It is 15 years since the beginning of the August coup which ultimately led to the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The arrest of Gorbachev which took place on August 18th 1991 triggered the immediate disintegration of the USSR as the various Republics sought to escape from the attempt by hardliners to reimpose a more centralized order upon the disintegrating state.
Since that time Russia, as the legal heir to the Soviet Union, and as the inheritor of most of its territory and all of its nuclear weapons, has struggled to come to terms with the Soviet legacy.
The Second Chechen war continues, in all its brutality. The frozen conflicts in Transnistria, In Abhazia and In South Ossetia have remained unresolved. Russia has still not ratified its border treaty with Estonia.
Domestically, the Russian army has continued the brutality of its Soviet predecessor, with hundreds of conscripts dying and thousands being horrifically mistreated. Russian demographics remain very bad, with low life expectancy and poor quality of life contributing to low birth rates. The result is that the Russian population is falling very rapidly. Meanwhile the population of unstable regions like the North Caucasus may actually expand- adding to the political pressures there.
Meanwhile, in the face of such difficulties, the Russian body politic seems to have returned to a centralized and authoritarian model. The choice of a former KGB officer to be President has undercut any chance of a moral reform of the country, that still struggles to address the issues of the Stalinist past. Political freedoms have been curtailed, the freedom of the press in particular has been essentially eliminated. In the face of these unwelcome changes, many commentators, myself included, have been increasingly hostile to the Moscow government.
Yet the West now does face a crisis in its relations with Russia, but it is a crisis that is at least partly of its own making. Cynical, and Ruthlessly pragmatic, the Putin government has not taken kindly to receiving lectures on corruption from such figures as Tony Blair (embroiled in the cash for honours scandal) or on intervention beyond its borders from the USA (embroiled in Iraq). Furthermore, in such areas as eliminating US bases in Central Asia, Russian policy has been clear, and the goal has been achieved very effectively. The West, by contrast has struggled to understand what it wishes to achieve in Russia.
The Western powers need to establish some clear basis for negotiating with Russia. Having made it clear that Russia may not join the EU, it can not be surprised if Russia seeks to establish its own power network. The fact that this includes many enemies of the West- from Chavez in Venezuela to Lukashenka in Belarus is not necessarily an ideological position, but merely a statement that Russia's rulers still believe in a zero-sum game in international politics: our gain is your loss.
The priority is to settle the borderlands of Russia- a very firm line must be drawn to protect The Baltic, Ukraine, and Trans Caucasia. This should include the settlement of the frozen conflicts that eliminates the capacity of Russia to make mischief. However the West must now try to create a quid-pro-quo. Russia has legitimate issues in the North Caucasus, and NATO should try to be helpful in dealing with the Chechen conflict. As far as Western energy security is concerned- the west should be pragmatic about the creation of the Russian national energy champions, but firm about the geopolitical threat that cutting gas supplies may pose. The Baltic Pipeline should include spurs to the Baltic and Poland, and Germany must bear in mind that the weakening of the energy security of the eastern half of Europe creates a real risk of the disruption of NATO- it must not happen.
For the future, Russia has the capacity to be helpful in Iran, and could be drawn into the process of containment of that dangerous and unstable regime. However the West must not let itself be played off against China in the growing struggle for global energy. The US-Chinese partnership was a key strategic component in the end of the USSR, but China herself is become unstable as the long economic growth curve slows down, and the legitimacy of the CPC is increasingly challenged. The threat of Chinese weakness is greater than the problems caused by the economic resurgence of that country.
Russia, fifteen years on, is a difficult strategic partner- the West should be sceptical of Russian motives in most of its dealings, but not dogmatically so. Conflict is not inevitable, and it is now the right time to address the key points of friction.