In foreign policy, Russia's president is straddling two different centuries.
This week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev outlined five principles guiding Moscow's foreign policy. Here are two: Protect Russians "wherever they are" and attend to "privileged interests" in Moscow's areas of influence. Is this Cold War II? It's more like a throwback to the 19th century, when great powers carved up the world like a pot roast.
That was an era in which Czarist Russia expanded into the Caucasus, Central Asia, and across Siberia. When America told Europe "hands off" in Latin America. When Europe's monarchies sliced up colonies in Africa and Asia.
That era is over, or so the world thought. It's been replaced by an imperfect but vastly preferable system of global institutions, international law, and treaties on human rights – fought for in two world wars.
So Russia's neighbors quake to hear this kind of retrotalk backed up by Moscow's chilling display of force in Georgia.
One of Moscow's flimsy excuses for the invasion was to protect "Russian" citizens. It had been doling out Russian passports to residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia – Georgia's breakaway provinces which Russia last week illegally recognized as independent.
International law doesn't give one country extraterritorial rights to "protect" its citizens in another country. (The US used the "protect" argument when it invaded Grenada in 1983.) Treatment of minorities is a concern for the resident country, or the global community.
Funny thing; another of Mr. Medvedev's foreign-policy principles is to abide by international law – a 21st-century way of doing things.
But while nobody's been looking, Russia has reportedly handed out passports to ethnic Russians in the Crimea, which is part of independent Ukraine and where Russia has a naval base. Will that become a pretext for annexation? Where does it stop? What about the millions of Russian speakers in the Baltics or neighboring Kazakhstan? (Don't worry, Brooklyn, your Russians are presumably out of range.)
Yes, Russia has its 25 million brothers and sisters "stranded," as Medvedev puts it, in the former states of the Soviet Union. And it has its "privileged interests," especially oil and gas in Central Asia. As if to drive home the point, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin this week closed a deal with Uzbekistan to build a pipeline carrying gas destined for Europe – via Russia of course.
Clearly, Russia is living another of its principles – making sure the world is not just a unipolar one run by the US. But it's failing miserably at its fifth rule, to not isolate itself.
It stands alone in its recognition of Georgia's provinces. Tellingly, when Russia, China, and the countries of Central Asia gathered at a summit last week, none of them endorsed Moscow's actions in Georgia or recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent.
And while the European Union couldn't unite this week on whether to sanction Russia, it at least agreed to condemn Russia's behavior, send aid to Georgia, and postpone partnership talks with Moscow. It still has other options.
Ostracization appears to be having some effect, as Russia's rich elite – seeing isolation negatively affect their investments – begins to break with the political leadership.
In his principles, Medvedev is trying to straddle two different centuries. It's a long stretch and may well prove too uncomfortable.