PARIS, July 14 (UPI) -- Russia's President Vladimir Putin appears to be the most commanding and influential Kremlin leader since the stronger days of the old Soviet Union as he prepares to host this weekend's G8 meeting.
The symbolism of the occasion, with Russia playing host to the world powers in the expensively restored imperial Tsarist capital of St. Petersburg, is buttressed by Putin's high domestic popularity, by the mood of political stability and the trappings of economic success.
The old Soviet and Yeltsin-era debts are paid off and there are over $300 billion in the reserves, a figure so healthy that the ruble this month became a convertible currency. The world's oil majors and investors are bidding desperately to be included into Russia's massive energy boom, despite the evident risks of political intervention and legalized looting through tax manipulation.
Russia appears to matter again, to be a key player in the international arena with a strategic seat on the United Nations Security Council which means that with his vote, Putin can grant or withhold the international mandate and the mantle of legitimacy that it brings. The Kremlin now wields a highly influential voice in crises over Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions, over energy security (and thus the global economy) and counter-terrorism.
But it is all something of a sham. And from the defensive and self-important whine that marked a major recent policy speech to his collected ambassadors, Putin knows it. While Russia temporarily occupies a tactically diplomatic position because of American distraction with a range of different crises, and because the oil price rise has made the economy look good, Russia is strategically as weak as ever.
The oil boom has no tail. The Russian economy depends on exporting raw materials (which luckily happen to be expensive these days) and using the money to buy industrial and consumer goods, which happen to be relatively cheap. The only industrial products Russia can export are its armaments and nuclear technology, and they are both getting obsolescent. Nobody wants Russian cars, textiles, medicines, computers or machinery. When the terms of trade turn bad again, as the business cycle predicts they will some day, and the oil price falls and the prices of industrial goods rise, Russia will be as poor as ever, having wasted these fat years by failing to invest in a real economy or even in its education system.
The long-term outlook is poor. Russia's demographics are disastrous, with the number of native Russians shrinking fast as the middle-aged drinkers and smokers die out and their wives and daughters decline to have children. On current birthrates, Russia could be a majority Muslim country within 80 years.
The dominance of Eurasia that Russia sought and often wielded since the days of the Tsars has gone, probably forever. China is the leading Asian power, with India increasingly its more important rival, while Russia's influence is being steadily eroded in the Caucasus, in Central Asia and in Ukraine.
The pitiful performance of the Russian forces in Chechnya suggests that the country is less and less a significant military power. Russia's strategic inheritance, its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, is withering on the vine, which is why Putin is calling for a re-negotiation of the 1991 START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty that maintains the fig-leaf of U.S.-Russian parity. President Bush and the Pentagon are unlikely to agree, and the real menace of Russia's nukes is less their missiles than the gaps in their security and the widespread corruption that tempt terrorists.
And Russia's record as a responsible strategic power is not good. Russia is completing Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactors, has provided missile technology to North Korea in the past and now is selling advanced military aircraft to all comers, including such stars of the global system as Myanmar, Sudan and Venezuela. And meanwhile it shrinks from even the most modest international sanctions against Iran.
So an unpleasant portion of Russia's influence stems from its ability to be a spoiler and an irritant, high-mindedly claiming to be acting in the international interest while making maximum leverage of its few assets, like the threat to turn off the gas tap to Ukraine and Europe last winter.
"Russia does not want confrontation of any kind, and we will not take part in any kind of holy alliance," was the way Putin expressed this in his long address to Russia's top diplomats late last month, in which he made it clear that his real concern was U.S. dominance in world affairs and its readiness to resort to force which he saw as the real problem.
"The causes that are fueling the desire of a number of countries to acquire weapons of mass destruction and carry out other military programs include not just national ambitions but also the overblown importance given to force in international relations that is being foisted on us all," Putin went on. Guess who he thinks is doing the foisting?
"We have no intention of joining in any kinds of ultimatums that only drive the situation into a dead end and deal a blow to the U.N. Security Council's authority. It is our conviction that crises can be settled by drawing states into dialog and not by isolating them."
Dialog and the United Nations and international conferences and G8 sessions are the arenas in which Russia can still strut the stage as a great power, and can still try to claim the respect that Putin craves, and which the G8 summit is meant both to embody and to assert. And yet even Russia's G8 role is only partial; Russia remains excluded from the real boiler-room of the G8 process, the meetings of finance ministers and officials that mount a constant watch on the global economy, and also needs U.S. support to become a member of the World Trade Organization.
"To be honest, not everyone was ready to see Russia begin to restore its economic health and its position on the international stage so rapidly," Putin blustered to his ambassadors. "Some still see us through the prism of past prejudices and, as I said before, see a strong and reinvigorated Russia as a threat. Some are ready to accuse us of reviving 'neo-imperialist' ambitions or, as we heard recently, have come up with the accusation of 'energy blackmail'," he went on, in angry rejection of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's critique of Russian energy policies last month while visiting the Baltic states (where Cheney's remarks were warmly approved).
This kind of bluster plays well at home and among the ex-KGB nationalists who provide the core of Putin's governing team, and Putin gets some grudging respect from some U.S. diplomats for playing a weak hand quite well. Tactically, he has succeeded in making Russia important again. But strategically, Russia's real weaknesses are getting worse and its non-oil economy is lagging ever further behind its Indian and Chinese rivals.