrift, not sure of what it will take to get the respect it craves. Are oil and gas commodities or weapons? Is NATO a partner or a problem. Russia doesn't know yet.
Trenin thinks Russia needs to stop whining about the U.S. and seek common ground on Iran, North Korea and WMD proliferation and access to Western technology for energy extraction. Not that the Bush administration hasn't been typically clumsy. The U.S. would do well to stop trying to reform Russia internally and think about areas where cooperation is possible like Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East.