WASHINGTON, March 3 (UPI) -- Hillary Clinton, in what may turn out to have been one of her last appearances as a serious contender for her party's presidential nomination, was asked during last week's TV debate if she could name Vladimir Putin's successor as president of Russia.
To her credit she gave the name, Medvedev, and described him as "a handpicked successor, that he is someone who is obviously being installed by Putin, who Putin can control, who has very little independence, the best we know."
"The so-called opposition was basically run out of the political opportunity to wage a campaign against Putin's handpicked successor, and the so-called leading opposition figure spends most of his time praising Putin," she added. "So this is a clever but transparent way for Putin to hold on to power, and it raises serious issues about how we're going to deal with Russia going forward."
Sen. Barack Obama then argued, with similar perceptiveness, that President Bush's policies toward Putin had been a failure.
"He proceeded to neglect our relationship with Russia at a time when Putin was strangling any opposition in the country when he was consolidating power, rattling sabers against his European neighbors, as well as satellites of the former Soviet Union. And so we did not send a signal to Mr. Putin that, in fact, we were going to be serious about issues like human rights, issues like international cooperation that were critical to us. That is something that we have to change," Obama said.
That was not a bad summary from the two Democratic contenders, except for two glaring omissions. Neither of the Democratic rivals referred to the real source of Russian's renewed antagonism toward United States. Nor did they note the source of Putin's authority, which is not the rusting missiles he inherited from the old Soviet Union, but oil and gas and the floods of money it brings.
Putin himself knows this. Asked why there was no serious opposition to Medvedev in the presidential election, Putin replied: "Our wages have risen by 16 percent -- that is the answer to your question."
When Putin was installed as prime minister by Boris Yeltsin after the 1998 crash of the ruble, Russia's gross domestic product was around $2,000 per head. Today it is close to $9,000 per head, and the Kremlin is sitting on almost $500 billion in foreign exchange reserves.
So it comes as little surprise that Putin is popular, and it should come as even less surprise that Russia is in a nationalist and anti-Western mood. Russia has not been treated well, and is now responding in kind.
When Germany was reunited in 1991, U.S. President George H. W. Bush promised that in return for Russian acquiescence, there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. That pledge was broken, not only with the former Warsaw Pact states like Poland and Hungary but also with former Soviet Republics like the Baltic states.
For Russians, the advance of NATO to their borders is not interpreted as a friendly gesture. The West's support for the anti-Moscow Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine is seen as a menacing encroachment into Russia's intimate strategic space. President George W. Bush's decision five years ago to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was similarly seen in the Kremlin as a bullying bid to assert U.S. strategic superiority and to put Russia in its humble place.
For Putin, who had come instantly to America's support after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, offering the use of Russian airspace and welcoming U.S. bases into Central Asia, these measures came as a personal slap in the face. At the same time, the construction of new oil pipelines through Georgia and Turkey, whose sole purpose was to break the Russian monopoly over the pipelines bringing Central Asian energy to Western markets, seemed like a further attempt to cripple Russian influence.
American and European policymakers have little sympathy with such views. They rightly stress that Poland and Hungary, like Estonia and Latvia or Ukraine and Georgia, are independent states that are free to make their own decisions about joining NATO and how far they want to live under Russian influence.
But the result is that Russia is no longer a friend. It is not quite an open enemy but will certainly be a geopolitical problem for the next U.S. president. At the moment, that problem stems from Russia's wealth, its renewed self-confidence and its surly resolve to do the West no favors. But the next U.S. president is likely to find that the Russian problem will increasingly be based on Russia's weakness.
Russia's oil and gas bonanza is being wasted, spent on a consumer boom rather than on long-term investment in infrastructure and in the country's human capital. Russia's industrial production has been flat since 1999, which is to say that there is not much of a manufacturing economy outside the energy sector. At the same time, Russian imports have been soaring by more than 30 percent a year.
Inflation has taken off and is now in double digits. Corruption is now even worse than it was in the 1990s, say Western businessmen. There is little homegrown economic vigor; only one Russian company in 20 is less than five years old. This means few start-ups and dismayingly few entrepreneurs seeking to take advantage of the consumer boom.
Even if oil prices stay high, which is unlikely if the United States and Europe slide into recession, Russian oil production is set to decline because of under-investment in new wells and poor maintenance of old ones. As head of the Gazprom energy giant, President-elect Medvedev himself warned last year that Russian might not be able to meet its export contracts without buying supplies from Central Asia.
So trouble is starting to loom in Russia, from the two crucial elements that the two Democratic presidential candidates neglected to mention: its economy and its bitter resentment of what they see as Western affronts to Russian pride and interests.
Both the old Russian president and the new one have been studying with care what Clinton and Obama had to say about them. What they heard was neither flattering, nor well-informed. There is a great deal more the next American president needs to know about Russia than the name of the new president.