Dmitri Medvedev's recent national address made disturbing viewing for those who are already nervous about Russia. Medvedev blamed the two great crises of the year, the war in Georgia and the economic meltdown, squarely on America (all this as Obama was giving his victory speech). He also announced a planned constitutional change to increase the length of the Presidential term from 4 to 6 years. This would need to be passed a two thirds majority in Russia's Duma, and to be then ratified by two thirds of Russia's regional legislatures, but this will prove to be no real brake on the change, given United Russia's popularity and media influence. This decision looks very clearly like the opening move in a return to the Presidency by Vladimir Putin, and a further blow for Russian democratic credentials.
The problem at present for those who would like to see reconciliation between Russia and the West is that Russia has everything to gain through conflict with the United States and very little to lose. After the apathy and ennui of the Yeltsin years, Russian nationalism is the new grand narrative through which the country views itself. In this sense it binds the nation together and keeps power firmly in the hands of the siloviki. Moreover, the old Cold War ideology according to which Russia sees itself as a vital counterweight to American power is deeply flattering for the Kremlin, overemphasising Russian power in a world where its economic and military power has already been overtaken by China and will soon be overtaken by other emergent powers.
It is natural, too, to think that Russia has drawn a disturbing lesson from the success of the war in Georgia and the absence of any significant ramifications. The paranoid could compare it with the successful annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany in 1870, which led to the First World War. Russia tested the West's resolve to protect its allies on Russia's borders, and found it wanting. The West, for its part, is loathe to back down a second time, but it is hard to imagine that many Western powers would call Russia's bluff if it meant the risk of nuclear war.
The next crisis could manifest itself in a number of different regions. The most talked about area is the Crimea. Here a predominantly Russian population lives in an historically Russian area, where Russia has significant assets, including its main Black Sea naval base. Moreover, there have been rumours of Russia handing out passports to residents of the region, just as it did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the Georgian War.
Transdniestria is another region that is often suggested as being another potential flashpoint. However, the pro-Russian inclinations of the present Moldovan government and the region's increasing integration with the rest of Europe make a war in this region seem less likely.
A final territorial claim that could spark tension between the West and Russian lies in the Arctic. Given the vast untapped oil wealth of the region, Russia is naturally pushing its claims forcefully. America, for its part, is determined to protect the claims of its NATO allies Canada and Denmark. This could easily be another potential flashpoint.
The United States has little to offer Russia as compromise. The only two cards it really has are the indefinite postponement of its missile defence plans in Eastern Europe and a cessation of NATO expansion eastwards. The second of these would be genuinely welcome to Russia, but one might worry whether Russia would see this move as effectively ceding the countries to the Russian sphere of influence. As for postponing missile defence, many cynics saw Russia's initial opposition to the plan as a simple bargaining card. The plan would pose little threat to Russia military security, but its psychological significance makes plausible Russian claims to be intimidated by the plan. If the Russian leadership does indeed view missile defence simply as a way of extracting other concessions from the West, it could be that its abandonment or postponement will win America and Europe very little in the way of good will from the Kremlin.
There are many, many ways that Russia and America could help each other further: enhanced security and anti-terrorist measures, reduction of nuclear stockpiles, and prevention of nuclear proliferation would benefit both sides. However, given the new nationalist ideology, such initiatives are low down Russia's shopping list. Indeed, if Russia is conducting itself in accordance with the old Cold War zero-sum game mentality, as suggested by its recent moves in South America, then it may see a nuclearised Iran as a potentially valuable ally, and a counterweight to America's close allegience to Israel in the Middle East.
This would be dreadfully short term thinking on Russia's part. A nuclear conflict - or even the threat of one - anywhere in the Middle East would be disastrously destabilising for the whole world, and would have vast repercussions on the world economy. Moreover, if Iran successfully nuclearises in the face of Western opposition, it is likely that many other countries will attempt to take the same route. Wider possession of nuclear weapons would diminish Russia's military might in relative terms, and its already overstretched, undermanned, and underequipped military would leave the country looking more vulnerable than ever before.
Moreover, whilst Russia is not a status quo power, and has significant revisionist interests, it is not in the same boat as the other BRIC nations. The influence of Brazil, India, and China is growing as their economies become more modern and diverse and their large populations become wealthier and more skilled. Russia's growth since the end of the Cold War has been strong, but almost entirely focused on its oil and gas industries. A Russian business consultant I recently spoke to told me that, excluding oil, gas, and related industries, real growth in Russia has been negative since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, Russian demographics make for grim reading. The UN has warned that Russia can expect to see its population fall by a third by 2050. It is a grave error, then, for Russia to see itself as a champion of the new world order.
Russia's future as a power lies in closer economic integration with Europe in the West and China, Japan, and South Korea in the East. It cannot afford to pursue a nationalist agenda while its population falls and its economy becomes ever more dependent on energy exports. By its present strategy, it is alienating those countries best positioned to help it. For now, Europe seems dependent on Russian gas exports, but it would be a mistake for Russia to assume that this will not change in the longer term. Likewise, a global recession will bring with it lower energy prices, and this will have a disproportionately negative effect on Russia's budget. Even with its captive European market, Russian will have to choose between tackling the entrenched barriers to economic growth and diversification and pursuing a self-aggrandising nationalism.
Russia's consitution is set for change, to Vladimir Putin's advantage
Moldova and Transdniestria
Russia - Getting Medvedev's Message
Russia's Western Neighbours [reference Russia handing out passports in the Crimea]