The Russian army is unpaid, unfed, plagued by crime and desertion, and as the war in Chechnya showed, incapable of defending Russian rule even inside the Russian Federation. Yet Yevgeny Primakov, first as foreign minister and now as prime minister, insists that the world regard Russia as a great power with a global reach. Maintaining this position requires skillful diplomatic sleight-of-hand, shrewd deployment of negligible resources and occasional tapping of the nuclear hole card.

All along its periphery, in the states of the former Soviet Union, Russia is building the rudiments of a new alliance system and a chain of military bases. The public rationale varies from countering the eastward expansion of NATO to protecting ethnic Russians to resisting “Wahhabism,” a term applied to Islamic fundamentalism of the Taliban variety. The result is the same: the projection of Russian power at the expense of the freedom of action of the newly independent states.