The Biggest Bully

One of the most powerful myths of Vladimir Putin's era is that he is leaving Russia a more powerful country than he found it. At home, that may be true: there is little doubt that most Russians are better off today than they were when he took power. But eight years of threats and disputes have done little to boost Russia's standing in the world. And in the former Soviet Union, Putin has presided over a catastrophic shrinkage of the Kremlin's power, both hard and soft. "Russian authority in the [Commonwealth of Independent States] has grown much weaker during the last eight years," laments Kremlin-connected political strategist and Duma deputy Sergei Markov.

When Putin came to power there were Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Now all of those countries are members of an informal anti-Russian, pro-NATO alliance known because of its member countries by the acronym GUAM. Back in 2000 the Kremlin was still very much the power broker in Central Asia, thanks in large part to Russia's monopoly on energy exports. But on Putin's watch, the people-power "colored" revolutions in Kiev and Tbilisi brought Western-friendly presidents to power, and the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline allowed Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to export their oil directly to the West, without being dependent on Moscow's good will.

Instead of building bridges with the new regimes, the Kremlin chose to pick fights with almost all of its neighbors. Some were trivial, like a bust-up with Estonia over the moving of a war memorial. Others were over deep fundamentals in Russia's relations with its former satellites, like the 2006 spat with Ukraine over cheap Russian gas supplies, which culminated in a gas cutoff to Ukraine—and, by accident, the rest of southern Europe. The common theme is that Russia has always chosen confrontation, usually accompanied by loud media campaigns on state-controlled television. But yelling has not done much to gain influence or trust. "Putin had no steady and clear policy for the CIS, and Russia's neighbors quickly realized that Russia's politics of bullying was inconsistent," says former Kremlin adviser Georgy Satarov, now president of the Moscow-based Indem Foundation. "Putin posed as a powerful, influential big brother, but Russia's muscles turned out to be fake."

For instance, after a spy row last year with Georgia, Moscow threw the worst it could at Tbilisi, short of open warfare. Russia severed rail and air links, cut banking ties and mail, refused to issue visas, embargoed Georgian imports and cut off gas and electricity supplies. Georgia didn't collapse. Rather, with crucial energy help from Azerbaijan, its economy grew. "Russia showed us that we can live without our so-called older brother," Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili recently told NEWSWEEK. Indeed Russia's serial diplomatic tantrums have had little practical effect—except to undermine Russia's power and credibility. In Georgia, support for NATO membership swelled from 38 percent before the spat to 72 percent after. "Putin's economical and political attacks on the Baltics, Ukraine, Georgia and even Belarus look clumsy and hostile," says opposition leader and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. "That is not a way to treat the neighbors."

Further afield, Russia's reputation has slipped disastrously. In 2003, Putin rode in a state carriage next to Queen Elizabeth as an honored guest. But relations deteriorated so badly in the wake of the 2006 poisoning of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London, and Russia's refusal to extradite his alleged killers, that by the end of January this year, Russian authorities closed down offices of the British Council, a cultural organization. Secret police interrogated its Russian employees. Even Germany, Russia's biggest European trading partner and once its closest ally, has under Angela Merkel grown wary of over-dependence on Russian gas. Putin's latest gambit—to threaten to point nuclear weapons at Ukraine if it joins NATO—suggests he's running low on ideas on how to revive Russia's power. Perhaps heir apparent Dmitry Medvedev's promise to extend the reach of state-controlled energy giant Gazprom "quietly, without hysterics" will succeed where Putin's bluster failed. After all, Putin has repeatedly declared that he wants Russia to become an alternate power in a "multipolar world." But it is not going to if it can't even command the respect and loyalty of its closest neighbors.