When I was in Russia this fall, I told a Russian journalist that most Americans didn't think about Russia as anything more than a mafia haven. The journalist warned me that we Americans should take note of Russia. This weekend, Putin's attack was nothing if not attention-getting for Americans.
Putin stuck it to us. And our media response was predictable--op-ed writers across the country threw the accusations of international interference and hegemony right back at him.
Beyond illustrating Putin's hypocrisy, some journalists made a more important observation. Putin's Middle East tour no doubt partially motivated him to get in a good dig at the United States More importantly, though, his speech illuminates Russian frustration about its diminished international reputation. That frustration is worth noting.
Russia may be diminished in size from the Soviet Union, but it still has arms power, including the newly developing intercontinental ballistic missile, Topol-M. As The Washington Post points out, there are several reasons other than the Topol-M to dissuade us from upsetting Russia including the air defense missiles it has given Iran and its antitank missiles used by Hezbollah against Israel last summer.
And one more weapon the Russian president holds: a 70 percent approval rating. Couple that with a strong desire of the Russian people to regain superpower status, and Putin's bravado seems even more natural. As The Washington Posts David Ignatius points out, Putin's generation of Russians grew up in a country that claimed the status of superpower, and they don't like being taken for granted.
Recent poll results reported in the Russian newsweekly Ogoniok confirm that resentment: while 12 percent responded that Russia has never lost superpower status, another 34 percent expressed a desire to regain that status.
In that context, the United States tentative response seems prudent in response to a country that has been cut down yet still possesses immense petroleum wealth and a weapons supply that it is willing to share.