IN 1946 a young U.S. diplomat named John Fischer wrote an earnest little book called Why They Behave Like Russians. Fischer, who'd served with the United Nations in postwar Kiev and Moscow, was attempting to explain to a bewildered U.S. public why their wartime ally Joseph Stalin, recipient of billions of dollars in American Lend-Lease aid, had suddenly turned on Washington, declaring it a deadly enemy, and seemed hellbent on starting a Third World War. The book is still a fascinating read—not least because so many of its conclusions continue to ring true today. Fischer calls Russia's leaders "the scared men in the Kremlin," deeply insecure behind their aggressive bluster and suspicious of any internal political threat to their power. Russia is hostile to the West, he writes, because it is a "wounded giant" traumatized by catastrophic historical upheavals and far weaker than it likes to pretend. The nation, he warns, "may blunder into war as it strives to build up a protective belt of satellite states outside its vulnerable borders." Today, with tensions rising again over two Georgian breakaway regions effectively annexed by Russia last summer, that line rings as true as it did at the dawn of the Cold War.
It's more than a little scary that some 60 years after Fischer published, thinkers in the West are still pondering the same question: why do Russians behave the way they do? Why does President Dmitry Medvedev act like a sober, responsible world leader at a G8 conference, talking about a "new European security architecture," as he did in April, yet at the same time threaten to post missiles on the Polish border in Kaliningrad, as he did in November, which is something not even the Soviets ever dared? And how come Russia has stood alongside the world's democracies by supporting the last two rounds of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council but also supplies Tehran with billions of dollars' worth of missile-defense systems, a nuclear reactor, and submarines? What is the logic behind what one present-day U.S. diplomat in Moscow not authorized to speak on the record calls "Kremlin bipolar disorder"?
Russia's apparent recalcitrance isn't simply a manifestation of evil or pique; it is a reflection of a particular world view. Talk to Russians today from any walk of life about where they see their country's place in the world and you'll soon hear them use the word "respect." Mention history, and you'll likely hear a lot of blame slung at America for inflicting years of economic hardship and political chaos. No less a figure than the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev complained recently that "the fall of the Soviet Union made America's head spin—it was as though Russia was no longer significant, no longer a partner, and worthless to America. Then, when Russia was on its knees, when our economy collapsed, Americans came here and applauded the great job Yeltsin had done. We understood something important then: it suited the West for Russia to be half dead."
One word you won't hear Gorbachev or his like use is "humiliation," but it lies beneath such statements and is equally important. Russians suffered intense humiliation in the painful years between 1980 and 2000, as their empire was first defeated in Afghanistan, then turned into an economic basket case, and then collapsed. And they haven't forgotten about it. Middle-aged Russians of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's generation—who now make up its ruling elite—grew up being told their country was the greatest in the world. They then spent the best years of their lives watching it implode. And it's not just ex-Soviet hard men like Putin who nurture this sense of grievance; smart young professionals (like Medvedev) share it as well. Small wonder, then, that Russia's quest for respect—for equality or revenge—often seems to stray beyond the rational.
Indeed, modern Russia's quest for respect is so intense that it's ensured that it's warped the world view of citizens and policymakers alike, casting everything in 19th-century terms, with winners and losers and enemies in different uniforms. Whether it's planting a flag on the bottom of the sea to claim the North Pole or squeezing the Americans out of a base in Kyrgyzstan, Moscow still sees diplomacy as a zero-sum game where every international engagement—even supposedly friendly ones like the Eurovision Song Contest—becomes a litmus test for Russian pride and power. This helps explain Russia's friendships with anti-American regimes in Venezuela, Syria, and Iran. Today's Russia is willing to pal up with anyone, it seems, as long as it bolsters Moscow's credentials as a leader of a "multipolar world."
No battleground is more emotionally charged for contemporary Russians than the lands of their lost empire. In April 2005, on the eve of massive celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Putin told Parliament that the fall of the Soviet Union was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" and "a genuine tragedy for the Russian people." Millions of Russians found themselves citizens of different countries, Putin lamented, and the "disease" of separatism spread to Russia itself as Chechnya made a bid to break away. For Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the committee for foreign affairs in the Federation Council, the loss of the empire was as traumatic as a divorce. "We are still in the process of separating from our former husbands and wives," he says. "The rows Russia is having with its neighbors are like scenes from a divorce—everyone is throwing dishes and breaking furniture." Think about this analogy and it's no surprise that Russians reserve a special resentment for America and Europe, the rich, new sugar daddies for whom their old partners left.
To the Kremlin, many Western policies reek of hypocrisy, and an unwillingness to take Russian views into account. For instance, Russia's decision last year to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after its war with Georgia—seen by the West as a way to dismember Georgia and punish its pro--Western president Mikheil Saakashvili for his desire to join NATO—was seen by Russians as a humanitarian defense of minorities oppressed by Saakashvili. From that perspective, it was similar to NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo to save Albanians oppressed by Serbia—a move bitterly opposed by Russia. "They don't understand why America can get away with invading Afghanistan and Iraq, can get away with declaring Kosovo a new country—but when we try to defend our allies in Abkhazia and Ossetia from Georgian aggression we are called the bad guys," says one former top Kremlin bureaucrat who requested anonymity when discussing old colleagues.
