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Natural Gas in Putin’s Russia: The Reconstruction of Energy Geopolitics

Gazprom’s CEO Alexey Miller and Vladimir Putin

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After the dissolvement of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the systematic collapse of communism in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, all the new democratic emerging states had to remodel and reconstruct their economies based on the new demands of a globalized world. Such was the case with the Russian Federation, the de facto successor of the old Soviet Union. A complete transformation occurred in the country in every sector of the economy, including the energy sector. Over the years, since the presidency of Vladimir Putin, Russia has emerged as a steady supplier of natural gas in Europe while supporting various projects that help secure its influence towards the West but also towards the East. The high demand and supply for Russian gas have created a new form of geopolitical struggle in Europe and abroad, and Russia has emerged as a major key player in the 21st-century geopolitical “chessboard”.

Energy politics during the era of communism

During the period of the Soviet Union, the country’s energy sector was one of the most important features of its planned economy. Although the Soviet Union had relatively achieved a status of self-sufficiency in energy, major problems started to appear during the late ‘70s, in a period known as the Brezhnev stagnation (1975-1985). This term was first used by Mikhail Gorbachev, in an effort to present his negative views on the socio-political and economic status of the Soviet Union that started by Leonid Brezhnev and continued under Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Also, this stagnation was characterized by the lack of energy demand from the West, which created a difficult situation in the supply-side economic aspect. This stagnation was inevitable, not only because of macroeconomic reasons but also because the political situation inside the Soviet Union did not allow for the appropriate technological innovation regarding the energy sector. Instead, the sheer focus and energy of the leadership in the Soviet Union were concentrated in competing with the United States in the Cold War, mostly in militaristic expansion. As a result, one can speculate that this was the reason why the Soviet Union was effective on a domestic level, but not on an international one, where it was clear that the capitalist nations had the upper hand in terms of technological advancements and innovation.

Vladimir Putin and the geopolitics of natural gas

Ten years after the dissolvement of the Soviet Union, a new era of political and economic stability came after the 2000 Presidential elections, when Vladimir Putin became the new President of the Russian Federation. Alongside many economic and socio-political reforms that began, major transformations occurred in the energy sector, especially in the natural gas sector. It became clear that the preservation of the natural gas sector became the top priority in Russia.

Some analysts argue that, especially in the natural gas sector, the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin follows the same USSR policy as guidance. Marshall Goldman, the author of the book, Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, argues that Putin has followed a similar line of thinking when it comes to the cancellation of exports towards buyers who might have gone against national objectives, putting forward a plan of total dependency over Russian gas, especially towards its neighboring states. The Russian state has effectively put this plan in motion for years with the increased natural gas production since the beginning of the presidency of Vladimir Putin. The main and most important asset that contributes to this plan is the Russian majority state-owned energy corporation Gazprom. Following the end of the USSR, the Natural Gas Industry was converted into the private company Gazprom, under the CEO and former deputy Minister of the natural gas industries of the Soviet Union, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Although there were objections from many politicians at that time, this politically driven decision was approved in December 1992, by the new President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin.

However, the situation changed just a few months after Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin in 2000. In a fast and methodical way, Putin managed to suppress the overgrowing power of the oligarchy in Russia, and soon business oligarchs like Chernomyrdin were set aside from Putin’s political agenda. Chernomyrdin was fired from the position of CEO of Gazprom. The increased government stocks in Gazprom, allowed Putin to replace Chernomyrdin with Alexei Miller and Dmitry Medvedev. The new majority state-owned Gazprom was under the National Champions program, a program that was advocated by Vladimir Putin himself where corporations would remain technically private but would serve as instruments of the Russian government in order to be efficient and competitive on a domestic and international level. This mix of traditional capitalist systems with some aspects of the old Soviet Union grip over businesses could only be successfully operated in Russia. The fact that Russia has large amounts of natural gas reserves inside its territory allows it to effectively control the natural gas industry for the benefit of the state. Any sort of attempt to privatize Gazprom or exclude the Russian government to support a more laissez-faire system would collapse simply because the era of oligarchy in Russia and forced privatization resulted in an economic and societal collapse.

