Those who fear that the Russians are back on the rise should remember that the Russians are, as a nation, failing on several levels. I am no Russianist, but this is how my thoughts are shaping up. They are failing to develop industry outside of armaments and hydrocarbons. Their relevance comes from three factors: their nuclear capabilities, their hydrocarbon reserves and their willingness to use coercive and/or violent measures against significantly weaker powers.
They are struggling to understand the concept of “soft power,” even in those regions where they should have a strong advantage over countries like the United States, China, or the Europeans in terms of cultural and personal capital in Central Asia, the Caucus and Eastern Europe. They have failed to show these peoples any semblance of empathy in the post-Soviet era and have thus squandered good will their sphere of influence (outside of the remaining Russian communities in most of those states).
They have failed to reproduce in significant numbers, such that their far east is attracting Chinese settlers as Russians and natives either marry the newcomers or flee the bitter eastern cold for the bitter western cold. Parag Khanna’s rather fatalistic vision of future Russia has the Russian Far East being swallowed by China demographically and eventually politically as its “dwindling population is spread so thinly across a territory so vast that it no longer even makes demographic sense as a country.” (Khanna, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, New York, 2008, pg. 74) Others see a declining ethnic Russian population and a more rapidly rising Muslim population, with figures ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. In any event, Russia’s failure to propagate is a serious problem. Silver hairs can’t run a nation forever.
For these reasons, as well as others, the Russians are particularly insecure about their great power status. Feeling slighted by the West, they have strong revisionist impulses that demand redress. If they are left to fester and further agitated the result is potentially calamitous for the neighboring republics and everyone else concerned. Driving Russia out of the established power fora, such as the G8, OSCE, etc. will incite rather than temper these feelings. Their handling of the Georgian War was especially Russian, and what was surprising about it was not how brutal the sortie was but instead how tame it was by Russian standards.
The Russians could do much worse than bloody the nose of a sickly, if strategic, domain and pry from its meager clutches an even more sickly batch of provinces with no desire to be bound to that realm. They could lash out at Georgia because the facility for retaliation is low and the probability of victory high. The Russians lurk ominously over Europe but they are mostly cardboard. They will not roll tanks into the Estonia, let alone Ukraine. But they would undermine them otherwise, through energy or non-state actors. For the most part, the Russians know their limits, the same cannot always be said of NATO and that must change in order to mount any effective strategy towards Putin’s judo. NATO needs new leadership, mission and vision. This is one of the paramount duties of the next American president (the prospects look dim, though).
There should be some sort of multilateral understanding formed to determine Georgia’s final status, along with the breakaways (whose affairs are disappointingly ignored in most American news reports and exaggerated in Russian ones), tending towards forcing some kind of neutral status on Georgia, such that it finds greater difficulty in making trouble for Western states and the Russians find it far more prickly to visit molestation upon them again. And this with the Russians, not in spite of them. But it is already in wide opinion that such solutions are either unacceptable or unworkable. And so trouble will continue until NATO can fortify its identity and its mission and forward constructive solutions.