Anne Penketh: A statement of long-term aggression

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The Independent Online

The world had its first glimpse of the post-Putin era yesterday. What will it look like? The same as the Putin era.

The Russian President laid down a marker, in case the West might think that his successor, the smiling Dmitry Medvedev, looks like a pushover when he takes over after next month's elections. In the presence of all the gilded trappings of state, Mr Putin was committing his successor to continue the aggressive foreign policy stance that has kept his popularity ratings surging.

We are talking long-term strategy here. Until 2020 in fact. But most of Mr Putin's complaints we have heard before, particularly regarding the American anti-missile defence shield – on which both countries continue to negotiate.

Mr Putin does have a point when he says that he is not starting this, but responding. Seen from Russia, the noose of Nato – the Soviet-era enemy – is tightening around Russian borders. What is more, Russia only revived the Cold War-era flights by strategic bombers last summer after Nato failed to halt its own flights over Russian territory, according to military experts.

He is also right when he says that diplomatic conflicts "smell of gas and oil." But how much of a threat is Russia?

They always used to say that the Soviet Union was "Upper Volta with missiles", in other words a poor, developing country with military might. Despite all the talk about Russia's oil wealth, if you take away the natural resources, as Mr Putin admitted himself yesterday, the economy "is still very ineffective". It has shameful mortality rates, as he also mentioned.

As for military might, Russia no longer has the strength of the Soviet Union. Its conscript army is demoralised.

So the Pentagon's leaders won't exactly be quaking in their boots tonight.

But with Nato weakened by the challenges outside its European borders, and a "lame duck" president in the White House, the escalation of rhetoric from Mr Putin – albeit for electoral motives – is worrying. The US has allowed its relationship with Russia to deteriorate while President George Bush thinks of his own legacy in Iraq and the Middle East. As for Britain, relations with Russia are at their lowest ebb since Cold War days because of the fallout from the Litvinenko affair.

Even though Mr Putin delivered his final speech as president to the State Council yesterday as part of his long goodbye, he was telling the whole world, and particularly the West, that after 2 March, he will retain his influence in Russia, whatever his formal role. Le Roi est mort. Vive le Roi. Or in his case, Le Tsar est mort, vive le Tsar.