As of today, Russia is considered to have the world’s largest natural gas reserves, with a steady increase in both natural gas and oil since the presidency of Vladimir Putin. In addition, Gazprom is the world’s largest energy major in terms of natural gas reserves and production. According to the company, its hydrocarbon reserves have amounted to 34.899 billion cubic meters of gas, while analysts predict that by 2030 Russia will double its gas exports in Europe and at the same time Europe’s gas demand will increase by 100 bcm over the next ten years. The latest information regarding natural gas exports in Europe allows us to investigate even further to what extent the Russian government uses Gazprom and natural gas as a geopolitical tool to expand its influence. The fact that Russia has the largest natural gas reserves in the world gives it leverage of economic and political influence, especially over the post-Soviet states. One country that has been influenced the most by Russia, is Ukraine. It is estimated that at least 80% of the exported natural gas to the West is transitioned from Ukraine, allowing Russia to promote its political agenda to the country. However, after the Maidan events of 2014 in Kyiv, the relations between the two states have deteriorated, to a point where Russia tries to find other routes and projects that could boost its influence in Europe.

The new era natural gas projects

The latest statistics show that Russia’s gas production has reached its highest-ever level, producing at least 725 billion cubic meters. Also, Russia’s liquified natural gas has become a significant power tool and a global force, with the possibility of further expansion in the coming years. With that being said, Russia has acquired a status of an energy superpower, and as a superpower, it aims to spread its influence in a more realpolitik strategy. To achieve this, Russia has invested in numerous gas pipeline projects. The most significant projects are the TurkStream gas pipeline and the Nord Stream II gas pipeline.

The TurkStream gas pipeline is running from Russia to Turkey. Starting from Anapa in the region of Krasnodar, it crosses the Black Sea, ending up in the terminal of Kıyıköy in Turkey. The project was announced back in 2014, and the official construction started in 2017. In 2020 the first gas deliveries to Bulgaria officially began. Although Southeast Europe as a regional gas market is often overlooked because of its relatively small size, a project like TurkStream could change this dynamic. Researcher Julian Bowden makes two good points about the significance of the project. First of all, it will change the regional gas flows into Southeast Europe by diverting the transit from Ukraine. It is estimated that at least 19 billion cubic meters per year will be removed from the Ukraine transit in 2020. Secondly, this project has the potential to transport 31.5 billion cubic meters of gas per year, which can be equal to the energy demands of 15 million households. All in all, Russia is expected to be able to divert 19 bcm away from Ukraine. Also, the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey has seen this project more positively, saying that it will eliminate transit risks for Turkey’s security of supply and decrease external dependency by replacing the Western Line.

The other most significant project and by far the most controversial one is the Nord Stream II gas pipeline. The pipeline is part of an offshore natural gas pipeline system in Europe, crossing the Baltic Seas and ending up in Germany. The recent project of the Nord Stream II pipeline began in 2015 and as of June 4, 2021, the first section of the project has been fully completed despite numerous sanctions that were imposed by the U.S. For Alan Riley, an expert in energy and environment issues, the Nord Stream II has divided the West. Supporters of the group might argue that the project will bring the much needed natural gas supplies to Western Europe, while opponents of the project argue that it is only masquerading as a commercial project and in reality, it is used as a political “weapon” to undermine the European Union and give Russia political leverage over the EU countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Some European countries are concerned that the recent disputes with Ukraine and the general foreign policy of Russia towards Eastern Europe, are strong indications of the Kremlin’s intentions to use the Nord Stream II pipeline as a political tool of influence. Although Russia and Germany have expressed their opinions about the project saying that it is purely commercial, it is certain that for whatever reason this project might be used in the end, the geopolitics of Europe has drastically changed and in the short-term, it seems that Russian has the upper hand in energy politics in Europe.

