U.S.-Russian relations seem to have been relatively quiet recently, as there are numerous contradictory views in Washington about the true nature of Russia's current foreign policy. Doubts remain about the sincerity of the U.S. State Department's so-called "reset" of relations with Russia - the term used in 2009 when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed a reset button to her Russian counterpart as a symbol of a freeze on escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington. The concern is whether the "reset" is truly a shift in relations between the two former adversaries or simply a respite before relations deteriorate again.
The reset actually had little to do with the United States wanting Russia as a friend and ally. Rather, Washington wanted to create room to handle other situations - mainly Afghanistan and Iran - and ask Russia for help. (Russia is aiding in moving supplies into Afghanistan and withholding critical support from Iran.) Meanwhile, Russia also wanted more room to set up a system that would help it create a new version of its old empire.
Russia's ultimate plan is to re-establish control over much of its former territories. This inevitably will lead Moscow and Washington back into a confrontation, negating any so-called reset, as Russian power throughout Eurasia is a direct threat to the U.S. ability to maintain its global influence. This is how Russia has acted throughout history in order to survive. The Soviet Union did not act differently from most of the Russian empires before it, and Russia today is following the same behavioral pattern.
Geography and Empire-Building
Russia's defining geographic characteristic is its indefensibility, which means its main strategy is to secure itself. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia's core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it and thus has been invaded several times. Because of this, throughout history Russia has expanded its geographic barriers in order to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and the myriad enemies surrounding it. This means expanding to the natural barriers of the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia. The one geographic hole is the North European Plain, where Russia historically has claimed as much territory as possible (such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany). In short, for Russia to be secure it must create some kind of empire.
There are two problems with creating an empire: the people and the economy. Because they absorb so many lands, Russian empires have faced difficulties providing for vast numbers of people and suppressing those who did not conform (especially those who were not ethnic Russians). This leads to an inherently weak economy that can never overcome the infrastructural challenges of providing for the population of a vast empire. However, this has never stopped Russia from being a major force for long periods of time, despite its economic drawbacks, because Russia often emphasizes its strong military and security apparatus more than (and sometimes at the expense of) economic development.
Maintaining a Strong State
Russian power must be measured in terms of the strength of the state and its ability to rule the people. This is not the same as the Russian government's popularity (though former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's popularity is undeniable); it is the ability of the Russian leadership, whether czar, Communist Party or prime minister, to maintain a tight grip on society and security. This allows Moscow to divert resources from popular consumption to state security and to suppress resistance. If the government has firm control over the people, popular discontent over politics, social policies or the economy do not pose a threat to the state - certainly not in the short term.
It is when the Russian leadership loses control over the security apparatus that Russian regimes collapse. For example, when the czar lost control of the army during World War I, he lost power and the Russian empire fell apart. Under Josef Stalin, there was massive economic dysfunction and widespread discontent, but Stalin maintained firm control over both the security apparatuses and the army, which he used to deal with any hint of dissent. Economic weakness and a brutal regime eventually were accepted as the inevitable price of security and of being a strategic power.