Developments in Syria in recent months have highlighted Russia's resuscitated expansionist ambitions under Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin's leadership and direction. Some say Vladimir Putin wants a return to the days of the Soviet Union. That may be true in the sense of size and world influence, but it certainly is not true in respect to the form of Marxist Leninism in which he grew up. To begin with, Putin personally enjoys the benefits of the highly advantageous capitalism in which he and other members of the Moscow ruling circles now participate. To be fair and accurate, this has been true in one form or another for decades.
One could say the growth of sizeable personal fortunes within the Soviet hierarchy began following the end of World War II and the establishment of occupation zones. East Germany in particular became a honey pot for the Soviet civilian and military occupiers. Everything on their side of the demarcation line, and ultimately the wall, was for sale. Germans in the East were a defeated people – and never allowed to forget it. The Russian sector was stripped bare and the agricultural sector made primarily into a Soviet storehouse. And frankly, no one among the other three occupying powers really cared until the Cold War began in accompaniment to the early 1950's Korean War. By that time, the Soviet political operatives had organized a servile German communist ruling cadre to do their bidding.
The black market boomed throughout Berlin and that city became the center for an evolving lucrative cross-border trade. The Germans ran it, but it was the Soviets who were in ultimate control of the burgeoning underground economy. Vladimir Putin's first KGB "overseas" assignments were in East Germany as a young, ambitious officer. He and his family came to enjoy the perks of living in this conquered land. More importantly, it was here that he first began to have contact with the growing class of Russian entrepreneurs who were successfully exploiting the dominance of Soviet political, economic and social life.
The Soviet system always had allowed for advantages to be given to loyal party members. Young Vlad was not only a loyal intelligence officer, but also a successful administrator. Important to his rise also were his ties to his hometown of Leningrad (now returned to its original imperial name of St. Petersburg.) There was then and continues today what one might call a "St. Petersburg mafia" of energetic and originally dedicated communist business-oriented comrades. It was his former mentor in university, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak who brought the young Putin into politics (as his Deputy Mayor). That, as well as career security-related party members' support, vaulted Vladimir Putin's political career into high gear.
And here we are today with a Putin-dominated hybrid political-economic system that draws more on the old imperial Russian ethos than anything of which Lenin dreamed. The fact is that Vladimir Putin has created a new monarchy camouflaged by periodic managed elections – to put it generously. Today Russia appears to be a country that exists by virtue of a combination of government and private enterprise, and this is just the way Czar Putin and his cadre of commercial stakhanovites want it. However, at the same time he also wants a return of Soviet era military prowess and foreign political influence. At this moment, his ambition is on a collision course with the U.S. Administration's intent to correct its nation's recent weaknesses and return to the political economic level of influence – if not dominance – it had immediately post WWII.
With these ambitions relative to both powers, the new Russian empire really depends on the implied threat of its advanced nuclear scientific and technological status (to say nothing of its chemical and biological arsenal) as a constant reminder to the United States to restrain its activities in contested areas of the world, especially the Middle East. Moscow, in political terms, also can be seen to follow structurally the same theme as China. China has taken its own step in making their "communist" state an imperial power by anointing Xi Jinping its "leader for life". Obviously, China's action is not lost on Putin. The only question is which power is leading the other in political evolution? Machiavelli must have written something about this sort of power manipulation.
Teddy Roosevelt got it half right in Putin's mind. Vlad's version is: "Walk any way you want, but make sure everyone knows you carry this big stick and are ready to use it!" Russia may only have a gross national product (GNP) the size of Italy, but it has a strategic and tactical nuclear capability to endanger the whole world. With that in mind, Czar Vladimir intends to influence or coerce Russia's neighbors in such a manner as to diminish Moscow's economic gaps. The military and secret police capability is well in hand. The "new" Russia's imperial ambition actually is not hidden: it's just that it no longer uses the cloak of socialist rhetoric.