The struggle for international political influence

The projects that were mentioned, surely have the potential to change the geopolitical structure of Europe. This statement cannot be seen as an exaggeration. According to Eurostat the Russian Federation is the largest exporter of natural gas in the European Union. The total imports of energy products from Russia account for at least 60%. From that 60%, at least 39% represents the natural gas imports. This is an important figure, not only for economic reasons but because it also represents a geopolitical struggle between Russian and the United States. The previous American administration under Donald J. Trump has accused Russia of holding the EU as a “captive” due to its energy reliance. His administration and the current administration of Joe Biden have imposed sanctions on the project but with no results as the project seems to be almost done. However, there are still efforts to convince the EU to diversify its energy sources to stop the energy dependency from Russia. One country that can be a potential energy supplier for the future is Qatar. The U.S is very keen on seeing one of its closest Middle East allies as the main energy supplier for the EU to halt the economic and political influence of Russia. According to Reuters, there is a possibility for the creation of a liquefied natural gas pipeline towards Germany in the next five years. As of now, Qatar has promised to invest at least $10 billion to strengthen its ties with Germany who currently is the biggest energy consumer in Europe.

The energy politics of Russia, combined with the ongoing projects that affect Europe and the external pressure from the United States of America, is a great example of how natural gas and energy play a significant role in the reconstruction of the geopolitical map. What can be seen at first glance, as purely economical and commercial projects and energy trade policies, hides underneath it the core essence of the international struggle for political influence. Since the 2008 financial crisis, global natural gas production has been boosted by new innovative technologies and besides the traditional Cold War rivals, other countries like Norway or Qatar seem to climb the “ladder” of natural gas producing countries. Qatar and Norway are producing at least 124 billion cubic meters and 112 billion cubic meters of natural gas respectively. Generally speaking, natural gas markets globally are becoming more integrated. This is because the costs of the liquefied natural gas transportation have fallen significantly over the last few years. This can be interpreted as an important factor not only to the diversification of energy imports in the EU but also to the geopolitical changes in Europe and beyond.

The energy sector in Russia, especially natural gas production, will play a significant role in the following years to come. Russia is entering a new era of energy production and energy exportation, significantly increasing its influence and political power to the West but also the East. One can expect that the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the United States will not stop as both countries are applying a more realistic approach towards their foreign policies and re-evaluating their existent energy diplomacy and trading tactics.

Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs

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Russian Energy Week: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons?

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In an official message to mark the opening of the Russian Energy Week international forum on 13-15 October in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that there are numerous issues on the agenda related to current trends in the global energy market, including improvements to industry infrastructure and the introduction of modern digital technologies into its operation.

“The efficiency of energy production and consumption is the most important factor in the growth of national economies and has a significant impact on people’s quality of life. Many countries have already adopted policies to accelerate the development of clean energy technologies,” he wrote in the message to guest and participants.

“The forum business programme is therefore set to look in detail at the possibility of developing green energy based on renewable sources and the transition to new, more environmentally friendly fuels. I am confident that the events of the Russian Energy Week will allow you to learn more about the achievements of the country’s fuel and energy sector, and that your initiatives will be put into practice,” Putin said.

Leaders of foreign states have also sent greetings to the participants and guests. For instance, President of the Republic of Angola João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço, Prime Minister of Vietnam Pham Minh Chinh, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Armed Forces Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and Vice Premier of the State Council of China Han Zheng.

In their greetings, it generally noted the importance of the topics to be discussed at the forum as well as the need to build an international dialogue and consolidate efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals, including as regards climate change.

The programme covers a wide range of issues of transformation and development in the global energy market. In the context of energy transition, the issues of energy development are inextricably linked with the introduction of new technologies, and the transformation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Climate protection is a task that cannot be solved by one country; it is a global goal, which can be achieved through building dialogue and cooperation between countries.

The participants in the discussion will answer the question: Is the world ready to give up hydrocarbons? In addition, during the panel session, the participants will discuss whether oil, gas and coal are really losing ground in the global energy sector; whether the infrastructure will have time to readjust for new energy sources; how long will there be enough hydrocarbons from the field projects that are being implemented; and whether an energy transition using fossil fuels is possible.

