Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Top of the World

President Vladimir Putin's presidential career began with a submarine disaster in August 2000, and is winding up with a submarine triumph in August 2007.

The sinking of the Kursk resulted in the loss of the entire crew of 118 sailors and the vessel itself, a nuclear cruise missile submarine, the largest attack submarine ever built. A product of post-Soviet Russia, the ship was "baptized" by a priest, and its loss did not augur well for the new Russia in general and the administration of Putin in particular.

Putin was criticized at home and abroad for not seeking international help early enough and for refusing to interrupt his vacation to demonstrate his concern. Those two motifs -- a disdain for dependence on other countries and for "sentimental humanism" in regard to the people -- have run throughout his years in office. His dismissive remarks on the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, for example, betrayed the same lack of human finesse displayed in the Kursk incident. Foreign companies wishing to do business in Russia have been offered increasingly less advantageous terms, and many agreements reached in the 1990s, when Russia was weak and chaotic, have recently been circumvented. It is Europe, in fact, that is increasingly dependent on Russia.

The success of the expedition to the North Pole, and the planting of a titanium-encased Russian flag on the ocean floor more than 4 kilometers from the surface initially elicited admiration tinged with derision. Who could fail to admire the bravery of the expedition leader, State Duma Deputy Artur Chilingarov, 67, to descend that deep for some eight hours with a very real risk that his mini-submarine might not find an opening in the ice on its return to the surface. A sign of Russia's renewed confidence was that the event was announced in advance and played out in real time.

There were some unintentionally comic moments. Chilingarov, a member from the Kremlin-friendly United Russia political party, crowed to the news, "The Arctic has always been Russian." (At least for the last 150,000 years.) And the planting of the flag itself came in for a bit of mockery by Canada's foreign minister, who said Russia was playing by the rules of the 15th century.

But the chuckling abruptly stopped in Canada. It also has claims in the Arctic, which may contain as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas. All of a sudden, Canada was ready for some dramatic symbolic action of its own. Canadian media quoted a senior official as saying: "The Russians sent a submarine to drop a small flag at the bottom of the ocean. We're sending our prime minister to reassert Canadian sovereignty." (It wasn't clear if they were also sending him to the bottom or whether a photo op stroll on an ice floe would suffice.) Upon arrival, the prime minister announced the establishment of two new military bases to reinforce Canadian claims.

Concurrent with the polar expedition, the Navy announced plans to build a new nuclear submarine base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Navy commander Vladimir Masorin also called for Russia to restore a "permanent presence" in the Mediterranean.

A resurgent Russia is better than a disintegrating Russia. But aside from reminding itself -- and the world -- that it is a force to be reckoned with, what exactly are the goals of this resurgent Russia? Thus far, Moscow has failed to articulate a new sense of national identity and mission. Not being quite sure of who it is and what it wants makes it easier for the Kremlin to miscalibrate some of its projections of power. And for others to misread its intentions. All of this could lead to trouble -- in the warm Mediterranean or under the Arctic ice.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "A Hatred For Tulips," a newly released novel about Anne Frank's betrayal.