Losing touch

Russia's latest outburst of passive-aggressive paranoia, aimed at Britain in particular, may reflect a dawning realisation in the Kremlin that western resistance to its perceived bullying of neighbours, disdain for civil and human rights, and cut-throat energy policy is growing after years of blind eyes, held noses and wishful thinking.

The president-prime minister, Vladimir Putin, likes to stress Russia's resurgent power, buoyed by record oil and gas export receipts and renewed self-belief.

But hackneyed claims that British agents are plotting to destroy the fatherland, recycled today by Russia's chief spymaster, Nikolai Patrushev, smack of weakness not strength.

"It's clear that the sweet dream of a strategic partnership between Europe and Russia is over," Jörg Himmelreich, a regional expert at the German Marshall Fund, told a conference of the independent Russia Foundation in London.

In many ways, he said, Russia was reverting to type after its short-lived 1990s flirtation with western-style democracy and governance.

"The coming elections will be more a form of plebiscite. Russia, de facto, is almost a one-party system again. The advisers, the siloviki, around Mr Putin resemble the Communist party's central committee," Mr Himmelreich said.

Rather than governing for and on behalf of the people, Mr Putin's authoritarian government, like its totalitarian and imperial forerunners, believed "the people are a risk".

Ed Lucas, author of a forthcoming book, The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Russia and the West, said western attitudes were hardening after a period, spanning Boris Yeltsin's presidency and the early Putin years, of hoping for the best and eschewing forceful action on issues such as the repression of Chechen separatism.

One reason was the fall from power of France's Jacques Chirac, Italy's Silvio Berlusconi and Germany's Gerhard Schröder, all replaced by politicians who were less impressed by Mr Putin or, in the case of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, privately detested him, Mr Lucas said.

"Broadly speaking, western countries are no longer happy to put up with bullying of Russia's neighbours. They've stopped blaming countries such as Poland and Estonia for causing a strain. They look at the blatant kleptocracy in the Kremlin and the phoney politics and pseudo-democracy. In the EU the result is much greater solidarity and less self-flagellation and guilt about the Yeltsin era."

Looked at another way, Russia's penchant for obstructionism and pot-stirring on a host of delicate issues ranging from Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme to Serbian opposition to Kosovan independence was the product of rising national confidence and historical resentment, a senior research analyst from UK Defence Academy said.

"What we are seeing is not a revival of the cold war but of pre-1914 national realpolitik. During the cold war the watchwords were containment and deterrence. Post-cold war, it was engagement and partnership. Now the watchwords must be influence and restraint."

Despite evidence of a growing Russian challenge to western interests, especially in energy security, the analyst said Nato, the premier anti-Soviet alliance, was now unprepared to tackle emerging threats posed by Russia.

That was partly the result of strategic tunnel vision induced by 9/11. But if, for example, Moscow chose to lend military support to Abkhazia's mooted secession from Georgia, a pro-western former Soviet republic, it was unclear what, if anything, Nato, the EU or the US could do.

The west's first priority must be to regain Russia's respect, the analyst said. The Kremlin's arrogant refusal to extradite the main suspect in last year's murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko showed how much ground had to be made up.

A start could be made by pursuing firmer, collective EU positions on energy, free trade and human rights. At the same time, it was crucial to forge a proportionate foreign policy approach that was neither evangelical nor strident on the one hand, nor totally relativist and apologetic on the other.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, a former foreign secretary, said Russia's legitimate aspirations should be respected even though few now expected it to embrace western values wholesale.

"There will be no return to communism, either. Authoritarian is the word for what's happening now."

But neither should Mr Putin's position be considered impregnable, he said.

"What has to be remembered is that Putin is playing a weak hand. Russia has no non-energy exports to speak of. The oil won't last forever. Russia's population is dwindling in size.

"What is really striking is the crudity of a Russian foreign policy run by a secret policeman advised by secret policemen. These people are scoring own goal after own goal, like in Ukraine. It is Russia they are hurting most."

Simon Tisdall