The international climate agenda is forcing many countries to reform their carbon-based energy systems. For Russia, which holds a leading position in the global hydrocarbon markets, the transition to development with low greenhouse gas emissions presents a serious challenge, but at the same time it opens up new opportunities for economic growth based on renewable energy, hydrogen technologies, advanced processing of raw materials and implementing green projects.

The Climate Agenda included sessions dedicated to the operation of the Russian fuel and energy sector in the context of energy transition, the impact of the European green pivot on the cooperation between Russia and Europe, as well as the session titled ‘The Future of Coal in a World Shaped by the Climate Agenda: The End, or a New Beginning?’

Sessions of the ‘New Scenarios for the Economy and the Market’ track are dedicated to the global challenges and opportunities of the electric power industry; the impact of ESG on the Russian fuel and energy sector; the potential for the renewable energy sources; and other issues of the future of energy.

The Russian Energy Agency under the Ministry of Energy brings together experts from key international analytical organizations to discuss the future of world energy during the session titled International Energy Organization Dialogue: Predicting the Development of Energy and Global Markets.

The Human Resource Potential of the Fuel and Energy Sector, participating experts will discuss the prospects for developing the professional qualification system, and a session titled Bringing the Woman’s Dimension to the Fuel and Energy Sector. Optimizing regulation in the energy sector and organizing the certification and exchange of carbon credits in Russia are the basis of the Regulatory Advances in Energy. 

Anton Kobyakov, Advisor to the Russian President and Executive Secretary of the Russian Energy Week 2021 Organizing Committee, said “the level of various formats of international participation testifies to the importance of the agenda and Russia’s significant role in the global energy sector. We are a reliable strategic partner that advocates for building international cooperation based on the principles of transparency and openness. With the period of major changes in the industry, it is particularly important to engage in a dialogue and work together to achieve both national and global goals.”

The forum, organized by the Roscongress Foundation, the Russian Ministry of Energy, and the Moscow Government, brought together many local and foreign energy and energy-related enterprises. The speakers attending included  Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman of the Board of Directors and CEO Darren Woods, Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz AG Chairman of the Board Ola Kallenius, BP CEO Bernard Looney, and TotalEnergies Chairman and CEO Patrick Pouyanné.

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World Energy Outlook 2021 shows a new energy economy is emerging

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A new energy economy is emerging around the world as solar, wind, electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies flourish. But as the pivotal moment of COP26 approaches, the IEA’s new World Energy Outlook makes it clear that this clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero, highlighting the need for an unmistakeable signal of ambition and action from governments in Glasgow.

At a time when policy makers are contending with the impacts of both climate change and volatile energy markets, the World Energy Outlook 2021 (WEO-2021) is designed as a handbook for the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which offers a critical opportunity to accelerate climate action and the clean energy transition. The new analysis – which the IEA is making available for free online – delivers stark warnings about the direction in which today’s policy settings are taking the world. But it also provides clear-headed analysis of how to move in a well-managed way towards a pathway that would have a good chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C and avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

The WEO-2021, the IEA’s annual flagship publication, shows that even as deployments of solar and wind go from strength to strength, the world’s consumption of coal is growing strongly this year, pushing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions towards their second largest annual increase in history.

“The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director. “Governments need to resolve this at COP26 by giving a clear and unmistakeable signal that they are committed to rapidly scaling up the clean and resilient technologies of the future. The social and economic benefits of accelerating clean energy transitions are huge, and the costs of inaction are immense.”

The WEO-2021 spells out clearly what is at stake: what the pledges to reduce emissions made by governments so far mean for the energy sector and the climate. And it sets out what needs to be done to move beyond these announced pledges towards a trajectory that would reach net zero emissions globally by mid-century – the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario from the landmark IEA report published in May, which is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5 °C.

