Russia sees us as pawns on its chessboard
By Edward Lucas
So now we know: the "new Russia" of Dmitri Medvedev looks very like the old one of Vladimir Putin.
Consider the events of the past week. MI5 accused its Russian counterpart of murder; in return, Russian media "unmasked" a senior UK diplomat as a spy. Britain's largest company, BP, came closer to losing its flagship investment in Russia. The deal to base a US radar station in the Czech Republic was met by a Russian threat of a "military-technical" response. Gordon Brown's meeting with Mr Medvedev was as icy as any Anglo-Russian summit in the past 20 years. On Friday night, Russia sided with China to block UN sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Over the past eight years, starting with the rise of Mr Putin, Russia has recovered both its confidence and its capability. But to do what?
Some argue that like any big country, Russia is just pursuing its national interest, and that this is nothing sinister. Such a view ignores both a very definite strategic plan, born of the peculiar Russian mindset, and the role of chauvinism, xenophobia and the desire for revenge.
Russian thinking is still rooted in a Soviet approach that leaves little room for the concept of mutual benefit. The "zero-sum" game is deeply entrenched: if something is good for the West, it is bad for Russia, and vice versa.
That chimes neatly with the story pushed on Russian state television that treacherous Russian politicians connived with the West in the 1990s to weaken the country. We promoted chaotic economic reform and phony democracy that enriched a handful and impoverished the rest, leaving Russia near disintegration until it was rescued by Putin's firm.
That is preposterous. In fact, the West provided billions of dollars to prop up Russia in the 1990s; it failed not because of our bad advice, but because of its appallingly difficult starting position and weak Russian leadership. Yet for that mythical wrong, Russia now wants revenge.
The first big push is for influence in what Russia sees as its own back yard: the old Soviet European empire, viewed not as countries that freely prefer the West, but former allies hijacked by nationalists and Western spin doctors.
The second part of the plan is to neutralise the big countries of western Europe and weaken the Atlantic alliance. Russia (population 140 million and GDP of $1trillion) is smaller and weaker than Europe (450 million and $11trillion). Yet like an able chess player, it uses a smaller number of well-positioned pieces to overwhelm a seemingly superior opponent.
Its tactics are simple: to use the promise of long-term, dependable gas supplies to build ties with energy-hungry countries such as Germany; to build gas pipelines that circumvent countries such as Ukraine; to exploit anti-US sentiment in the West on issues such as Iraq and missile defence; to buy politicians, parties and whole countries where the opportunity presents itself.
The key to Russia's success is linking political and economic issues, and playing one country off against another. If the EU wants to help Georgia, Russia uses Greece to block it. If Nato wants to help Ukraine, Russia invokes German help. When France raised human rights concerns, the Kremlin offered huge investments in a car plant and a gas field in exchange for silence.
It is working. Germany's ties with Russia now trump those with Poland, nominally its chief east European ally. Germany leads the opposition in Nato to a clear membership timetable for Ukraine and Georgia.
Both countries are threatened with dismemberment by Russia, which is stoking separatism in the Ukrainian province of Crimea, and has all but annexed two provinces of Georgia. In protest against Russian military overflights, Georgia has recalled its ambassador from Moscow. Nobody in the West seems to notice. The US, the final guarantor of our security, is discredited and distracted.
Russia's skilful pipeline politics has wrecked European attempts to diversify the continent's energy supplies. An EU-backed project called Nabucco, which would bring gas from Central Asia to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans, has been kyboshed. The Russian pipelines of Nord Stream (in the Baltic) and South Stream (across the Black Sea) form an effective pincer movement, eagerly backed by key Russian allies such as Germany and Austria, leaving Ukraine and Poland open to Russian energy blackmail.
Russia is a big investor in our economies; our bankers salivate at prospect of Russian bonds and stocks. The presence of Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor, on the board of the Nord Stream gas pipeline epitomises the way in which Russian influence has penetrated deep into our political system. Checkmate is looming.