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A protest in California against anti-gay laws recently signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)Ringo H.W. Chiu/The Associated Press

Unvarnished honesty and boldness are increasingly rare commodities in today's politics, particularly when it comes to the world stage. So Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to be commended for denouncing Russia's treatment of gays in the strongest possible terms.

Mr. Baird is absolutely right; a Russian law enacted in June that is essentially a crackdown on homosexuality is indeed hateful and mean-spirited. It's also true, as he asserts, that such laws and the attitudes that underpin them beget intolerance, hate and, if unchecked, violence. Consequently, Canadians should be encouraged by their government's vocal stance in defence of the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities in other countries.

Moscow's hardline stance on gay rights and other recent developments invites the question: What is the Russian government up to? As the country prepares to bask in the spotlight at the Sochi Winter Olympics in less than seven months, the authorities have made a series of gestures that are redolent of the country's totalitarian past and carry a vague Cold War whiff.

Last week Vitaly Mutko, the Sports Minister, made not-so-veiled threats against Olympic athletes who engage in "homosexual propaganda" – whatever that is – at the 2014 Games, suggesting they will be "brought to responsibility."

Then the Kremlin made a sharp about-face in the case of American intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, who had been camping out in Sheremetyevo Airport for five weeks. President Vladimir Putin had made it clear after Mr. Snowden arrived in Moscow that he would not be granted asylum if he kept thumbing his nose at his home country and damaged the United States' interests with further exposés of American intelligence activities and programs.

Yet Mr. Snowden was suddenly granted a year's stay on the very day the Guardian newspaper published new revelations from the cache of records he took along when he walked away from his job as an intelligence contractor. The White House was not amused, and made it known that President Barack Obama might not have time after all to attend a proposed one-on-one summit with Mr. Putin, before next month's G20 meeting in St. Petersburg.

Hawks in the U.S. Congress are urging that NATO should be pressed to step up a proposed anti-missile shield in Europe and expand the alliance to include Georgia, a former Soviet republic.

Then there's Russia's continuing obduracy in supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in what has become an increasingly bloody civil war. And Mr. Putin and his allies have ruthlessly persecuted their critics and dissenters; Mr. Snowden has chosen a curious destination for a self-styled defender of free speech.

For all the talk about the geopolitical importance of China and the emerging economic might of countries like India and Brazil, it is worth remembering other serious global players who must still be reckoned with.

To judge from the past few weeks and months, the old bear is alive and well.