As well as the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, the WEO-2021 explores two other scenarios to gain insights into how the global energy sector may develop over the next three decades – and what the implications would be. The Stated Policies Scenario represents a path based on the energy and climate measures governments have actually put in place to date, as well as specific policy initiatives that are under development. In this scenario, almost all of the net growth in energy demand through 2050 is met by low emissions sources, but that leaves annual emissions still around today’s levels. As a result, global average temperatures are still rising when they hit 2.6 °C above pre-industrial levels in 2100.

The Announced Pledges Scenario maps out a path in which the net zero emissions pledges announced by governments so far are implemented in time and in full. In this scenario, demand for fossil fuels peaks by 2025, and global CO2 emissions fall by 40% by 2050. All sectors see a decline, with the electricity sector delivering by far the largest. The global average temperature rise in 2100 is held to around 2.1 °C.

For the first time in a WEO, oil demand goes into eventual decline in all the scenarios examined, although the timing and speed of the drop vary widely. If all today’s announced climate pledges are met, the world would still be consuming 75 million oil barrels per day by 2050 – down from around 100 million today – but that plummets to 25 million in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario. Natural gas demand increases in all scenarios over the next five years, but there are sharp divergences after this.

After decades of growth, the prospects for coal power go downhill in the Announced Pledges Scenario – a decline that could be accelerated further by China’s recent announcement of an end to its support for building coal plants abroad. That move may result in the cancellation of planned projects that would save some 20 billion tonnes in cumulative CO2 emissions through 2050 – an amount similar to the total emissions savings from the European Union reaching net zero by 2050.

The differences between the outcomes in the Announced Pledges Scenario and the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario are stark, highlighting the need for more ambitious commitments if the world is to reach net zero by mid-century.

“Today’s climate pledges would result in only 20% of the emissions reductions by 2030 that are necessary to put the world on a path towards net zero by 2050,” Dr Birol said. “Reaching that path requires investment in clean energy projects and infrastructure to more than triple over the next decade. Some 70% of that additional spending needs to happen in emerging and developing economies, where financing is scarce and capital remains up to seven times more expensive than in advanced economies.”

Insufficient investment is contributing to uncertainty over the future. Spending on oil and natural gas has been depressed by price collapses in 2014-15 and again in 2020. As a result, it is geared towards a world of stagnant or even falling demand. At the same time, spending on clean energy transitions is far below what would be required to meet future needs in a sustainable way.

“There is a looming risk of more turbulence for global energy markets,” Dr Birol said. “We are not investing enough to meet future energy needs, and the uncertainties are setting the stage for a volatile period ahead. The way to address this mismatch is clear – a major boost in clean energy investment, across all technologies and all markets. But this needs to happen quickly.”

The report stresses that the extra investment to reach net zero by 2050 is less burdensome than it might appear. More than 40% of the required emissions reductions would come from measures that pay for themselves, such as improving efficiency, limiting gas leakage, or installing wind or solar in places where they are now the most competitive electricity generation technologies.

These investments also create huge economic opportunities. Successfully pursuing net zero would create a market for wind turbines, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electrolysers and fuel cells of well over USD 1 trillion a year by 2050, comparable in size to the current oil market. Even in a much more electrified energy system, major opportunities remain for fuel suppliers to produce and deliver low-carbon gases. Just in the Announced Pledges Scenario, an additional 13 million workers would be employed in clean energy and related sectors by 2030, while that number doubles in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario.

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Russian Energy Arrogance or American Cold War Psychology?

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Lately, there has been much garment-rending across Western media and governmental sources, all criticizing Russia’s so-called hostility toward the European Union on the issue of gas supplies this coming winter. The core essence of the criticism is the accusation that the Russian Federation is playing geopolitical games with the European Union, threatening it with a freeze-out this winter if it does not play ball on accepting the massive Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal. A cursory glance across many important media sources in the West reveals just how quickly the “analyses” seem eager to ratchet up the emotionality:

  • The Washington Examiner reported that “winter is coming” for Europe and Biden because of Putin.
  • The National Interest derisively called “giving Europe a pass” on ratifying Nord Stream 2 as an outright victory for Putin.
  • Politico blatantly asked “will Putin attack?” when discussing the issue of supplying gas to Europe.
  • The New York Times called Nord Stream 2 a “security threat” and that Biden must stop Putin from achieving this victory.
  • Newsweek reported how many governmental officials in Washington are outright lamenting this issue as a “present to Putin” and an example of the White House enabling Putin while undermining Europe.

