Oh, the Russians. Becoming more and more terrifying, no? Moscow's domestic and international politics alike are worrying the West, and for good reason.
The Duma (Russian parliament) has backed a 6-year presidential term, almost certainly leading to a 12-year Medvedev presidency--and thus an even greater extension of Putin's power. Apparently, the bill means that Putin will be eligible to run for President again in 2012 or 2018, whenever Medvedev decides he's done... giving Putin yet another 6-12 years afterwards. He'll have ruled longer than any post-revolution leader of Russia.
And Russia's leadership is not ruling with a bunnies-and-kitties fist. Russia's habit of intimidating dissenting reporters (usually by sending the mob) has been ratcheted up by Moscow's declaration that it would close the murder trial of Politkovskaya to the public. The Kremlin is signaling that it would rather appear opaque and shadowy than let whatever terrible truth is afoot here get out. Justice for future murders is unlikely.
Internationally, he presidents of Poland and Georgia had to duck from fire at a South Ossetian checkpoint over the weekend, and the Russians are waving it off as a setup by the Poles. How the Poles might have put agents into South Ossetia to fire on their own president is unclear.
Russia's launching itself towards new superpowerdom, and quickly. It is sending a naval fleet to South America to deal with Brazil, Venezuela, and Cuba--almost certainly to boast that it can steamroll the Monroe doctrine at its pleasure, and to put pro-Russian sentiment into the back yard of the US. It's threatening to set up offensive ballistic missiles against its former satellite countries that won't cow to its will. It's trying to force Finnish paper industries to move to Russia with crippling timber tariffs. The invasion of Georgia was a clear signal to NATO to back off. Russia has threatened to cut off gas supplies to France and Germany if NATO accepts the Ukraine.
With Putin and Medvedev likely in power for approximately forever (in government terms, looking three or four administrations away is such--Could Gerald Ford plan for Bill Clinton's tenure?), they're likely to only turn the heat up as Russia's GNP and military continue to grow. Western governments likely want to (and if they don't, should want to) launch preventative measures to keep Russia from becoming big enough to actually do damage to Western interests. I have some simple (but not easy) suggestions on how to relegate Russia to being a tinpot regional power, able to terrorize only the people of the Central Asian Stans (which we Westerners don't care much about anyway):
1) Show NATO Has Guts.NATO was formed for one reason: to contain Russia. In the 1990s, Russia's internal collapse meant NATO found itself bored and poking around in the civil wars of small Balkan and African countries. In 2001, it came to bat for its largest benefactor, the US. NATO has grown aggressively throughout the 1990's and 2000's. It has shown strength, unity, and cooperation. It should make sure not to splinter, and see what it can to do supports members in most dire need of help: the Czech Republic, Poland, Turkey.
2) Subsume Georgia and the Ukraine.The Russians clearly meant to terrify NATO by smashing Georgia up so thoroughly--they hoped to make Georgia such a liability that NATO would reject it as an ally. But if NATO is going to contain Russia, it should invest in taking the blow now to keep a knife close to Russia's underbelly. But the Ukraine is even more important. The Ukraine is the Russian heartland, and provides Russia with massive supplies of grain. In addition, Sevastopol is Russia's only deep warm water port, which it rents from the Ukraine. Losing its lease would mean a deep retraction of the Russian navy, particularly in the winter. Seasonal power projection is barely better than no power projection, and Russia would lose great influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and elsewhere. If the Ukraine and Georgia enter NATO, Russia's last two European allies will be the paltry Serbia and Belarus--staunch, but ineffectual. Russia will be pushed out of Europe forever. If it goes on to develop Central Asia to give itself a sphere of influence, than all the better.
3) Come to bat for Germany and France. If Ukraine and Georgia are admitted to NATO, then Germany and France are likely to lose access to Russian oil and gas. But luckily, oil and gas are necessarily fungible, unless Russia chooses to hoard that gas and lose all the revenue, rather than sell it... but this is unlikely. Let's assume they sell it to the Chinese, instead. That means the Chinese demand less Middle Eastern hydrocarbon, and the price goes down. The Americans and British can buy up these cheaper Middle Eastern resources, and then re-sell them to the French. Now, will it all be as cheap as normal? Clearly not. But everyone can take some hit in prices to support French and German stands against Russian resource blackmail, and it will have to be temporary if the Russians don't want to lose lots of money over their own inefficiency (currently, they make the most possible money by selling to Europe). It will be temporarily costly to test Russian resolve, but the long-term savings in not having to deal with Russian weight-throwing are immense.
4) Accelerate the Mediterranean Solar Plan. Sarkozy's MedU plan to stick a bunch of thermal solar plants in North Africa to replace oil and gas dependency for power-generation has a few excellent effects for Europe in the long-term. The first is a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, which will help them sleep at night. The second will be a less volatile source of electricity, which will keep shocks from busting up the economy. The third benefit will be relief from dependence on Russian gas and oil. Imports are fine, unless you're importing from someone who's willing to jump from a cliff just to take you down with him. Putin may be ready to do that. In the long-term, the more the Europeans reduce their dependence on Russian gas and oil, the more irrelevant the Russians will become. France's high-speed construction of nuclear power plants is a great example of these efforts--even if nuclear power is currently more expensive than the gas and oil. The French and German power grids are integrated, and if the Russians do turn the gas off, a combination of solar in North Africa, wind in Germany, and nuclear in France should soon be able to sop up enough of the slack to keep the economy from faltering as the Americans and Brits scramble to deliver the necessary hydrocarbons.
If the Russians lose Ukraine and Georgia, and also (in the long-term) lose their hydrocarbon monopoly in Europe, they will become irrelevant very quickly, unless they actually want to initiate a full-scale war with NATO. But the Russians are smarter than they used to be, and weren't foolish enough to launch such a war in the 20th century, when they owned half of Europe. If NATO claims the Ukraine and Georgia, its conquering of the Russian empire will be complete, and in the long-term, Russia will be relegated to its own icy home.