Is Russia closing in on itself again?

Vladimir Putin wants to play a central role in international affairs. But he also shares his country

Three things can be said about Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, as he enters the fourth year of his presidency. First, he is ruthless. He came to power as the second Chechen war was ramped up, and he has refused to consider any let up to this, one of the world's most murderous conflicts, in which a small country has been largely destroyed. He has given no sign whatsoever that he is prepared to contemplate anything but the total defeat of the Chechen rebels. His enrolment as an ally in the war against terrorism has removed all but the most pro-forma foreign condemnation of the war - except from Islamic states - and the small mission from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the only international observer body, has been kicked out.

Second, he plays a weak hand well. Russia is still prostrate: it is not yet clear if it is in the process of a long collapse, or if the economic growth - almost all due to its energy exports - shows that the nation is turning a corner. However, the country remains capable of playing in the various clubs to which its superpower past and its nuclear present have ensured it membership - the UN Security Council, the G8 (for political issues) and the recent construction of the "quartet" of major powers on the Middle East. Russia retains enough high-tech to equip the Chinese air force and export nuclear technology to, among others, Iran - as well as to excite the commercial interest of the US in its laser technology. Putin instantly turned the war on terror, and the emotional effect it seems to have had on George Bush, to advantage; both Bush and his (ex-Sovietologist) national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, think of him not just as an effective leader, but as a moral one.

Third, Putin has far fewer illusions than either of his two predecessors. Mikhail Gorbachev had many illusions - for which the world should be grateful - including the reformability of Soviet communism and the ease with which the Soviet republics could become part of the modern world. Boris Yeltsin assumed that Russia could develop a booming capitalist economy in rapid order. Putin, a much colder individual, has accepted that Russia may never again be an independent power, and that it may have to throw in its lot with Europe - but not yet. In his first "state of the nation" speech, given three years ago, as he prepared to take over, he said that: "For the first time in the past 200 to 300 years, [Russia] is facing a real danger of sliding to the second, and possibly even the third, echelon of world states. We are running out of time to avoid this."

Knowing in broad terms what niche the globalising world offers Russia and fitting unwieldy, impoverished, still-Sovietised Russia into that niche are two different things. Putin faces a nightmarishly elephantine version of the problem that afflicts the British government - a desire to change, some knowledge of how to do it, but insufficient or weak levers to get change going. In Russia's case, the distrust of the centre for regional and local initiative or competence is exacerbated not only by the continuing collapse of ageing infrastructure, but by a centuries-old suspicion of the outside - a suspicion that Putin shares.

The result of this attitude - Russia's "second closure", as it is already seen in the west and by some Russians - was dramatised this month. Irene Stevenson, the Moscow representative of the US trade union confederation the AFL-CIO, is a fluent Russian speaker who has lived in the country for some 15 years. Following a six-day visit to her homeland over Christmas, she was turned back at Sheremetyevo airport. She is now in Paris, and has refused to comment on her position. Her ban - only a few weeks after her visa had been routinely renewed - is seen in the context of the expulsion of the OSCE from Chechnya, and of an earlier ban on further activities of the US Peace Corps volunteers, who had operated in Russia since the end of the Gorbachev era and are now accused of harbouring spies in their midst. "This latest incident," opined the Washington Post, "is further evidence that Russia is backsliding, that the power of the security services is growing and that tolerance for opposition is waning."

Is it a second closure? The story is, as ever, more interesting than that, though not necessarily more comforting. Take another instance of increased security service powers. The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexei II, complained over the New Year period that the state was becoming more intrusive into church matters, and asked the authorities to remember the Soviet past and the sufferings communism had visited on the faithful (among whom Putin now counts himself: another reason for his bond with George Bush). This was a risky thing for the Patriarch to say - he was exposed, soon after the end of the Soviet Union, as one of the church's more complaisant senior figures in Soviet times.

Alexei's complaint shows the many-layered quality of Russian moral choice. Nothing goes forward in the country without simultaneously going back; but, too, no evil enters without a bit of good on its arm. In an interview this month, Georgy Satarov, one of Yeltsin's more liberal aides and now head of a political consultancy, said that the most common form of corruption - paying bribes to doctors, dentists, professors and other officials - was often the only thing keeping the highly skilled at their posts. "Imagine that," he said, "by some trick, opportunities for corruption were removed . . . they [the skilled professionals] would scatter immediately."

At the same time, he added, "the large scale of corruption is disrupting the economy." Pay bribes to the police, and they have the money to keep healthy enough to stay at their posts through the present arctic winter and keep some order; on the other hand, you have a corrupt police force.

The state statistics organisation keeps many of its results and much of its methodology secret: one reason for doing so is so that it can charge high fees to those who are willing to, or must, acquire its information. If it did not do so, it could not afford to collect the data. Yet because so much is shrouded in secrecy, it is hard to judge how accurate that data is; to the point where there are doubts as to whether the growth in investment that the organisation says is happening - and which is one of the encouraging signs for an economy where disinvestment has been the norm for a decade and a half - is actually taking place.

Even the Russian intelligentsia, which had a discreet morality of anti-communism in the post-Stalin period, now recognises the complexity of the situation. In an interview with the New York Times, the writer Tatyana Tolstaya - great grand-niece of Leo Tolstoy - said she was a supporter of the Putin "regime" (as she called it), because it is able, unlike the "irresponsible" Yeltsin, "to hold the empire together". She lambasts the corruption and indifference to poverty, but, most of all, she bemoans Putin's relative lack of power: like many Russians, including "liberal" ones, she wants a Kremlin that is honest and enlightened but also powerful and efficient.

Putin does not have the leverage to be powerful: but he can at least clear out what he sees as the more humiliating features of post-communist order. Like most Russians, he sees the presence of western, especially American, experts, advisers and missionaries (both secular and religious) as demeaning: hence the expulsion of the Peace Corps and of Stevenson.

He believes Russia can and must win its own battles - hence the expulsion of the OSCE, a body that had helped to broker a ceasefire in an earlier stage of the Chechen conflict. At the same time, these bans appear to lighten short-term problems. The OSCE does not issue embarrassing reports any longer from the scene. And at a time when wage arrears are rising once more and air traffic controllers have won a 28 per cent pay rise, Stevenson no longer gives advice to the increasingly militant trade unions.

However, Putin faces an increasing public weariness with a Chechen war that continues to claim the lives of Russian soldiers to no obvious end. (That body bags are having an effect on public opinion - indeed, that there is a public opinion with some political weight - is one of the positive signs of the times.) Resentment at Russia's reduced status swells a more globally common resentment over the position of the United States as the uniquely dominant superpower. Putin is popular because he expresses both clarity on short-term possibilities with regret for past failures and rational plans for a better future. That he cannot take a consistent line is not a bar to popularity: Russia, and Russians, cannot be consistent and cope with their continued "transition".

So long as Russia continues to live in the tension between realism, resentment and regret, then it will have a chance - perhaps a good chance, given its inherent wealth in educated people and huge energy resources - to find its niche. The danger is that the tension will be resolved in favour of resentment; that the country will once more close in on itself, in disappointment with a world it can neither dominate nor work with.

Free with the NS next week: a special supplement on Russia, produced jointly with the Moscow-based magazine Expert