Very disconcerting language indeed, emblematic of the continued insistence in the West that it is de facto in a New Cold War with Russia. To all of this Putin has largely given a presumptive and decidedly dismissive geopolitical yawn. But underneath the typical cool bravado that Putin has always exhibited in the face of direct Western criticism, there must also be an obvious air of dissatisfaction and outright anger at what Russia sees as a consistent effort by Washington to portray it in the worst possible light.

First, Russia is quick to explain that recent soaring energy prices are not the result of some dastardly political scheme engineered inside the Kremlin, but instead connected to recovering energy demands as the world emerges from the COVID pandemic, particularly from Asia. To ignore this global economic fact in order to focus on a fabricated political design is the first hint to Russians that they are being held to a geopolitical double-standard that others do not face.

Second, powerful Washington opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, is based not so much on any flaw in the pipeline or doubt that it would ease the energy needs of Europe. Rather, it is recognition that the pipeline makes Russia stronger, as it will allow it to directly supply gas to Europe, as opposed to its current main pipelines that run through Ukraine first. As everyone knows, the Russia-Ukraine relationship continues to be incredibly tense and unfriendly. Thus, seeking a way to work around that problem while still supplying a valuable natural asset is, in economic-geopolitical-security terms, completely rational and logical for Russia. Therefore, Washington’s opposition is seen by Putin for what it truly is: strategizing against Russia growing stronger, more prosperous, and influential.

Third, Russia, if anything, is always aware of all perceived slights when it comes to its position on the global stage. Some might even say it has a tendency to “over-perceive” such slights historically. In this particular case, the slights are quite obvious when Russian analysts look at how the rest of the major players in the global economy are treated when they engage in similar strategy. The fluctuations in the oil market, overall decided by OPEC but heavily influenced individually by Saudi Arabia, have over the decades rarely been purely altruistic. When it has been apparent that Saudi Arabia is taking advantage of its leveraged position, maximizing its own individual benefits to the detriment of all the other players, rarely has the United States gone straight for the geopolitical jugular, questioning whether or not Saudi Arabia is preparing for war by another name or is intending to “starve” the West of its innate energy needs. The same can be said for China, with all of its various machinations over the past two decades in terms of the currency, labor, real estate, and manufacturing markets. While criticism has always existed against both of these countries, those same criticisms have also recognized that the respective Saudi and Chinese maneuvers are understandable from objective geopolitical, economic, and security perspectives. It is not surprising, therefore, that Russia is not just aware of these parallel realities but also notices how unfavorably it is treated in comparison for the same behavior. Especially given that these countries, while not exactly the best-of-friends with the United States, are still given so-called passes deemed “dangerous” if given to Russia.

Taken together, these facts are what always drive Russians crazy and push Putin into his “dismissive arrogance” posture that he often assumes when irritated by members of the Western media. Luckily for Russian specialists, this is one of the most entertaining aspects of Putin’s personality, as this arrogance is one of the few times that his true opinions and feelings are on display for reporters. But underneath the arrogance is arguably an endemic frustration forming the base of it all. What the Kremlin is most tired of is having to answer questions that clearly (though obliviously when it comes to the reporters asking) imply that Russia is in the wrong if it pursues policies that maximize its economic strength, increase its geopolitical prestige and leverage, and/or does not improve its relationship with the United States. Putin often remarks about how his decision-making is based solely on what is good for Russia and best for Russians. These comments are usually dismissed by the West as platitudes. But he means them. The problem is not that he takes such objectives seriously. The problem is that too many in the West fail to envision a reality where Russia does not accept being put into a tightly controlled box built on what the United States considers appropriate. And this latter point is not affirmation of a New Cold War with the West; it is confirmation that the West is still stuck in the psychology of the old one.

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