It's what Anatoliy Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems, described a few years ago as "liberal imperialism" - using Russia's abundant economic levers to restore the country's dominant position over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Foremost among the tools at the Kremlin's disposal is Moscow's control over a staggering share of the region's oil and gas resources. Much of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is entirely reliant on Russian natural gas. Increasingly, so too is the European Union.
That position gives the Kremlin a dangerous trump card in any dispute, as we're now seeing as the Bronze Soldier affair between Russia and Estonia continues to escalate. On May 1, Russia cut off oil and coal exports to its much-smaller neighbour, ostensibly because of railway "repairs," but in reality to punish Estonia for supposedly insulting Soviet war dead.
This is hardly the first time we've seen the Kremlin act like this. And, as journalist Derek Brower noted on lawyer-blogger Robert Amsterdam's site, each case has been more egregious than the last.
In frigid January 2006, Moscow briefly cut off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine in a pricing dispute that had the intended side-effect of scaring many Ukrainians into voting for the Kremlin-friendly Party of Regions and its leader Viktor Yanukovich in parliamentary elections two months later. With a single flip of the switch, the Kremlin had undone much of the strategic loss it suffered in 2004 when the pro-Western Orange Revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko to office.
Earlier this year, Gazprom did it again, threatening to cut off the flow of gas to Belarus, and only backing down when Alexander Lukashenko's government agreed to sell it a 50 per cent share in Beltranzgas, the Belarussian company that operates the pipeline network that ships Russian gas to Europe (see map top left).
Similar tactics were used by the Gazprom to pressure Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2001 into giving in to the Kremlin's political demands.
This is a major theme of my book, The New Cold War, which was published last month in Canada and hits U.S. bookstores in September.
Here's a bit of what I wrote on the topic:
In czarist Moscow, before Communist dictators flattened entire sections of the once-charming city centre and filled it with buildings tall enough to match their egos, nothing stood higher than Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, a white stone spire topped by a gleaming golden dome that still stretches above the Kremlin’s red walls. Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it was illegal to build anything in Moscow that exceeded the eighty-one-metre height of the Bell Tower, which stretches above a trio of magnificent Orthodox cathedrals — Assumption, Archangel and Annunciation — that house the tombs of a long line of czars, czarinas and crown princes. In pre-revolutionary Russia, it would have been hard to get past the impression that God and the czars—perhaps not in that order—were observing everything you did.
But in today’s Moscow, the building that stands imperiously over everything else in the city’s jumbled skyline is the thirty-five-storey grey concrete and blue glass headquarters of Gazprom OAO, the giant energy company that would become as vital to Vladimir Putin’s influence over Russia’s neighbours as the horse-borne Cossack armies had been to the czars, or the Comintern to Lenin.
Putin realized that the West’s tolerance for using tanks and attack helicopters as a way of expanding influence was on the wane. Russia’s resurgent economic strength, as well as its abundant supply of natural resources—oil and, in particular, natural gas—could strengthen his hold on the near abroad far better than could any conscript soldier. He didn’t need to send in the army to settle a dispute. All he had to do was flip the switch and let the neighbours shiver until they came around to seeing things his way.
As an aside, The Globe and Mail ran a review of The New Cold War on Saturday. Review Juliet Johnson, a political science professor at McGill University, said the book "wonderfully documents the conflicting interests and policies of Russia and the West in an engaging, easy-to-read style." You can read the whole review here.