Russian bear hugs the West tighter?

Two years ago, Georgian forces shelled the capital of the breakaway region of South Ossetia hitting the base of Russian peacekeepers as well as civilian housing. Russia responded immediately with a massive ground and air assault and in five days inflicted a heavy defeat on its tiny neighbour, occupying a band of Georgian territory into the bargain.

The conflict had several immediate results.

Already fraught relations between Moscow and Tbilisi plunged to new depths and diplomatic relations were severed.

Russia and three other countries recognised the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

And relations between Russia and the West – the US and the EU – deteriorated to their worst level since the collapse of the USSR – there was even talk of a new Cold War from western politicians.

The Cold War analogies led some commentators to argue Russian foreign policy had taken a decisive anti-western turn and things could and/or should never be the same again

Two years later, the one thing that seems unlikely to ever be the same again is the shape and size of Georgia. If recognition from Russia was not enough, the recent International Court of Justice opinion that Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was not against international law, makes it even less probable Tibilsi could regain control of its lost regions.

But otherwise those predictions and talk of a new Cold War couldn’t appear more misplaced.

Russian relations with Georgia remain hostile. Although the border has reopened in places and some business links survive, ties look set to remain frosty as long as Prime Minister Putin and President Saakashvili remain in office, given their dispute now has a personal animus that goes beyond the geo-political.

But when it comes to relations with the western powers, over the past year things have improved significantly.

One of President Obama’s most successful foreign policy initiatives to date has been the ‘reset’ of relations with Russia that has led to a new nuclear arms control agreement, START 2, but Washington appears to have been pushing at an open door. Though the talks over START took a bit longer than expected and the Russians bargained hard, President Medvedev genuinely seemed to want to do a deal.

When it comes to Europe, the Russians were reaching out to their arch rivals, the Poles, even before the tragic air crash in Russia that killed the Polish President and many of the country’s elite in April. Mr Putin, who has a reputation for playing hardball, handled the consequences of the disaster with a sensitivity that surprised many and Poland has reciprocated.

Russia knows Poland is now an important player in the EU and the overtures to Warsaw show Moscow wants to improve relations with the wider EU, damaged in the past few years by disputes from the disruption of gas supplies via Ukraine, to the killing of the former Russian agent, Alexander Litvinienko, in London.

What lies behind this change of policy in Moscow?

The reasons for the change of approach from Russia were outlined in a leaked Foreign Ministry paper in May  and they appear to be highly pragmatic.

The economic crisis came as huge shock to Russia’s leaders as the economy shrank by up to 10%. The fall in global economic activity led to a big fall in the price of oil on which Russia depends for much of its GDP.

The penny seems to have dropped in Moscow  that the oil and gas industry need to be much more efficient and the country needs to diversify away from reliance on the energy sector. So President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin want to modernise the Russian economy, and they have decided they need good relations with the western economies to get access to investment and technology.

Last month, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, wrote a significant essay in Russia in Global Affairs explaining the policy change in more depth

So is Moscow turning  westwards, rather than to its new partners in the BRIC bloc – China, India and Brazil – when it really needs help?.

Well this change could be a sign that the talk of the shifting balance of power in the world is overblown.

Equally, it could well be a sign that the emergence of new powers, alongside the presence of the traditional western powers, has given all states more options in foreign policy – and a country like Russia, which sees national interest through the lens of realpolitik, can pick its horses for courses in the global arena.

The World Tonight is broadcast at 22.00 UK time on BBC Radio 4 and online