MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Russia is back on the world stage. Fifteen years after the collapse of what President Regan called the evil empire, the Russian bear is growling again. Last month, President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of imposing its policies on a reluctant world by force, rhetoric that has some experts worried about the prospects of a new Cold War.
All this week we're taking a close look at this new Russian assertiveness. NPR's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer, starts our series at one of the city's most famous landmarks.
(Soundbite of music)
GREGORY FEIFER: During the Cold War, military parades on Red Square were part of a massive show of force. The practice stops during the 1990s, but now it's been revived.
(Soundbite of music)
FEIFER: Last May, President Vladimir Putin led an elaborate ceremony marking the victory in World War II and showcasing Moscow's new wealth. But Russia is plotting a different course than the Soviet Union, which projected power through military might and communist ideology.
Today, Russia's ill-disciplined military is a far cry from the Red Army, and independent legislator Vladimir Ryzhkov says profit, not ideology, drives Moscow's relations with other countries.
Mr. VLADIMIR RYZHKOV (Russian Parliamentarian): (Through translator) Oil and gas generate 70 percent of the country's income. That means the interests of the state's Gazprom natural gas monopoly are often inextricably linked to foreign policy.
(Soundbite of machinery)
FEIFER: The boom is changing the face of Moscow by driving the construction of imposing new office buildings like this one. I'm standing outside a glass-enclosed skyscraper on a central thoroughfare in Moscow, part of the city's surge in speculative office developments
Sales from Russia's vast reserves of oil and gas are powering this economy to levels not seen since its dramatic post-communist collapse. Business success is also changing foreign policy. Officials have made no secret of their belief Russia's economic recovery entitles it to flex political muscle on the world stage.
Russia has recently forced its former Soviet neighbors to pay much more for gas and cut energy supplies to Ukraine and Belarus over price disputes that disrupted deliveries to Western Europe. Moscow also recently forced the Shell Oil Company to hand over the largest foreign investment project in Russia to Gazprom. Western governments say Russia is using energy to bully its rivals, but the Kremlin's actions are popular back home.
Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language).
FEIFER: New Kremlin-backed youth groups have taken to staging regular protests outside foreign embassies. Youth for Motherland organized this pro-government rally near the Foreign Ministry, housed in one of Moscow's iconic Stalin-era skyscrapers, and member Mikhail Boycko says he's proud of the growing power it once again represents.
Mr. MIKHAIL BOYCKO (Youth for Motherland): (Through translator) If we continue on the same path, in 20 years, God willing, we'll be able to resurrect the might of our great predecessor, the Soviet Union.
FEIFER: In the corridors of power there's growing anger at the West. Officials are particularly offended by Western criticism of human rights violations, which is seen here as only a political tool with which to pressure Russia. Boris Nemtsov, a top pro-Western reformer in the 1990s, says that's because Putin and his allies think other countries are run just like Russia, and that in a powerful country such as the United States, the government must have control of the judicial system and the media.
Mr. BORIS NEMTSOV (Former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia): No independent court system, no opposition, no independence of press. This is special cynical game against Russia. He believes in that. He always talked about that, even to me.
FEIFER: The Kremlin has recently been angered by U.S. plans to install part of its controversial missile defense system in two former Soviet Bloc countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, which are now members of NATO. Last week, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rejected American assurances the missile shield is meant to protect the United States and its allies from an attack by Iran, saying it's really aimed against Russia.
Minister SERGEY LAVROV (Foreign Minister, Russia): (Through translator) Laws of ballistics say that the system won't help against a hypothetical threat from Iran, so against whom will the system be directed?
FEIFER: Moscow has warned it may target any American missile-shield sites in Eastern Europe with its own missiles. Russia's new aggressiveness was also starkly evident at a recent defense and security conference in Munich. President Vladimir Putin shocked the West by lashing out against Washington, helping to plunge relations between the United States and Russia to their lowest level since the Cold War.
President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) One state's rule has overstepped its national borders in all areas, in economics, politics and the humanitarian sphere, and is trying to force itself on other states. Well, who would like that?
FEIFER: Russian media headlines proclaimed the start of a new Cold War, but experts dismiss such rhetoric. Despite its revival, Russia's economy is still relatively small - it lags behind Italy — for it to compete as an equal with those of most Western countries.
But Moscow's new clout does mean its cooperation is crucial not only over energy, but also on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism. That kind of collaboration is increasingly rare.
Sarah Mendelson of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies says Moscow has reverted to Soviet-style obstructionism in international forums, such as the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power.
Ms. SARAH MENDELSON (Center for Strategic and International Studies): Time and time and time again, the Russians are voting with the Chinese on a variety of issues, often having to do with human rights, that are simply meant to put a spoke in the wheel as the international community is trying to do something about gross human-rights violations. And that is very much a legacy of the Soviet Union, and it's very disturbing.
FEIFER: Critics in Washington say Russia has opposed American-led efforts to block the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran. Moscow is building a nuclear power plant in Iran and also recently sold Tehran a billion dollars' worth of tactical missiles, much to Washington's annoyance.
Western leaders say Putin's harsh criticism of the West last month was a wake-up call about the country's direction in foreign policy, but Western analysts say it's time the United States and its European allies develop a common approach to Moscow if they want to deal effectively with the new gauntlet the Kremlin has thrown on the world stage.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
NORRIS: Tomorrow, Greg looks at the similarities between Russia today and its past under the Soviet Union. There's an overview of this series and more about what's driving Moscow's push for great power status at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.