On a recent visit to Venice, when I was waiting in the customs line at the airport, a couple in front of me was chatting in Russian, and there was a Russian family of four behind me. The Italian official checking passports spoke Russian to them.
Later while in Milan, I spotted six Russian women loaded with shopping bags taking possession of a table at a trendy restaurant near Via Spiga. A man with three children, all of them wearing bright green and orange jackets, asked an Italian waiter for a table, in Russian. The waiter immediately led them to their seats.
At my hotel in Venice, there were six Russian-language channels available on the television, and only three in Spanish. A few days later in London, I read an article about how wealthy Russian investors, uneasy about keeping all their money in Moscow, are buying property in London, which has caused real-estate prices to spike in what is already one of the world's most expensive cities. In Miami, where I live, one frequently hears Russian spoken in clubs, malls and luxury restaurants.
Indeed, it seems these days that the Russians have invaded, with the intent of spending money. It's understandable. Very few people were allowed to leave the Soviet Union before it collapsed in December 1991. After 15 independent nations emerged from the breakup of the union, it took many years for their economies to make the painful transition from the old Soviet system to a market economy. (Though a few people did make fortunes from the privatization of state-owned companies, which sparked the global Russian shopping spree.)
It was a tremendous shock for people to have to embrace capitalism after decades of communism, and it certainly wasn't easy for post-Soviet Russia to cede its role as a superpower. As part of the Soviet Union, the Russian military controlled thousands of nuclear missiles; the country was both feared and respected. After 1991, the Russian people were jolted by the shift from a one-party political system to a relatively democratic one. Fifteen years after those two shocks, more than 66 percent of Russians resented the loss of the Soviet Union.
But those memories have faded, the economy is stronger - and Russians want more. More power. More reach.
Nobody embodies the new Russia more than President Vladimir Putin. The one thing that he doesn't want is a lesson in democracy from the United States government, which, as he likes to remind people when he is criticized by human-rights groups, invaded Iraq for no good reason more than a decade ago; keeps dozens of enemy combatants in Guantanamo without filing charges against them; and has secretly collected phone and email records from millions of people around the world.
So while some super-rich Russians are enjoying their prosperity, Putin is taking bows on the world stage, basking in the attention he has been receiving and invoking some nostalgia for the Soviet era. The Winter Olympics in Sochi were a big success this year, and Russian officials are already preparing to host the World Cup in 2018.
But Putin has taken the nostalgia for a bygone era a few steps too far. First, he made sure that any actions against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria were blocked in the United Nations Security Council last year, and then this year his military invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Both situations have led to dismal diplomatic relations with the United States and its NATO allies in the West.
Nations that wish to challenge Putin have few options. Russia's 12,000 nuclear warheads rule out the possibility of military intervention, even when the country threatens one of its neighbors and rolls tanks up to its borders. The only real option available to President Barack Obama and the other leaders of Western nations is to impose economic sanctions - moves that would isolate Russia in the hopes that Putin will come to his senses. But, as Obama recently explained at the recent G7 meeting in The Hague, Putin's bravado comes "not out of strength, but out of weakness."
I agree. Putin knows that the Russian empire's days are past. While he is busy showing off his military prowess, the Russians who are truly conquering the world are those with purchasing power, and they're taking over one ruble at a time.
This column is provided to Fusion courtesy of The New York Times Syndicate.
Jorge Ramos is one of the most influential journalists in news today. He's been dubbed the Walter Cronkite of Hispanic media — a title he's earned by taking on people in power over signature concerns like immigration, gun control and equality. Now, on Fusion, he brings that unique, raw and authentic sensibility to an English-speaking audience. "America with Jorge Ramos," airs weekly on Tuesday on Fusion at 10 p.m. EST/7 p.m. PT.