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Page last updated at 17:30 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 18:30 UK

Should we be Scared of Russia?

Panorama reporter Mark Franchetti investigates the growing gulf between Russia and the West

The sight in August of old people and children cramming onto tractors and into carts to flee from Russian tanks has rekindled notions of Russia as aggressor and oppressor.

The short war between Russia and Georgia began when Georgia invaded its Moscow-backed breakaway republic of South Ossetia last summer. Russian troops stationed there were killed and Russia retaliated by invading Georgia.

Russian troops in Georgia
Russia's conflict with Georgia was widely condemned in the West

Hundreds of deaths and widespread destruction followed and relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to levels not seen since the Cold War.

From the West's point of view, this looked like Russia flexing its muscles in Georgia, that the Kremlin is slipping back into its old expansionist ways, and is on the march again.

Georgia was just the beginning, according to some in the West. Indeed, Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has warned of the threat of a new Cold War.

But Russia views everything entirely differently.

Russia's new President, Dmitry Medvedev, says he does not want a new Cold War, but is not afraid of one either.

Russian psyche

So how concerned should we be? Could the current tensions really degenerate into a new Cold War or even violent confrontation?

In Panorama: Should we be scared of Russia? Sunday Times Moscow correspondent Mark Franchetti tries to answer those questions.

Russia's Black Sea Fleet

The key to understanding whether the former superpower really is a threat is understanding how its inhabitants see themselves now, years on from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Should we be Scared of Russia? Franchetti seeks to uncover the current Russian mood -speaking to people living in the country's vibrant capital of Moscow, to its rural poor, and to ethnic Russians who, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, find themselves living outside of the motherland.

And in doing finds that far from seeing themselves as aggressors, the majority of Russians say that in fact it is Russia which is under attack.

Nato flashpoint

Fuelling the idea of a Russia under siege is the belief that the West is trying to encircle the country, particularly through US plans for a European-based missile defence shield and the eastward expansion of Nato, which has seen both Georgia and Ukraine promised membership.

Panorama travels to a flashpoint of Russian concern over Nato's eastward shift, the Crimean port city of Sevastopol - a little piece of Russia, sitting on the Ukrainian coast.

Sergei Ivanov (left) and Mark Franchetti
Mr Ivanov says Westerners do not think of Russia as fully European

Despite being in Ukraine, Sevastopol is still home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet and has been so for more than 200 years. But there is a problem - Russia only leases its base from the Ukrainian government and the lease runs out in 2017.

Our reporter sees first-hand the tensions in the city, where the majority of the population view themselves as Russia - even if they lack Russian citizenship - and talks to Russian nationalists who say they will fight to keep the fleet in Crimea and Ukraine out of Nato.

In Russia itself, Franchetti examines the changing face of Moscow, which has been transformed from a city of Soviet austerity to a place something more akin to Dallas - where Moscow's beautiful people go to see and be seen at glamorous parties, such as the one to celebrate the first Russian edition of the society magazine Tatler, to which Panorama was invited.

But even there, where the guests are educated, sophisticated and travel abroad, people complain that the West doesn't understand Russia, a feeling which our reporter discovers goes all the way up to the highest echelons of power.

'Dignity returned'

Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov - a close associate of the man who is still the most powerful in Russia, Vladimir Putin - tells the programme that the West does not believe that Russia is a European country, sharing European moral, historic, religious values, sharing market economy principles:

"If we disagree on this or that point, they say: 'Oh, Russia is a special country, it is still not European, it is an Asian country, we should not trust Russia'," Mr Ivanov says.

And, as our reporter finds, nowhere is the gap of misunderstanding between Russia and the West more apparent than in their opposing views of president-turned-prime-minister Mr Putin.

In the West, Mr Putin is vilified as a thuggish bully, surrounded by a cadre of fellow ex-KGB agents who, like him, have little concern for human rights.

But, as Panorama finds, despite crushing opposition voices, cancelling regional elections and clamping down on the media, a staggering 90% of Russians approve of his leadership according to recent polls.

In fact, most Russians wanted Mr Putin to change the constitution to stay on for a third term as president.

According to Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov, a close friend of Mr Putin, the strongman's appeal lies in the fact that he has "given Russia her dignity back".

Panorama: Should we be Scared of Russia? will be on BBC One on Monday 20 October at 8.30pm

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