Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov recently proclaimed, “[O]ur long effort to integrate with Western institutions, to become part of the Western system, is over.  The aim now is to be an independent power in a multi-polar world in which Russia is a major player.” 

Noting that Nicaragua remains the sole country to join the Kremlin in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the WSJ’s editors quipped, “It’s hard to be a major player when all you have is very minor friends.”

Lukyanov’s take on Russian efforts at Western integration probably differs from that of the West itself.  It’s one thing to aspire to various governmental norms and international institutions but a very different thing to actually adopt the values and laws necessary for those wishes to materialize. But, these efforts being “over,” perhaps the more important question now is, what defines a “major player” in a multi-polar world?  And moreover, is Russia really having a hard time fulfilling such a role?

If ink spilled is any indicator of a country’s relative global importance, it’s not so clear the Journal is right on this one.

The fact that Russia’s August invasion of Georgia has forced a Western rethink on NATO expansion certainly suggests that Moscow factors into Western political decisions.  Russia’s actions in Georgia deepened divisions within both NATO and the EU about how best to deal with Moscow and reignited fears over territorial sovereignty in the governments of many post-Soviet states.  Although a recent NYT article confirms that Russia’s conventional power continues to lag behind its Soviet-era level, a weakened Russian military is still one of the world’s stronger forces.  And of course, its nuclear arsenal remains massive.

Furthermore, conventional might is not the only measure of Moscow’s ability to project influence.  Europe, particularly in the East, relies on Russia for the majority of its natural gas.  If anything, the EU’s muted response to the Georgia conflict shows that the Russian invasion drove home the point that energy dependency can sometimes entail putting values aside.  Additionally, cooperation with Russia on nuclear non-proliferation, especially regarding Iran, would be very beneficial to the West.  In light of all this, Russia can safely be called a “major player” in the world.

So, what should be made of the Journal’s focus on Moscow’s failure to muster the support of any country beyond Nicaragua?  It is extremely doubtful that a Western country or China would ever recognize Georgia’s separatist regions, so it’s not very clear that another small, non-aligned country following Russia’s suit would make much of a global difference.  Unlike the Euro-Atlantic alliance, the Kremlin does not find itself situated within a broader community of countries with shared values; although Belarus, Armenia, and some Central Asian states often ally themselves with Moscow, many former Soviet satellites strongly resent Russian policies.

Realistically, the absence of a coalition of countries that recognize the separatist regions will not impair Russia’s ability to influence the politics of former communist countries, cut gas supplies, and engage in other interventionist practices in its Near Abroad.  Nor will it affect the continuing authoritarian trend of Russian domestic politics.

Russia cannot be allowed to hold a veto over NATO expansion, but the West must work to relieve the Kremlin’s apprehension about the spread of democracy at its borders.  While talk of a new Cold War is far overblown, so too is dismissing Russia’s status as a major global player for not convincing others to back its recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Peter Cassata is assistant editor at the Atlantic Council.