THE BLOG
08/21/2007 06:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Despite Russian Provocations, No New Cold War on Horizon

Russia's newly assertive foreign policy has now reached the top of the world. On Aug. 2, a submarine crew planted a titanium Russian flag in the yellowish seabed more than two miles beneath the North Pole, laying Moscow's claim to nearly half the Arctic Ocean floor -- and its potentially vast oil and gas reserves.

"This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say we're claiming this territory," said the foreign minister of Canada, a country with its own claim on Arctic territory.

"I don't give a damn about what all those foreign politicians are saying," responded Artur Chilingarov, the Russian leader of the expedition, before spraying cheering crowds in Moscow with champagne. President Vladimir Putin expressed his pride a bit more diplomatically, but this undersea land grab could generate considerable international friction over the next several years.

This is merely the most colorful recent example of Russia's brash new foreign policy. Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas monopoly, has threatened one former Soviet republic, Belarus, with a cutoff of nearly half its natural gas supplies if the country doesn't make back payments. Ukraine faced a similar temporary shutdown in January 2006.

Another Soviet republic, Estonia, has accused Russia of launching a cyber-attack on government, banking and media Web sites in the country following the Estonian government's decision to remove a politically sensitive Soviet-era war memorial from the center of its capital city.

Yet another neighbor, Georgia, accused Russia on Aug. 7 of firing a missile at a village inside its territory. The missile didn't explode, and the Kremlin denies it came from a Russian plane. But the deep-seated animosity between the two governments is well-established.

Russia is at loggerheads with Western governments over a number of issues. A dispute over Moscow's refusal to extradite a former Russian security official to London for questioning in a politically incendiary murder investigation -- the poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko -- has generated tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

The list of issues that have soured Russia's relations with the United States is a long one. NATO expansion into former Soviet territory, Kremlin opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Moscow's conviction that Washington helped sparked pro-Western political upheavals in Georgia and Ukraine, Putin's recent decision to withdraw Russia from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, and Russia's vow to veto any U.N. resolution that recognizes Kosovo's independence don't even begin to capture the range of issues now dividing the two governments.

Does the newly confident Russia now threaten Western interests on a Soviet scale? The Kremlin will continue to frustrate many U.S. and European foreign-policy plans and to heap scorn on Western complaints over Russia's interference in the lives of its neighbors. But Russia is in no position to pursue a global strategy of Soviet-style confrontation with the West.

First, Moscow hopes to continue to profit from openness to foreign investment as its middle class becomes an increasingly attractive market for foreign goods and services. Though the Kremlin will doggedly safeguard state control of the "strategic sectors" of the Russian economy, it cannot afford the sort of international outlaw status that much of the international community now bestows on Iran or Venezuela.

Second, Russia is challenging the international balance of power on issues involving its perceived national interests, but it lacks the political and economic heft to exert strong influence in Latin America, Africa or southern Asia. Russia's economy is now a little larger than Mexico's -- and a little more than one-third the size of China's.

Third, unlike the Soviet Union, today's Russia provides no ideological appeal that might attract others to follow its lead. No one -- not even Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- calls on Russia to guarantee its security against American encroachment.

Finally, unlike China, which has been forced out into the world to forge new friendships that can bring in badly needed long-term supplies of energy and other commodities, Russia already has the natural resources it needs. This limits the growth of common interests between Russia and other governments that is central to China's 21st century foreign policy.

In fact, China remains a key variable in the Kremlin's foreign-policy calculus. Moscow will remain a powerful player only in its neighborhood unless Russia and China one day find common interest in pooling their political and economic resources to challenge the Western-led international order. That is highly unlikely to happen.

The two states will continue to find tactical advantage in working together on specific foreign-policy issues -- as when they leveraged their influence within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to encourage Uzbekistan to oust U.S. troops from bases on its territory in 2005. But at the strategic level, Russian and Chinese interests are not always compatible.

On the one hand, fear of China's growing economic and military power remains strong within Russia's political and security elite. More to the point, Beijing's current focus is on engineering a prosperous and politically stable China, and the party leadership engineers the country's foreign policy with this guiding principle in mind. Its strategic alignment with other states makes sense only if it allows China to maintain relatively positive and stable relations with the United States and European powers, whose economies help fuel China's economic rise.

Moscow's relations with Western governments have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. That matters for the international conflict over Iran's nuclear program, Russia's relations with its neighbors and collaboration on Russian energy projects. But there is no new Cold War on the horizon. Russia can reach the North Pole, but it is far from strong enough to challenge the current Western-led international order.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. He is the author of the book "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall." He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.