A re-emerging Russia is restoring its global influence without taking on the burden of an empire. In the second of his series on global pressure points, STRATFOR CEO Dr. George Friedman applauds Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's achievements and examines the Russian-U.S. relationship.
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. Colin: Ronald Reagan used to call the Soviet Union, as it then was, "the evil empire." Today, modern Russia presents differently. No longer an empire of course, but a huge country regaining a powerful influence. Welcome to Agenda with George Friedman. George, last year the premiership of Vladimir Putin was characterized by various attempts — some effective, some less so —to claw back under Russia's influence, some parts of the old Soviet empire. George: Let's begin by trying to explain what it was that Putin in particular created. What he recognized was the problem of the Soviet empire, the problem with the czarist empire, was that they totally controlled surrounding territories. As such, they benefited from them, but they were responsible for them as well, and so that wealth was transferred into them to maintain them, to sustain the regimes, and so on and so forth. Putin came up with a new structure in which he had limited desires from countries like Ukraine. These were irreducible, that is to say, they could not be part of NATO, could not have hostile forces there, they had to cooperate on a bunch of issues. But Russia was not responsible for their future, and it was really a brilliant maneuver because it gave them the benefit of the Russian empire, of the Soviet Union, without the responsibilities, without the drain on the Russian treasury. And what he has created in Ukraine, in Kazakhstan, in Belarus, is sovereignty for these nations and yet alignment with Russia. And this has made Russia a very powerful player because its house is in order at the same time that, for example, as the European house is in massive disorder. And a country like Germany, for example, living in a very disorderly house now, begins to question whether or not that's the house it wants to live in, and given the dependence they have on Russian natural gas, given the opportunities they have for investment and technology transfer in Russia, when they look at their relationship with Greece, for example, and they look at the opportunities available within the Russian sphere, they're attracted to it. But what you've really seen the Russians do is a brilliant re-thinking of what it means to have an empire: how to get rid of the liabilities, maintain the benefits and then from a position of strength, deal with countries like Germany and the United States. Colin: So, STRATFOR was perhaps a little unkind in its forecast for 2011 when it said that Russia would play a double game, ensuring it can reap benefits from having warm relations with countries, such as investment and economic ties, while keeping the pressure up on them. It's been a clever game, hasn't it? George: Well, a double game is a clever game, particularly when no one realizes you're playing a double game. I have to say that I don’t regard duplicity among nations as a critique of nations, it's the lifeblood of international affairs. The Russians have said many things in many ways. Right now, they have moved out of the period of confrontation. Until really the Georgian invasion, which thoroughly startled the region and shocked Washington that Moscow would act in such a way, they have been very busy trying to reassert the level of control that they want, to reassert their rights in their sphere of influence and to confront the West. They've become much more accommodating because they've achieved, within the former Soviet Union, the goals they wanted to achieve by and large. They have become more than just first among equals, they have become the dominant political force in the region, worrying about countries like Tajikistan, worrying about Kyrgyzstan. This has been a transformation and so now they don't have to be confrontational. Now they're operating from a position of strength and therefore they don't have to assert their strength. Now they're being courted by the Americans, they're being courted by the Germans and this is the position that Putin wanted to get them into, and he did. Colin: Now the next president — Putin seems very much in charge and probably wouldn't bother too much about regaining the presidency this time around anyway. George: Well, we just spoke about duplicity and double games and I suspect that Medvedev and Putin are playing a double game. I've never doubted for a moment that Putin was in charge. He's the man who masterminded it. But I will also say this: had Putin been hit by a car in 2000, 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. This Russian empire, the Soviet Union, were not accidents of history. They didn't just happen. They were structures that grew naturally from the underlying economic and political relationships. So as much as I admire Putin for doing what is necessary, I don't think that Putin as an individual defined what was going to happen. And I don’t think that if Medvedev comes to power, and the White House may like Medvedev more than they like Putin, I don’t think it will change very much. Russia is far too vast to simply be the whim of a given personality. In my view even Stalin represented the vast czarist and Leninist tradition, to an extreme perhaps, but still the idea of the personalization of rule. Colin: Do we think that relations between the United States and Russia are trending better and if so, is this likely to continue? George: The media tends to think of better and worse relations — I don’t think of that. Russia has its interests; the United States has its interests. There are times when these interests coincide; there are times when these interests diverge. There are times when one country or the other is too preoccupied with other things to be worried about the other. At the moment, the truth of the matter is that the United States remains deeply concerned with Iraq and Afghanistan and the uprising in the Arab world. The United States doesn’t have that much time to worry about Russia and so you can say that relations have become better. But you can equally say that when they come worse, it's not so much that a decision was made to make them worse, it's just natural tensions arising. Colin: George, thank you. And in next week's Agenda, George will look at China.