The changing of the guard at midnight in Moscow's Red Square perhaps best expresses the ambiguities of modern Russia.
Emerging from the Kremlin, soldiers balancing rifles vertically on their palms goose step like they're dancing to Lenin's mausoleum opposite the painted onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral.
A combination of faith, power, art and spectacle, the ceremony is one of the few in Russian life that has not been transformed since the Soviet Union ended. Every day it connects Russia's present with its tormented past. And it was in Red Square that the future was glimpsed earlier this year. For the first time since 1991, Russian tanks, presaging their use in Georgia this summer, joined the annual Victory Day Parade.
The disbelieving West, startled by Russia's intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is being confronted by the fact that the demise of Russian communism was neither an end nor a beginning. The passage of time and the perspective of history suggests that Russia is, in many respects, as unaltered as Red Square.
It is a development that few people forecast when I visited Moscow for the first time in 1989. The Soviet Union was under pressure from four directions. Subject peoples inspired by Poland's break with communism were demanding their own freedom. The Soviets had been driven out of Afghanistan, and Islam was rising in the republics of Central Asia and elsewhere. Russia's rulers had lost faith in central planning. The 1986 oil price crash wrecked the government's finances.
Reversal in fortunes
The view then was that the Soviets were finished. Hindsight now suggests that this was a transition, not a fresh revolution. Since 1991, Moscow has released western republics of no strategic value in the internet age. Muslim Central Asian states too costly to police have been allowed to go their own way. Russian nationalism replaced socialist internationalism as the state's ideology. Chechen separatists have been crushed. And the quintupling of oil prices since 2003 has restored the state's finances.
Whether by accident or design, many of what were previously Moscow's headaches have become those of the West. This is nowhere more obvious than in the Middle East. Before the Kuwait war, the Soviet Union was Iraq's principal security partner; America now has that privilege. Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s drained Soviet resources; Nato today pays the bill. Between 1969 and the start of 1986, Moscow attempted to build a Marxist-Leninist state in south Yemen with dismal results; unified Yemen, the Middle East's poorest nation, is now principally the West's problem.
Middle East events were behind the radical reversal in Russia's fortunes. The 2003 Iraq invasion alienated America's Middle East friends and contributed to the startling rise in oil prices ever since, hitting hit the US economy and helped Russia's. Washington rejected Iranian offers of co-operation and is now paying the price. Unsurprisingly, American denunciations of Russia's actions in Georgia strike no chords in the Middle East.
The Kremlin's power has been restored within Russia's borders. The world will have to come to terms with the fact that it is restoring a sphere of influence beyond them. But it is wrong to conclude that Russia plans to compete aggressively across the world, as it did before 1991.
Apart from opportunistically capitalising on American errors, Moscow will stick to policies consonant with Russian national feelings and core national interests. This is probably the most important lesson to be drawn from Russia's Georgian coup, offensive as it is to champions of small nations.
In the Middle East, a strong and pragmatic Russia could create the opportunity for constructive co-operation on key issues including stabilising Iraq, encouraging conciliation with Iran, bringing peace to Afghanistan and promoting compromise in the Arab-Israel conflict.
Russia has a legitimate right to a say about the future of the world energy industry, and should be allowed to have one. There is much for Middle East countries to talk to Moscow about.
But there will be no final answer to the questions outsiders have asked about Russia for centuries. Like the changing of the guard in Red Square, its actions in the Middle East and the world beyond can be interpreted in more than one way.
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