Relations between Russia and the West (for the purposes of this write-up I mean Western Europe and the United States) have not been great since the end of the Cold War, and they got sharply worse under Vladimir Putin. Under Putin and his successor, Russia has repeatedly bombed and now invaded Georgia, a sovereign country and staunch U.S. ally; carried out state-sanctioned murder on the streets of London and then protected those responsible from being brought to justice; managed to lose control of its forces in the Balkans in 1999, who promptly and unilaterally seized a Kosovan air base, causing a British officer to fear "world war three"; resumed nuclear bomber flights to the edge of Western airspace; and violently intervened in elections in neighbouring countries, which it has also held to ransom by cutting off their energy supplies.
And what can we and should we do about it? Not as much as you might think.
Our latest set of problems with Russia started just after the Cold War. Amid the jubilation of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there was a tendency among Western countries to treat Russia just like a vanquished adversary, in much the same way as we dealt with Germany after the world wars. But there were crucial differences. Russia had not collapsed on the battlefield, she was not occupied, crucial parts of her political dream - especially control over people in neighbouring countries - had not been discredited. The military-KGB apparatus had not in itself been defeated, and was not dismantled after the Cold War was over; the KGB merely rebranded itself and now, through the Putin-Medvedev cabal, effectively rules the country.
So, Russia is proud. She is undeterred. After enduring years of Western carping about democracy, human rights, free markets, and sovereignty, she is annoyed. When even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can say he is happy with the direction the country is going under Vladimir Putin, we can tell something deep is going on. The brute fact is that Russia has not accepted the polite norms of the international system and has not agreed to respect the rules of the game; witness my first paragraph. Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century, and this points to the country's true motivations: the re-establishment of control over its former colonies in Eastern Europe.
When the Cold War was over, the West was completely insensitive to the idea that Russia might not have moved into the twenty-first century. To us, empires and spheres of influence belong to fifty or a hundred years ago - the new game in town is national self-determination, each country having the right to determine its own future. We ignored the fact that Russia might feel threatened and insulted if we established close relations with the new independent countries on its borders, or even tried to enter into military alliance with them. For centuries, the Russians ruled over these peoples and saw glory in their empire; now, they peer out from Moscow with suspicion at what looks like an enemy plot to encircle and weaken them.
It does not matter that they are wrong. All that matters is that they think it. We have faced countries before that steadfastly refused to play by the rules of the international game and to live in peace with their neighbours - Iraq, North Korea, now Iran - but we have eventually prevailed over them because they were weak, because ultimately there was only so much damage they could do before being forced or tempted to change their ways. These countries share in the common the fact that they feel victimized by the international system and have no stake in globalization - they do not benefit from our trade, and so they think they have more to gain by spitting in our face. The most worrying fact about Russia is that she is a country that fits exactly into this definition, but one that has the nuclear capacity to destroy the world.
Russia's wealth and power is increasingly based on its energy resources - treasure under the ground that can make the state rich and able to control neighbouring countries. It is this firm economic base - plus a growing friendship with China, the international powerhouse of tomorrow - that makes it so cocksure in its dealings with the West. After a decade and a half of coping with the feeling of defeat, Russia can once again feel ascendant and powerful. Our response has been to continue our lectures about human rights and democracy and non-interference in the affairs of others; their reaction, to poke fun at our hypocrisy and bristle at our insults. We are wounding and angering a bear that we can never kill.
For nearly as long as there has been a Russia, there has been a Russian Empire. There will, in all likelihood, be one again. Against our international law and norms, they have brute power; we ourselves, when our interests favour it, know which wins. The West urgently requires to readjust itself to the existence of Russian power and the fact that Russia has legitimate demands on the international system, not because she is right or because her cause is just, but because she has the power to take them and there is nothing we can do about it.
To hector and posture in the face of this power is only to anger her, so far as she does not impinge on our own legitimate demands; this is how international relations, shorn of nicety, work. It only takes one country to treat it as a matter of power for it to become a matter of brute force; and Russia has made clear that, in its near abroad at least, this is how it views it. However just the cause of self-determination there is, however much we bristle at the independence of free people being crushed, there is ultimately only so much we can do. Russia will take the liberties that it believes it is entitled to, and we must accomodate ourselves to this fact.
The West must however demonstrate that there are limits beyond which we will not be pushed. Ultimately it is the nuclear competition that is the final check on this process of adversity, and we desperately need to find a way to readjust our relations with Russia so that this does not need to be invoked. Russia will seek what it views as its legitimate stake in the future of Georgia and the Ukraine and elsewhere, and there are no words we can say that will convince it otherwise, and no other means that we can deploy that are proportionate to the interest at hand.
If we allow this competition to continue and for Russia's demands to grow without reaching an understanding on how far it can go, eventually we shall have to put our finger on the nuclear button and say: "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further". And then we will once again be in the hands of God.