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A walk along Moscow's Tverskaya Blvd. and a quick tour of the GUM Department store next to the Kremlin are enough to show that Russia is back on its feet. Soviet one-size-and- one-color-fits-all models have been replaced by the latest boutique designer labels, including Israeli brands such as Castro and Naf-Naf.
Although prosperity is still very thin, it is trickling down slowly but steadily. The collapse of the Yeltsin era is a distant memory, petroleum exports have propelled economic recovery, and the self-confidence index - at least in downtown Moscow - is at a record high.
This confidence is also evident in political discussions and actual policies. Russia is increasingly assertive in reclaiming a role as one of the world's major powers.
In 1991, as the Soviet empire crumbled, Moscow's influence was practically zero. Yevgeny Primakov and other inveterate Arabists could no longer protect dictators in Iraq and Syria. When the Quartet was created a few years ago to end the destructive competition between the US and Europe, Moscow was granted no more than an honorary seat (the UN is the fourth member).
BUT RUSSIA is a player again, and its voice on key issues, including the Middle East, matters once more. With the US bogged down in Iraq, nuclear threats from North Korea and the worldwide threat of Islamic terror, the Kremlin's influence has been revived.
The main question is how Russia will use its renewed sway around the world. Some analysts predict a return to the Soviet era of confrontation and zero-sum policies, particularly with respect to the United States. Will Moscow again base its foreign policy primarily on challenging Washington and measure success in terms of placing obstacles in the path of the Americans?
Or will Vladimir Putin and the post-Soviet leadership promote a more constructive approach, working with the US and Europe in promoting stability in an increasingly chaotic and violent international environment?
The maintaining and expanding of the economic prosperity evident on Tverskaya Blvd. is the result of Russia's links to the international market. And Russians are aware of the benefits of cooperation in fighting mass terror attacks such as those carried out by Chechnyans in a Moscow theater and a Beslan school.
THE MOST critical decisions to be made concern Russia's response to Iran's effort to acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, the policies followed on this issue over the past five years highlight the ambivalence.
During the early Putin years, the old-guard approach was dominant, as Russia provided nuclear equipment and missile technology to Teheran and ignored American (as well as Israeli) calls for limits. In the UN and other international bodies, Russia and China consistently protected Iran from censure, repeating the fiction that Iran's enrichment activities are legitimate and not part of an illicit project to acquire bombs.
But then the level of assistance in critical technologies declined significantly, and Russia was increasingly seen by the US as a potential partner. In parallel, regular consultations and security cooperation with Israel, including a visit by Putin, marked a huge departure from the hostility and anti-Semitism that marked much of the Soviet period.
In September 2005 the Russians surprised and angered Teheran by abstaining from a vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency, allowing for the adoption of the resolution declaring Iran to be in noncompliance under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This led to consideration of sanctions in the UN Security Council and the last hope of pressure to force Iran to back away, short of a military strike.
AT THIS point, it appears that the old, one-dimensional Soviet approach to the world has regained some power. In the discussions on sanctions, while the US and Europe have finally agreed on the need to stop Iran, the Russians have issued statements opposing further pressure. They again argue, without credibility, that there is still plenty of time to reach a compromise solution.
At a recent conference in Moscow the Iranian ambassador to the IAEA was given the spotlight, which he used to denounce the US and ineptly repeat standard anti-Israel incitement.
Government officials uniformly repeated the position that while they might consider a tougher policy, the US would have to back away from Russia's sphere of influence, particularly in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. The principles of democracy and self-determination to which the post-Soviet Kremlin is supposedly committed, and the clear self-interest in working with the US to prevent the radical Islamic regime in Iran from becoming a nuclear power, were forgotten.
As long as Russia seeks to maintain such two-faced policies the costs will grow. In July, Putin will host the annual meeting of the heads of the G-8 countries, scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg. At that time, Russia can assume a position as a world power by leading the consensus to stop Iran, without demanding side payments in Ukraine or elsewhere.
By acting responsibly, Russia would insure its own long-term security and continued prosperity.
The writer directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar Ilan University and is the editor of www.ngo-monitor.org
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