All this helps explain why Putin has worked so hard, ever since he came to power in 2000, to restore Russia's global standing and to reestablish its role as an undisputed regional power. Almost every major policy decision of the past decade—including boosting military spending by five times and ruthlessly centralizing power in the Kremlin—can be seen as a means to those ends. Last summer's war against Georgia was the most obvious, and bluntest, example of the Kremlin's strategic priorities, but more-recent manifestations include Medvedev's dressing down of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko earlier this summer for being too "anti-Russian." More-subtle moves have included a proposal to create a regional development bank largely funded by Moscow and a customs union that would include Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. And Medvedev's proposal earlier this year to revive the near-moribund Collective Security Treaty Organization—a group of five post-Soviet states—by adding a military rapid reaction force, fit in with this goal as well.
So far, few of Medvedev's attempts to bring former Soviet satellites closer to Moscow have come to fruition. But Moscow is likely to view any setbacks not as evidence of the flaws in its aggressive foreign policy but rather the results of outsiders' determined plotting to undermine Russia's influence in its near abroad. Indeed, given the deep-seated resentment that many Russians still harbor over Washington's supposed role in destroying their great country, it is hardly surprising that most see U.S. attempts to spread democracy in the former Soviet Union as a cynical front for Yankee imperialism. George W. Bush's call to "let freedom reign" did little to reassure ordinary Russians that the U.S. had no designs on their neighborhood. Even Gorbachev says today that "democratization is just a cover for interfering in our affairs." And Russia's elite is unshakably convinced that the populist "color" revolutions in 2003 and 2004, which brought pro-Western governments to power in Georgia and Ukraine, were not grassroots uprisings but political theater orchestrated by the CIA, says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading sociologist of Russia's ruling class. Thus there was widespread support for Putin's crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Kiev. Seen from the West, the restrictive new laws were a Kremlin-backed assault on free speech, but seen from Moscow, the clampdown on rights groups was a defensive act to rid Russia of foreign-funded fifth columns. Most Russians now seem to believe that America is intent on pressing on with its attack, and they are determined not only to reverse the pro-Western tide of colored revolutions but to try to unseat and undermine pro-Western leaders in their backyard as best they can. "Unless we stop them, America will continue to crawl further with its bases toward Russia's borders," says United Russia Duma Deputy Sergei Markov, who is currently organizing a Kremlin-funded "Anti-Nato 2009" summer camp in Crimea, a majority-Russian part of Ukraine, designed to train young Russians to resist a NATO invasion.
Take all these factors into account and Russia's foreign policy starts to make a little more sense. Its top priority is keeping meddling foreigners from taking over any more of Russia's backyard. Even Kremlin policies directed far from Russia's borders can be tied back to this primal urge. Thus Russia has made itself a rallying point for anti-U.S. crackpots in Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, and Sudan not because it seriously thinks it can restore its status as a world player but because it hopes to forge a grand bargain with Washington over the former Soviet space. Taken separately, none of these alliances make much sense—but they do if they allow Moscow to strike a deal with the Americans to act as a go-between with its pariah friends like Syria, for instance.
Consider how Russia recently used its friendship with Iran to Moscow's advantage. Back in 2007 Russia signed a deal to sell a powerful missile-defense system to Iran, but then, this summer, it allowed Israel to talk it out of actually delivering the system in exchange for Israel's promise to cut off help to Georgia's military. It was exactly the kind of deal the Kremlin loves—a local victory over a sworn enemy gained by playing the global power game. High-placed Russians deny such thinking; Sergei Karaganov, the chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy of Russia, a state-funded advisory group, swears that "Russia will never spoil its relations with Iran." But he concedes that the Kremlin might be persuaded "to change its mind if America agrees to serious compromises and stops enlarging NATO to the east, stops the Cold War in Europe, and accepts a Russian sphere of influence."
That idea of a "sphere of influence"—or what Medvedev, a little more tactfully, calls a "zone of special interests"—is really a budget version of the old empire. The Kremlin seems to have bought its own rhetoric and to have convinced itself that Russia remains a great power—and deserves to be treated as such. "The world's problems cannot be solved without consulting Russia," says Gorbachev. But like it or not, he's wrong. Russia still has nukes and enormous energy reserves. Yet it has little ability to project military power beyond its borders, and the Kremlin's saber rattling has pushed even erstwhile allies like Belarus and Ukraine into the arms of the West. In economic terms, Russia's GDP has recently grown close to Italy's in terms of size, thanks to high energy prices. But shorn of natural resources, the rest of its economy remains mired in inefficiency and corruption.
The key question, as Russian power continues to shrink, is whether Moscow will ever be able to come to terms with the loss of its empire and acknowledge the right of its former colonies to make independent strategic choices. So far there have been few signs of an attempt to move beyond imperial thinking, with school curriculums and national holidays all continuing to emphasize the country's lost greatness. "Russia has been an empire for most of its history; we don't know how to act as a national state," says Margelov.
But rather than pining for the past, Russia would do well to look to Great Britain, another fallen empire, for lessons in how to stay relevant in a post-imperial world. Britain ran into disaster in 1956 when it tried to assert itself militarily in its old imperial space by making a grab for the Suez Canal. Since then, London has contented itself with slowly building new constructive relationships with its neighbors, former colonies, and big powers like the U.S. The result might not be as grand or as satisfying as macho strutting and military adventures, but it has helped keep Britain at the center of world politics long after the sun set on its empire. If Russia would realize that its best hope for influence is to engage rather than confront the rest of the world, it could start truly rebuilding its influence—and putting to rest the misunderstandings and suspicions that shaped the lives of John Fischer's Cold War generation.