(Reuters) - Sir Harold Evans, Reuters editor-at-large, recently sat down with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a conversation. The focus: Russia.
EVANS: Let's go back to that first encounter with Putin in 2001 when President Bush said, "I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul." What shall we make of Mr. Putin's soul now?
RICE: I don't know what his soul is, but his behavior is appalling. Things were different at the time of Slovenia. It was a different Russia, he was a less confident figure, and frankly they were very helpful to us immediately after 9/11. But this is a regime that has gotten more authoritarian in the last 10 years, that has trampled on independent institutions and freedoms, and I think it's coming back to haunt them.
Historian Niall Ferguson argues that Russia has been horribly and perhaps incurably deformed by 70 years of Communist rule. Twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, he says it's headed to global irrelevance with a declining population and per capita GDP 10 times smaller than the U.S.
Post-Soviet Russia is a mixed picture. People have more personal freedom than at any other time in their history; prosperity is more widespread than ever. There is a viable middle class, which is one of the explanations for the reaction to Putin's attempt to come back. All that is for the better. But the underlying power structures are not really transformed. It is still an oil and gas economy that does not take advantage of its tremendous human potential. So it is absolutely true that their influence is waning, but I wouldn't say it's irrelevant. It's a permanent member of the Security Council with a veto; it has tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, a large army still, a network of world relationships and important regional influence in Central Asia. It's still a powerful state, but it's no longer one of the two most powerful states.
EVANS: Is Putin on Mubarak's track? John McCain tweeted, "Vlad, the Arab Spring is coming soon to a neighborhood near you."
RICE: I hesitate to say that it's an Arab Spring because the regime in Moscow is more resilient, but Putinism won't ever be the same. Now that people are not so fearful, I think it's going to be very difficult for Putin to rule Russia. The Russians are rising up against what, I think from their point of view, was a tremendous affront in the way that he tried to simply trade jobs with Medvedev. It was a terrible miscalculation on his part.
EVANS: Was Secretary Clinton wise to feed the Kremlin paranoia by criticizing fraud and ballot-rigging?
RICE: She was absolutely right to speak up for our values. I've many times criticized them, and they don't like it. I think the anti-Western rhetoric is part desperation on Putin's part; but also I do believe that suspicion of the West is deeply ingrained in him.
EVANS: Do the disturbances make the former parts of the Soviet Union - the Ukraine and Georgia - more vulnerable or less?
RICE: Less vulnerable, because the Georgian war showed that the Russians can't simply behave like the Soviet Union. They're too integrated into the international system to do that. But it wouldn't surprise me if the disturbances in Moscow make them try to be more aggressive against the neighbors. I just don't think they can pull it off.
EVANS: Are bloggers like Alexei Navalny, who has just been jailed, influential throughout Russia? Is it really a Moscow/Petersburg thing?
RICE: Oh, I don't think it's just Moscow and Petersburg. There was a very interesting development, which many people didn't notice: when the Russian Orthodox Church - through its most prominent spokesman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin - said people were clearly upset, and there had to be answers about the election.
It's the first time the Church been so critical. It has tentacles all over Russia and I suspect they're hearing from priests throughout the country that there is considerable unhappiness.
And remember, while the action may be in the cities, poverty in the rural areas is still quite dire. So you have several elements to the revolt, not one. Yes, in the cities demands for civil liberties come from young people who don't have a memory, really, of the repression of communism, and therefore are not fearful. But it's not clear to me that liberal forces would be popular in the rural areas. We have to be a little careful not to assume that this revolution is all a liberal revolution. In fact, the discontent in the rural areas could take the form of more support for Mother Russia nationalism - and remember the Communist party still has significant support there and could gain from a kind of anti-Putin revolt.