What exactly did Western leaders and pundits think would happen as Russia regained economic stability and again gained leverage in the world of international politics? What did they think would be the outcome of a weakened United States undercut by lack of support by some Western European allies?
What they didn't contemplate was a rebirth of the spirit of the Cold War among Russia's leaders. They certainly didn't think that Russia's defense strategists would rush toward development of new multiple warhead and inflight retargetable missiles. Why would the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces believe they ever would have a priority need for such weapons at a time when a clearly non-confrontational U.S. administration is willing to turn its efforts toward major reductions in strategic armament?
A Cold War mentality has marked Vladimir Putin and his stalwart security, intelligence and military cadre that constitute the siloviki, and this has infected Russia's perception of dealing with the external world. Of course this is hardly unexpected. Putin and his generation of dedicated former Communist Party members grew up in and were educated by the old Soviet system. Back then they were the young heart and soul of their nation. That the "old folks" mismanaged Russian dominance was not the fault of Vlad and his now middle-aged buddies.
After nearly twenty years of struggling through evolution of a new format, Russia -- with its modernization and expansion of its oil and gas industry -- is ready again to accept an international leadership role. Russia didn't lose its scientific genius. It didn't lose its traditional nationalism. Russia, with the continuation of its substantial oil and gas income, has weathered the global financial breakdown rather better than expected. Why not show the world it's back in the game? What better way than bulking up their military capability and politically challenging American strategic ambitions?
It would be wrong, however, to place the full responsibility for Russian resurgence on Vladimir Putin. In spite of his authoritarian personality, Putin works within and through what is by now a well-structured system. Even his self-manufactured evolving rivalry with his own former aide, Dmitry Medvedev, provides a useful image of democratic contest. Whether real or not, the reported competition between the leaders keeps alive a valuable good-cop, bad-cop negotiation potential. The Russians clearly have not lost their facility in international political chess.
Iran now has become a major piece in the new Russia/America match. Washington appears to have lost sight of the fact that Russo-Iranian energy relations go back to the period of the Shah and the building of two trans-national gas pipelines, IGAT-1 and IGAT-2. Bringing Persian gas into the Soviet Union was a major project that continued through both the Shah's administration and the later clerical governments. That Russian engineers are now assisting in Iranian nuclear energy development should come as no surprise.
Russia has no security fears of Iran. If anything, Russia's intelligence service gains considerable information on the Middle East and South Asia matters from their liaison with their counterparts in Tehran. In turn the Russians have been quite effective in restraining UN economic sanctions and gaining time for Iran to develop its nuclear weapon capability. It's a mutually profitable arrangement between two neighbors. It would not be inappropriate to say Russia and Iran have a "special relationship."
Putin's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has let it be known that he considers Ahmadinejad's tirades against Israel to be mere bluster. He believes the Iranians -- from the Supreme leader down -- have no intention of attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. It is Russian thinking that Iranian strategy is based on having the ability to threaten rather than attack.
Russia's ambition is to gain some form of strategic political-military parity with the U.S. even if it can't match every aspect of American strengths. Moscow wants to regain effective dominance over the regions (now republics) of the former Soviet Union (FSU) as well as impress Western Europe with its overall power. In the meantime, the construction of new pipelines bringing Russian gas westward can have the effect of building an energy noose around Europe's neck.
This form of political economic maneuver combined with an implicit show of military force is akin to earlier centuries of European strategic thinking. It is adequate to make the FSU and ex-Soviet Bloc nations of Eastern Europe take notice. The Russian leadership holds essential the image of their country carrying a big stick.
As part of this tactic Putin and his friends seek to impress on their fellow Russians that the good old days of rivalry with the Americans are back -- though just short of the implication of a Cold War revival. It's Moscow's version of "having one's cake and eating it too." One wonders if there is anyone in the current White House who understands the subtleties and complications of what is happening?