Resizing Russia's Weight

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It's time to get Russia back into proportion. Moscow's resurgence as a major power, determined to be treated with respect and to stamp its influence on its neighborhood, has been one of the big stories of 2008.

The sight of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in August, coupled with a Kremlin drive to extend its control over energy supply routes to Europe, sent shivers through former Soviet satellite countries and drew loud condemnation from Washington. President Dmitry Medvedev's threat to place missiles in Kaliningrad aimed at Poland if Warsaw deploys part of a planned U.S. missile shield raised the rhetorical stakes.

Yet the global financial crisis, the collapse of oil prices, the aftermath of the Georgia war and U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's victory have all cast doubt on Russia's real weight.

The credit crunch has hit Russia harder than other emerging economies, hammering confidence in its stocks, bonds and the ruble and forcing the Central Bank to spend some of its huge foreign currency reserves to stabilize the financial system. Foreign portfolio investors have fled and many Russian investors have parked more of their money in foreign currency abroad, at least partly due to heightened political risk since the military action in Georgia.

Gazprom, feared in many parts of Europe as a predator seeking a stranglehold on the continent's gas supply, has lost more than two-thirds of its market capitalization since May.

With oil prices down from a peak of $147 a barrel in July to below $50 now, the heavily oil-and-gas-dependent economy looks more vulnerable, especially since Russia needs Western technology to boost its energy extraction.

Alexander Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, says that after a 10-year boom, growth will fall to between zero and 3 percent next year.

Russia remains a lucrative market for Western consumer goods, but concerns about state meddling in business, widespread corruption and shortcomings in the rule of law have contributed to its failure to diversify away from hydrocarbons and minerals.

The European Union, the main customer for Russian gas, has responded by accelerating efforts to reduce its dependency, planning an alternative supply corridor through Turkey and seeking new suppliers in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Other former Soviet republics, including Azerbaijan, Belarus and Turkmenistan, have sought closer ties with the West.

True, the U.S.-led NATO alliance has gone no further toward giving Georgia and Ukraine a road map to membership -- the issue is off the agenda for now -- and it has now resumed some frozen contacts with Russia, as has the EU.

But Moscow's efforts to reshape the security architecture of Europe, sidelining the role of the United States and of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, loathed by Moscow for its election monitoring, have gained little traction.

Getting Russia into proportion does not mean ignoring Moscow or its security interests. Its location and the fact it supplies 40 percent of Europe's gas imports mean it cannot be neglected. The United States and the EU have an interest in binding Moscow rapidly into rule-based international bodies such as the World Trade Organization and the OECD, although they put both processes on hold in reprisal for the Georgia war. Some Western analysts believe a weak Russia could be more dangerous, if mishandled, than a strong one.

In NATO circles, some see a risk of the "Weimarization" of Russia, comparing it to Germany's economically enfeebled Weimar Republic that was swept away by the rise of Hitler's Nazi party.

Political humiliation and economic instability could lead to a surge of aggressive nationalism.

After the Soviet collapse, wags branded Boris Yeltsin's rump Russian Federation "Upper Volta with nukes," capturing the paradox of a failed state with a ruined economy sitting on a huge arsenal of atomic weapons.

When Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000, he was determined to restore Russia's power and pride after a decade in which many Russians felt the West ignored their interests by expanding NATO in former communist eastern Europe.

Today, it sometimes seems that Russophiles and Russophobes in Europe and the United States have become objective allies in exaggerating the importance of or the threat from Moscow.

A more self-confident Europe and a less unilateralist America need to find a way of engaging with Russia according to its true weight, without treating it as a giant.

Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.