Washington If Russia is back, why does the Kremlin still seem so insecure?
The economy has steadily grown. President Vladimir Putin remains immensely popular, we are told, and the nation's influence abroad has been restored.
Yet Putin and his minions do not radiate anything like self-confidence. At home, anyone with an independent perspective is treated as an enemy. Abroad, slights are suspected in every encounter, and every interaction is a competition that Russia must win.
Kremlin adviser Igor Shuvalov was in Washington last week speaking to a friendly crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He began with his assessment of the recent Group of Eight summit in Germany: "At the end, I would say that my president would appear as a winner."
When Putin announced an agreement about natural gas with two Central Asian leaders this spring, a government-owned newspaper reported the development this way: "Caspian Victory: An alliance between Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan has become an obstacle to U.S. geopolitical plans in Central Asia."
The government long ago succeeded in destroying the country's strongest private energy company. Its onetime owner is in a Siberian prison, its assets have been seized by the state at fire-sale prices. Yet the Kremlin still seeks to disbar the 53-year-old lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, who represented the owner - "on the remarkable grounds," as The Post's Washington Peter Finn reported earlier this month, "that she has failed to adequately represent" that victim of state repression.
And while standards of living rise and foreign investment flows in, Russia's economic bullying of little neighbors only intensifies. Trade barriers against Moldova and Georgia have been joined by the closing of an oil pipeline to Lithuania, after that sovereign nation refused to sell Russia a refinery, and the blocking of commerce across a highway bridge to Estonia, after that sovereign nation relocated a Soviet-era memorial.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, also in town last week, told me that the bridge was closed purely for considerations of safety - but he could not resist adding, with a laugh, "I think the statue was good impetus." Bullying is unsatisfying if its message is not clearly understood.
Those who spend time with Putin insist that he genuinely believes the West operates as does his Russia. Just as he has political opponents beaten or jailed, so do leaders in Berlin or Washington, he tells associates, and any criticism of Russia's human rights record is nothing but self-serving hypocrisy. His zero-sum view of the world - if someone else gains, Russia must have lost - he also ascribes to other leaders.
By now we can assume that whatever distortions he sees when viewing the West in his KGB mirror are not going to change. But there seems to be something new going on, too - an edge of near-hysteria in Putin's comparison of the United States to Nazi Germany, for example, or in the threats to target missiles on Central Europe. And what's new, most likely, is the insecurity fueled by the prospect of the constitutionally mandated election of a new leader when Putin's second term expires next spring.
Putin and his aides rarely lose an opportunity to affirm that the president will leave office. But why should it even be a question, given that Russia's constitution bars a leader from serving more than two consecutive terms?
One answer lies in the erosion of the rule of law under Putin this decade. No one knows better than he that the tax police, prosecutors and every other arm of government can be wielded one way against the favored and another against those who have become inconvenient, so can Putin himself sanguinely give up power? The chief executive of a law-abiding company in a law-respecting country can retire peaceably to enjoy his pension, but you don't hear of many Mafia dons who step down and move to Florida.