In the summer of 2001, I sat in a small meeting room at one of those international conferences where the high and mighty convene to exchange business cards and (mostly) platitudes. I was leading a small discussion group with several high-powered attendees. The subject of the discussion was Russia, and the participants included, among others, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Thomas Pickering and his old boss, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. At the end of the session, I went around the table and asked a last question: Vladimir Putin President for life?
Putin had taken over for the doddering, inept Boris Yeltsin on the eve of the millennium (literally: December 31, 1999) and been re-elected on his own in the spring of 2000. By the following summer, the former KGB resident of East Berlin (oh, how he must pine for the days ...) was already giving off vibes that he was no democrat. Albright was the last to give her answer that day. She paused and said softly, "Probably yes."
Even though he is now Prime Minister to his handpicked successor as President, Dmitri Medvedev, history will show Albright's answer was the correct one. The man into whose soul George W. Bush famously peered is going to run Russia until he drops. The only question in the intervening years was, What kind of Russia will that be? And though that's been, in the eyes of many, increasingly obvious, we now have the definitive answer: authoritarian at home, brooking no consequential political opposition, and increasingly aggressive abroad. The Russian war against the small, Caucasus state of Georgia had been frozen in time for the past 16 years (Russian troops last fought in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, in 1992) until Putin began it in earnest again this past weekend, sending in air strikes far beyond the disputed territory of South Ossetia.
The idea that Vladimir Putin's primary impulse is to try to reassemble the Soviet Empire is one that much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment has resisted. This despite the fact that in Ukraine in 2004, Russia tried to do what it could to tip the presidential election to its approved candidate including, many believe, poisoning with dioxin the eventual winner, Viktor Yushchenko. Just over a week ago, traveling in Central Asia for a future TIME story, I asked a senior Western official about the likelihood that the tense Russia-Georgia standoff over South Ossetia could escalate. The source acknowledged that the presence of "hotheads" on both sides a clear reference to Putin and Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, who, it's true, has not played Tbilisi's hand well. Still, the official said he thought the West was doing a reasonable job trying to keep both sides calm, and would continue to.
So much for that theory. The proper question to ask now of Putin's Russia is the one framed perfectly by journalist Edward Lucas, Central Europe correspondent for the Economist, in his recent book The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West. "The less resistance Russia meets, the more assertive it becomes. The limits of the tolerable are constantly changing, and in one direction only. The uncomfortable but unavoidable question is, Where will this end?"
The question is uncomfortable, Lucas writes correctly, in part because Russia is a huge energy exporter at a moment when demand for oil and gas has skyrocketed, driving prices up and filling the Kremlin's coffers. Eastern and Western Europe are heavily dependent on gas from state-owned giant Gazprom (whose former chairman happens to be Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's puppet President.) Russia's oil exports are critical at a time when the world has no spare capacity for crude. How tough, seriously, can the West be with an aggressive Russia at this moment in history?
I'm not sure what the answer is, to be honest. But I do know this: the anger fueling Russia's behavior now is very real, and I know exactly where it comes from. Just a couple of months ago, in Moscow, I sat in the office of Vladimir Yakunin, whose official public role is chairman of the state-owned Russian Railroad company. That sounds like a pretty innocuous job, but it's misleading in this sense: Yakunin is an old St. Petersburg crony of Putin's and, like the Prime Minister, is widely believed to have been a career KGB field officer, including serving as resident at the Soviet U.N. mission in New York. Then came the revolution, and Boris Yeltsin, and the demise of the country that men like Yakunin had served for most of their lives.
I told him I had been the bureau chief for an American newsmagazine in Moscow in the second half of the '90s and that we correspondents in those days had a saying that we thought apt for the times: what was happening in Moscow then devaluation of its currency, default on its debt, rapacious bandit-dominated "up against the wall" capitalism was "great for journalism, but bad for Russia."
Yakunin practically leaped out of his chair. "You were right," he said emphatically, and he recounted what for him was a particularly humiliating moment in the national memory of many Russians: when then President Yeltsin had gone to Berlin to participate in a ceremony with his German counterpart, Helmut Kohl. At a lunch, Yeltsin had gotten infamously drunk, and when he went outside after the meal was over, he cheerfully began conducting a German military band on hand for the occasion.
Suffice to say that Vladimir Yakunin and no doubt his friend, the Prime Minister didn't approve, and that disgraceful moment sticks in his craw to this day. The Russians are back and they are not buffoons, thank you. Now, oil and gas wealth plus increasing military might are going to right what they perceive as the humiliations of the recent past. The New Cold War, as Ed Lucas writes, is on.