A few years ago post Communist Russia was commonly dismissed as a basket case, argues Pete Glatter, but today fear of a resurgent Russia is driving a new agenda.
Just how democratic is post-Communist Russia? Why does Russia feel the need to dominate many of its neighbours? And how is Russia positioned in relation to the main imperialist powers? There are all questions that have a habit of recurring. The poisoning in London of the former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, the assassination of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the threats to cut off gas supplies to Georgia and its decision to halt oil exports to Belarus - cutting off supplies to much of Europe - earlier this month, have all put the Russian questions back on the agenda.
Nevertheless, the attitude of London and Washington towards Russian president Vladimir Putin has been supportive and virtually uncritical for many years. In 1999 Putin, who had just been appointed Russian prime minister, used a foray across the border by fighters for Chechen independence and a series of extremely suspect "terrorist" attacks to relaunch a brutal war in Chechnya.
Putin's new image as defender of the nation was one of the things which won him the presidency a few months later. He began to declare that the Russian troops in Chechnya were Europe's first line of defence against militant Islam.
Many of the democratic rights that the Russian people had gained with the disintegration of the Soviet Union were to be sacrificed as part of a plan to renovate the rickety Russian power structure. The West, and Tony Blair in particular, supported Putin's election campaign and discouraged questioning about what was really happening in Chechnya.
Capitalism is an immensely contradictory system. On the one hand, it depends on a high level of cooperation, even between competing firms and states. On the other, the fundamental drive to compete and dominate keeps reasserting itself. So it is that today Western leaders are nowhere near as keen on Putin as they were six years ago. They don't mind hushing up the dirty war in Chechnya. They have had no insuperable problems about accepting huge amounts of money from Russian companies queuing up to sell their shares on the London Stock Exchange. What does concern the Western establishments is the repair job that Putin is doing on the Russian power structure, because that could make Russia a dangerous focus of competition.
This explains why the poisoning of Litvinenko was used to push a new hard line on Putin to a mass audience. The West's list of accusations against Putin is long and growing. So far the charge sheet reads like this:
Since becoming president in 2000, Putin has re-established the primacy of the state over the private sector in business and industry, braking the power of the oligarchs who got super-rich during the 1990s thanks to the then president, Boris Yeltsin. He has centralised the state bureaucracy and placed much of the media under government control.
Putin's administration has encouraged the growth of an anti-Western Russian nationalism and has begun to pursue an aggressive, expansionist policy on the international stage. Russia cutting off the natural gas supply to Ukraine is evidence of this new policy. The conclusion is that Putin has become a threat to freedom and democracy and that his leadership marks a step back towards Soviet totalitarianism.
The West's objections to Putin sound quite reasonable until you remember that much of the charges levelled at Putin could be applied to many other Western allies around the world. But as an explanation for the direction of Russian capitalism, it is shot through with holes.
Firstly, it makes big assumptions about how successful Putin has been in his endeavours. Secondly, the suppression of the pro-Western oligarchs, who represent a minority of Russia's capitalist class, has actually done Russian capitalism as a whole a favour by ensuring that there is something of a level playing field for the ruling class as a whole. Thirdly, the charge sheet is wrong to see a fundamental difference in making obscene amounts of money as a state capitalist rather than as a private one.
Both types of capitalists accept the rule of the free market and are in favour of the unlimited opportunities to exploit both workers and the environment. Lastly, the charge sheet is unable to provide a convincing reason for why these changes have taken place. Any serious investigation would find that the motivation has a lot to do with the West itself.
Yeltsin's Russia, in which Putin took all but the last step towards power, was a byword for infighting among the elites in and around the ruling class. This was due primarily to the unexpected loss of the Soviet Communist Party, the hierarchy at the heart of the governmental machinery.
Putin rose to power at a time when there was a growing consensus at the top of Russian society about the need to restore a stable hierarchy. In this sense, Putin is much more of a consensus politician than is normally recognised in the West. But consensus does not automatically lead to action.
Western commentators have pointed to the rush of confidence the Russian leadership got from the soaring price of oil and other natural resource exports. But Putin had begun to centralise before the boom had really settled in. Other explanations tend to fall back on notions about "Russian political culture" or "the Soviet legacy", especially Putin's connections with the KGB, the old Soviet security service.
All these approaches ignore the international picture, as the crucial stimulus came not from within Russia but from outside. Since the late 1990s the West has increasingly resorted to the military option when seeking to assert its authority. First it attacked Serbia, then Afghanistan, then Iraq. Russia had economic and strategic interests in all three, and the last two are uncomfortably close to its own borders. The present targeting of Iran, just across the Caspian Sea from Russia, has highlighted a conflict of interest between it and the West.
At the time of the wars on Serbia and Afghanistan the Russian ruling class was far too weak to mount any kind of military challenge to incursions into its traditional spheres of influence. It had to try and put its own house in order before it could do that. Now Russia is attempting to claw back some of the influence it lost in what used to be the Soviet Union.
Capitalism means competition, and competition imposes a certain symmetry on those who take part in it. Increased aggression on behalf of the West must lead to increasingly aggressive responses. Putin is the mirror image of Bush, adapted to fit Russian conditions - the conditions of a much weaker imperial power.
The soaring price of oil and of other natural resource exports has brought money flooding into Russia as it once flooded out. The Russian economy has boomed since 1999. At the same time the US became hopelessly bogged down in Iraq. The Kremlin's dream of a "multipolar world", in which the US superpower was in no condition to deal with challenges from other quarters, seemed to be turning into reality. From the first day of 2006 the Russian leadership began to assert itself internationally in a way not seen since the disintegration of the Soviet Union 15 years earlier.
It forced former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Belarus to pay huge increases for its natural gas by cutting off or threatening to cut off supplies - using its clout to tilt the pro-Western Ukrainian government back in its favour and to force pro-Western Georgia to its knees. Further afield, Russia has warmed up its relations with China and, despite reigniting an old territorial dispute, may be moving towards a new understanding with Japan.
Back in Russia itself Gazprom, the natural gas monopoly, has gained control of the giant Sakhalin-2 liquified gas project in the Russian Far East at the expense of Shell, and BP's position in the Anglo-Russian joint oil venture, BP-TNK, has come under threat. The year ended in a landmark deal with the US paving the way for Russia's entry to the World Trade Organisation - but this is not a signal that the West has gone soft on Putin.
Western capitalism's aim is not to alienate Russia but, by the judicious application of carrots and sticks, to make it a more integral, less critical member of the team. Despite the boom, its economic performance ranks no higher than that of Mexico, Romania and Jamaica. Russia remains weak and therefore susceptible. Its economic base remains largely restricted to natural resource production, and it shows little sign of the economic diversification that would mean real development.
At the same time, the case of Russia shows how much more unstable, unpredictable and crisis-prone the world has become. Bush and Blair certainly did not intend that their attack on Iraq should, via its effect on oil prices, benefit Putin and present them with yet another problem.
On the other hand, Putin could not have foreseen that the Russian oil boom would produce militant demands by Russian workers for a greater share in the proceeds of that boom. Grassroots opposition to the powers that be is one of the least-known yet most enduring features of modern Russia. But it is by far the most important, both for the Russians and for all the rest of us.