Russia is again seeking a role as a global power and is therefore flexing its muscles. Signs of change in Moscow's foreign policy have been mounting ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a confrontational speech in Munich last February.
Since then Russia planted its flag on the seabed below the North Pole to demonstrate its claims to the Arctic and its natural resources; announced its intention to build its own missile defense system and issued repeated threats against Europe because of the planned deployment of a small US defense system; exploded a "stray" missile or bomb in Georgia as a warning signal to the government in Tbilisi and its Western friends; buzzed the US military base on the Pacific island of Guam with surveillance aircraft; blocked a decision on the final status of Kosovo at the UN Security Council; and launched a hacker attack against computer systems in Estonia. In addition, each winter there is a repeated threat of "problems" with oil and gas deliveries to Europe.
High oil and gas prices, the US' self-inflicted global weakening due to its misadventure in Iraq and the rise of China and India obviously have prompted Moscow to change its foreign policy. Yet none of this amounts to a fundamental change in Russia's strategy, because Russia continues to adhere to its fundamental decision, made in the early 1990s, to open itself to the West. Still, the style of Russian politics has changed from cooperation to confrontation. And, as history has shown, a change of style in foreign policy may quickly lead to a change in strategy.
Currently, Russia is undergoing a restoration. Such periods always follow revolutions and times of far-reaching change. The power of the center is being restored, following its partial disintegration after the end of the Soviet Union. Ever since the 16th century the center has played the main role in shaping Russian history and now looks to be no different.
The restoration of central authority has been going on for some time. Indeed, today the center almost completely dictates Russian internal politics and economics, though not within a totalitarian or autocratic framework, but in a democratic and market-based fashion.
Democracy in Russia has, of course, degenerated into what is sometimes called "managed democracy." Theoretically, there remain different parties, elections, a pluralistic society, an independent judiciary and a market economy. But in practice, the entire system is subject to control by the president. The people will still be allowed to vote for the president, but the real decision about who he will be will have been made beforehand.
Even if its annual GDP approximates that of Italy, Russia is still a global power and too important to isolate, or even forget about. It retains enormous strategic weight. Russia's future will be determined by whether it is successful in comprehensively modernizing its economy, which today is largely based on exports of oil, gas and other natural resources.
If Russia remains dependent on a natural-resource economy, it will again become a colossus with feet of clay. Indeed, it will not be nearly as powerful as the old Soviet Union. Only if Russia succeeds in productively reinvesting the gains from its petro-economy will it achieve sustainable modernization.