I was in Moscow, reporting for ABC News. It was the day the Soviet Union finally and officially collapsed. A few hours earlier, the constituent members of the so-called Soviet "Union" voted the USSR out of existence. Now, a little before midnight, I strolled out onto Red Square, and gazed up at a startling site. The Soviet flag that had flown over the Kremlin, always splashed in light and kept flying at a perfect 90 degrees (thanks to a hidden wind machine) was gone. In its place, the benign seeming tri-colored Russian flag now stood stiff in the artificial breeze.
That night represents a generational divide for adult Americans. Either you're part of the group that remembers when whatever Moscow did mattered hugely in your own life (because you knew the Soviets could kill you in an afternoon, and might someday try); or you're in the group that knows the Cold War from books.
Frankly, speaking as someone in the first group, I can say an instant benefit of the USSR's demise was feeling liberated from the worry (which was a full-time cultural pre-occupation: it shaped our military, our diplomacy, our national budget and the story line of a whole lot of Hollywood movies).
Bottom line: Moscow was not going to matter anymore. Not like it used to.
And how illusory was that? Wealthy, oil-endowed, nuclear-armed, Olympic medal-winning, Syrian civil war-stirring, Crimea-occupying, ambition-nurturing Moscow doesn't matter? An obvious overstatement.
On the other hand, how much real influence does Russia have today? Does it lead? Does it inspire? Does it even have a plan? Or is it more of a poser and a pest on the international stage, whose ambitions, whatever they are, can mostly be overlooked?
Given recent events, we at Intelligence Squared U.S. decided it is time to re-visit the question of Russia, and to wrestle down the question of how much Moscow matters now. We have boiled it down to this resolution: Russia is a marginal power.
Check out the two debating teams we have put together. What they have to say about Russia today appears in the links below. What they have to say to each other, on Wednesday, is what will make it a debate.
John Donvan, Moderator
Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates
Russia matters a great deal to a U.S. government seeking to defend and advance its national interests.
Politico, by Robert Blackwill >
Ukraine's Revolution: A Fight the West Can’t Afford to Win
Washington understands that Ukraine still needs Russia, and the pleasure of watching Putin’s frustration grow won’t change that.
The National Interest, by Ian Bremmer >