Back in 2004 at Putin's second swearing-in as Russian President, the mood in Russia was considerably more upbeat. Russia was clearly coming back from the brink, as oil prices were rising, and the global economic bubble was in full inflate mode.
Seven years later, in 2011, the prospects of 12 more years of Putin as "supreme leader" of Russia create a more somber mood. The underlying bombast and belligerence of an imperial Russia under Putin is just another thing the world has to worry about.
"Russia will begin this new iteration of a Russian empire by creating a union with former Soviet states based on Moscow's current associations, such as the customs union and the collective security treaty organisation. This will allow the 'EuU' [a Eurasia union] to strategically encompass both the economic and security spheres … Putin is creating a union in which Moscow would influence foreign policy and security but would not be responsible for most of the inner workings of each country," said Lauren Goodrich in a Stratfor paper.
Putin's third empire project also includes, crucially, a tightening of Moscow's politicised grip on Europe's strategic energy supplies.
Following last month's Gazprom deal with Belarus, industry analysts suggest up to 50% of Europe's natural gas could be controlled by Russia by 2030. This is hugely significant: Putin's new Russian empire can only be financed by continuing, high-priced energy export revenues. In effect, Europe could be paying for its own future domination.
The empire-fights-back scenario has numerous other aspects. Recent remarks by Medvedev about the lack of wisdom, in the context of the 2008 Georgia conflict, of unchecked Nato enlargement vividly illustrated Russia's visceral opposition to any interference in what used to be called its "near abroad" – and Putin's desire to roll back the western encroachments of the past 20 years. Russia's determination to defend wider spheres of traditional influence in the non-aligned and developing world can be seen in its obdurate refusal to penalise Syria, in the face of almost universal outrage over the crackdown there; and in its de facto defence of Iran's nuclear programme. Putin, meanwhile, continues to prioritise Russian military modernisation.
Western countries inclined to take issue with this external empire-building, or with Russia's lamentable internal democracy and human rights deficit, have been told to save their breath. "All our foreign partners need to understand this: Russia is a democratic country, it's a reliable and predictable partner with which they can and must reach agreement, but on which they cannot impose anything from the outside," Putin told the United Russia convention. Attempts to influence the election process or the reform agenda were "a wasted effort, like throwing money to the winds".
As Putin – former secret policeman, physical fitness fanatic and hyper-nationalist – prepares to resume Russia's presidency, his third empire ambitions become ever clearer. March's election will be no contest. Only when it is over will the real fight begin. _Guardian
The inability of the USSR's economic, scientific, and technological infrastructure to keep up with those of the western nations led to its much belated collapse. Something very similar is taking place in Russia now, with an important exception: The gates of emigration -- once closed tightly by the USSR dictatorship -- are now open. Russia's young can clearly compare Russia with the outside world, now, thanks to advanced telecommunications technologies, and communications with the huge numbers of Russians who have already emigrated.
Birthrates of Russian women after emigration to healthier societies tend to go up, compared with the unlucky girls who are left behind. The good Russian genes that created the beautiful women, world class chessmasters, top rank physicists and engineers, and highly skilled computer scientists and mathematicians, are being propagated mainly outside of Russia -- well-mixed with the genes of other, more worldly successful peoples.
Putin's empire may be shrinking, but the blood of Russia is mixing with the blood of the western world, outside the tsar's control. The resulting hybrid mix is likely to be hardier, if a bit more fatalistic.