Much in Russian foreign policy today is based on a consensus that crystallized in the early 1990s. Emerging from the rubble of the Soviet collapse, this consensus ranges across the political spectrum -- from pro-Western liberals to leftists and nationalists. It rests on three geostrategic imperatives: that Russia must remain a nuclear superpower, a great power in all facets of international activity, and the hegemon -- the political, military, and economic leader -- of its region. This consensus marks a line in the sand, beyond which Russia cannot retreat without losing its sense of pride or even national identity. It has proven remarkably resilient, surviving post-revolutionary turbulence and the change of political regimes from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin.
After his election as president in 2000, Putin added to this agenda an overarching goal: the recovery of economic, political, and geostrategic assets lost by the Soviet state in 1991. Although he has never spelled it out formally, Putin has pursued this objective with such determination, coherence, and consistency that it merits being called the Putin Doctrine. Domestically, the doctrine has guided the regime to reclaim the commanding heights of the economy (first and foremost, the oil and natural gas industries) and reassert its control over national politics, the judicial system, and the national television networks, from which an overwhelming majority of Russians get their news. In foreign and security policy, the doctrine has amounted to a reinterpretation of Russia's geostrategic triad, making its implementation and maintenance considerably more assertive than originally intended. Although U.S. President Barack Obama has signaled lately that he will attempt to revive the "reset" with Russia, Washington's best option may well be a strategic pause: a much-scaled-down mode of interaction that reflects the growing disparity in values and objectives between the two countries yet preserves frank dialogue and even cooperation in a few select areas.