Vladimir Putin’s minister of “emergency situations,” Sergei Shoygu, has been particularly busy this winter, since the usual unpleasantness associated with Russia’s harsh climate has been made worse by the country’s crumbling infrastructure.  In October and November, entire villages in Yakutia were swept away as huge ice flows jammed the rivers, causing massive flooding, while January saw Southern Russia’s Black Sea coast buried by an unusual blizzard and the country’s Pacific coast frozen solid by waves of arctic air.  Soviet-era buildings simply collapsed under the weight of snowdrifts and floodwaters, while much of the country was left without heat or electricity for prolonged periods, as dilapidated power stations failed and rusty water lines burst.  Meanwhile, aging gas lines broke, blowing a number of residential buildings (and their residents) to smithereens—a wintertime disaster fatalistic Russians have grown accustomed to in recent years.

If natural disasters and collapsing, exploding, and frozen buildings weren’t enough to convince Vladimir Putin that the iznos (“wear and tear”) of Russia’s urban, industrial, and technological infrastructure has reached crisis level, the poor performance of Shoygu’s army of spacitely (Emergency Situations Ministry rescue workers—literally, “saviors”), equipped with out-of-date, broken-down, and poorly serviced planes, boats, and helicopters likely did.

In Chechnya, ill-fed, underdressed, and underpaid (or simply unpaid) Russian troops suffered through another winter campaign, while the pro-Moscow government in Grozny complained that aid promised for rebuilding the republic’s war-torn landscape had either not arrived or simply disappeared.  Freezing and sickly refugees packed the camps in neighboring Ingushetia.  In other words, it was business as usual.

Meanwhile, the prominent Moscow daily Izvestiya proclaimed that the Russian-American honeymoon—the result of a September 11-induced shotgun wedding—was over.  President George W. Bush, having announced that the Russian president was his Best Friend in the Whole World, embarked on a number of highly unfriendly acts: Having tossed out the ABM treaty after giving Putin the impression that the United States would develop anti-missile components within treaty boundaries, Bush has insisted on reducing strategic weapons without a formal treaty, while merely shelving—not destroying—thousands of nuclear warheads.  Moreover, the White House wants to resume nuclear testing and appears to be digging in for the long run in Russia’s backyard, Central Asia.  To add insult to injury, Washington has returned to carping about the war in Chechnya and has decided that the Kremlin’s closure of gangster/oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s TV6 threatens “human rights.”  Putin has kept insisting, however, that the new era of Russian cooperation with the West is just beginning.

What can he be thinking?  Why has he bent over backward to accommodate Bush, risking his political future, should Russia’s oligarchical elite decide that his policies are not yielding any serious returns?

To answer that, we need only keep three things in mind: the phrase technogenye katastrophy (“technological catastrophes”—see above); the “2003 problem” (the year when Russia’s remaining serviceable infrastructure is set to go the way of Yakutia’s villages); and a dissertation Putin wrote for St. Petersburg’s prestigious Plekhanov Mining Institute.

The 1997 dissertation, entitled “Strategic Planning for the Development of the Mineral-Raw Material Base of a Region During Formation of Market Conditions,” argued that only Russia’s lucrative raw-materials-extraction industries, especially oil and gas, could provide the needed capital to modernize the country’s industrial and technological base.

Thus Putin, some argue, hopes to convince the West, including the United States, that Russia is a more reliable oil supplier than the Arab-dominated OPEC cartel.  The Kremlin could tap the huge Western oil market, tie the West to Russian oil, and use the proceeds to rebuild the shattered country.  To achieve this end, the ex-KGB colonel is willing to risk a great deal—and accept what many Russians see as Bush’s insults.