Russia's Bronze Medal In International Affairs

Some people consider it a failure that Russia came in third in the medal count at the Beijing Games. Others feel that this was an honorable finish. If only we could convey that sense of realism to the leaders who set our country's geopolitical course. If we can't do this, there is a danger that instead of making this a "Russian century" in which the country plays a leading global economic and cultural role, we could end up with a repeat of the 20th century, when the Soviet Union wasted resources on a senseless arms race and on competing with the West.

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When comparing Russia's economic progress with that of the United States and other developed nations over the past 100 years, the picture is not rosy. Russia's per capita gross national product was a bit less than 30 percent of the United States' in 1908, and it remains about the same in 2008. Stalin's repressions and two world wars definitely took their toll on the country's economic development. Russia must do better in the 21st century.

Of course, Russia had no other choice than to protect the civilians of South Ossetia against Georgia's attack, but assessing the correctness of Russia's foreign policy requires an accurate understanding of the country's place in the global pecking order. Expecting Russia to have placed first or second in Olympic medals is asking too much of a country that over the past 100 years has had a history not that much different from other European nations. Britain, France, Belgium and Portugal also suffered a collapse of their colonial empires in the last century. Although the people of those countries felt then much as Russians do now, they were able to overcome their feelings of humiliation and find a suitable place in the world. Now they have little ambition to handpick the leaders of neighboring nations.

Political leaders play a critical role when a country is at a crossroads. Over the past month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin demonstrated real leadership qualities. It was he who pushed for a foreign policy of confrontation with Russia's neighbors, the United States and European countries.

But Putin's actions go beyond a simple ploy to retain power. They are deeply rooted in his understanding of Russia's place in the world. He cannot envision Russia occupying anything other than first place -- or in the worst case, second place behind the United States. The real question is whether a different leader can be found among Russia's political elite who can offer a less confrontational approach while cultivating the country's tremendous potential.

Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the New Economic School/CEFIR, is a columnist for Vedomosti.