If you didn't know better, you'd think the Cold War was back: The chill in relations between Russia and the West recently hit a new low for the post-Soviet era.
Russia's ongoing interference in the Ukrainian election is only one (glaring) symptom of the new "Great Game" now developing in Central Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia - the area Russia calls its "near abroad." (The European Union calls it "common space.")
Most Russians see Ukraine as culturally and historically a part of Russia. To them, the crisis isn't about fraudulent elections. It's about Mother Russia - her history, glory and security.
Russian President (and former KGB colonel) Vladimir Putin's nostalgia for the Soviet Union's glory (whose passing he called "a national tragedy") and his Cold War xenophobia have inspired him to seek hegemony over the former Red empire, including Ukraine.
Part of this strategy is playing out there right now. And if the Ukrainian election goes to the pro-Western candidate (Viktor Yushchenko), expect an even more assertive, nationalist Kremlin foreign policy toward its "near abroad" neighbors - and the West.
Not convinced? Just look at Ukraine. Not willing to stand idly by as Russia lost another sibling to the West, Putin went to Ukraine several times to campaign for Moscow's candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, pouring more than $200 million into the election. (Comically, since the fraudulent election, Putin has since warned Western governments to stay out of Ukraine's affairs.)
It's no surprise that Putin - as the regional 800-lb. gorilla - summoned Ukraine's current president, Leonid Kuchma, to Moscow late last week to order him to avoid an election re-run. (Fortunately, the Ukrainian Supreme Court has ordered a Dec. 26 runoff.) Even before this crisis, the Russian Bear has been throwing its weight around in an attempt to regain past Soviet influence:
Political Meddling: Besides interfering in Ukrainian political affairs, Russia has: a) exerted pressure on pro-Western Georgia, supporting separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; b) encouraged separatism in Moldova's Transdniester region by refusing to withdraw Russian troops; and c) directed threatening rhetoric at the new-NATO Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.)
Energy Politics: Russia has the world's largest natural gas reserves, and the eighth largest oil reserves. It's the world's No. 1 exporter of natural gas, and No. 2 (behind Saudi Arabia) of oil. It shrewdly uses pricing and supply to influence its customers' behavior. (Lower prices for friends, higher prices for others - and cutoffs for misbehavior.) It's playing the energy card in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states. (Note that a quarter of Europe's Russian oil imports and half of its gas supplies come through the Ukraine.)
Military Moves: For the first time in years, Russia has increased its military budget. Not just a little, but a lot - by 27 percent - to $20 billion. In addition, Putin recently announced the introduction of a new "deep maneuvering" nuclear-capable missile system. One, according to Putin, that's without peer. It has also increased troops in the former Soviet Muslim republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to maintain influence there - and match American forces in Central Asia.
International Security: Russia continues to cooperate with the Iranians on the construction of a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, undercutting efforts to contain Iran's nuclear-weapons program. In addition, it has sold China billions of dollars of its most advanced weaponry, supporting Beijing's growing military buildup. These sales are shifting the military balance of power in Asia. (Russia should be more concerned about Chinese expansionism than NATO's.)
Russia is an increasingly important country. And cooperation with Moscow in fighting terrorism, containing and rolling back North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs and meeting growing world energy needs is in the West's interest. But an isolated, boisterous Russian Bear, which hinders economic and political reform at home and intimidates its neighbors abroad, isn't.
The biggest challenge is to keep Russia open and engaged with the West, moving toward democracy and free enterprise and living in peaceful coexistence with the countries along its periphery.
The West should also understand Russia's history, which includes brutal invasions by Ghengis Khan, Napoleon and Hitler. Moscow has legitimate geographic, economic and security interests in Eurasia based on geography, economics and security.
In return, Moscow must respect the sovereignty and independence of states it controlled for centuries, including Ukraine.
Moscow isn't trying to recreate the Soviet Union, per se. But, in the Kremlin's mind, something similar - by another name, such as "Greater Russia," or a Russian sphere of influence - might be nice.
Unfortunately, as we are seeing in Ukraine, Putin's white-knuckled grip on Russian power (and his popular appeals to his countrymen's nationalism) may mean that a new period of great power rivalry may not be that far off. Let's hope that isn't the case.
First appeared in the New York Post