Building High Fences Around Bad Neighbors

At a news conference on Saturday following his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia's foreign policy under President-elect Dmitry Medvedev would remain unchanged. "I do not think that our partners will have it any easier with him," Putin declared.

According to Channel One state television, Russia's foreign policy consists of nothing but an endless string of successes. Unfortunately, life is not as pretty as Channel One would have it. Consider Russia's most impressive foreign policy victory -- when demonstrators from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi threw stones, eggs and insults at the Estonian Embassy to protest that country's decision to relocate a monument to fallen Soviet World War II soldiers. We all watched the soap opera unfold, but nobody ever told viewers how much that heady outburst of nationalism ultimately cost. It turns out that the price tag was rather high. Estonia and Finland have in essence refused to permit the proposed Nord Stream pipeline to run through their seabeds. As the pipeline was Putin's pet project, he is the one who will end up footing the large bill for the Nashi campaigns.

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If you live in a village, there are two ways to command respect from your neighbors. One is to be rich, so that everyone will come knocking at your door for aid. The other is to arm yourself to the teeth, so that everyone will fear you.

But consider the villager who lives in a squalid hut surrounded by a filthy yard. He quarrels loudly with his neighbors and tosses empty vodka bottles into their gardens, yelling, "Respect me!" That kind of behavior inspires neither respect nor fear. It only motivates the neighbors to build higher fences.

It would be difficult to characterize Russia's current foreign policy as operating in the best interests of the country. But it does cater well to the shareholders in Gunvor, an oil-trading company that has close ties to the Kremlin.

Moscow's foreign policy has three components. The first is quite rational. Because an increase in international tensions means an increase in oil prices, the Kremlin supports rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, even when their leaders have the nasty habit of walking all over Moscow.

The second component is purely emotional. Gunvor's shareholders are former KGB colonels who served during the Soviet era in Western embassies, where they were taught that the democratic system is nothing but a facade. Behind the shop windows stuffed with goods, fancy cars and women in luxurious clothing, corrupt politicians are hard at work doing their dirty deals. These ex-KGB men sincerely believe that the West is no different. They are convinced that the Jews poisoned Yasser Arafat and that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili orchestrated the murder of that country's late prime minister Zurab Zhvania. And they can't fathom why the West is so upset over the poisoning death of former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko in London. What double standards!

The third component is fear. However much Gunvor's shareholders might scream about the West's double standards or label the United States the Fourth Reich, they will never take this campaign so far as to provoke the West into taking concrete action against their most lucrative and vulnerable target -- their overseas bank accounts.

That is the main difference between Putin's Russia and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union threatened the whole world, whereas Putin's Russia only poses a threat to its own citizens. Nobody will be bombing Nice as long as Moscow's ruling elite own villas there.

We can safely predict that neither the first nor the third component of Russia's policy will change. But the second, emotional component might change significantly under Medvedev. After all, this component was intended for the one person who still cannot understand why the scoundrels who poisoned Arafat keep pointing their fingers at him over the Litvinenko affair.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.