Accessibility links

Russia: Cold War Lite

  • Brian Whitmore --> U.S. President George W. Bush (left) and Putin at the G8 summit in June (AFP) This was the year Vladimir Putin implicitly compared the United States to the Third Reich. It was the year Moscow threatened to target its missiles at Europe and was accused of carrying out a cyber-attack on a NATO member. It was the year Russia pulled out of a key arms-control treaty and resumed strategic-bomber patrols.

And it was the year that -- despite the occasional diplomatic language to the contrary -- the last remnants of the vaunted strategic partnership between Russia and the West appeared headed for the dustbin of history.

From Russia's recent withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, to the standoff between Washington and Moscow over missile defense, to Western allegations that the Kremlin is bullying its neighbors, many analysts say 2007 marked a new low in Russia's post-Soviet relations with the West. And many experts expect things to get even worse.

"I think 2007 was the chilliest year in relations between Russia and the West since 1991. In fact, probably since the days of the late Soviet Union. Not only did it mark a new low, but the trajectory is very ominous," says Edward Lucas, deputy international editor of the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the forthcoming book, "The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West."

Lucas describes the emerging conflict between Russia and the West -- particularly the struggle for hearts, minds, and influence in former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine -- as a "Cold War" -- albeit one fought with "soft power."

Other Kremlin-watchers, however, are reluctant to use such a historically loaded term, which conjures images of a global nuclear standoffs, duck-and-cover drills, and fallout shelters.

"I am still hesitant to use the term 'Cold War,'" says Steven Pifer, a Russia expert formerly with the U.S. State Department who is now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "To my mind, Cold War conjures up a competition that has a military-security component, a political component, an economic component, an ideological component. It is really across the board. And I don't think we're at that point."

The Bear Is Back

Cold War or not, Russia has certainly been attempting to lay the foundations for an alternative security architecture to compete with the West. In the past year, Moscow has tried to breathe life into security organizations bringing together ex-Soviet states like the Collective Security Cooperation Organization, and sought a closer military alliance with China via the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement.

What we are seeing, according to some analysts, is a return to some degree to the great-power politics and shifting alliances that marked earlier centuries.

"I think [today's situation] resembles the great-power politics that existed before the Cold War and mostly in the 19th century, when great powers had their interests and the conflict of convergence of those interests determined the workings of international politics," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the influential Moscow-based journal "Russia In Global Affairs."

So what is at the heart of this clash? Part of it is simply that Russia, flush with energy wealth, has become much stronger and is eager to flex its newfound muscles. Part of it is a reaction to what the Kremlin and many Russians view as the humiliation the country endured in the 1990s -- when Moscow was dependent on Western loans and aid.

"After decades of slumbering underachievement, the Bear is back," wrote the U.S. newsweekly "Time" magazine in a profile naming Putin its "Person of the Year" for 2007.

But a big part is explained by a conscious decision on the part of the current Kremlin leadership that it was no longer interested in adhering to Western criteria of democracy, human rights, and international behavior.

"Russia decided that it didn't need integration [with the West] and that, most importantly, the West didn't want it," Lukyanov says. "This means that [Russia] need to strengthen our independent position. And everything that has happened since then is a continuation of that line."

Or, as "Time" put it, Putin "wants a seat at the table on big international issues but also demands "free rein inside Russia" and the right "to exert influence over Russia's former Soviet neighbors." Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, Putin has abandoned the "calculation that Russia's future requires broad acceptance on the West's terms."

Long Downward Trend

The downward trend in Russia's relations with the West has been evident for several years. Moscow was angry about what it perceived as American and European meddling in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution and Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Many in the Russian elite feared a similar democratic revolution in their country, leading to a rollback on democratic freedoms that caused relations with the West to deteriorate farther.

When Russia began using its oil and gas wealth to pressure Ukraine and other neighbors seeking to integrate with the West, it touched off a low-intensity struggle to control energy routes to Europe.

And the killings of two Kremlin critics at the end of 2006 -- the October assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow in and the poisoning death of former security official Aleksandr Litvinenko in London in November -- sent relations into a tailspin.

But Lukyanov says 2007 was indeed a turning point: "It was the first principled change that took place not only under Putin but in the whole period that an independent [post-Soviet] Russia has existed," he says.

The tone for 2007 was set in February when Putin, speaking at a security conference in Munich, accused the United States of seeking to impose its will on other states and establish a unipolar world.

A month later, Putin said Russia was considering suspending its participation in the 1990 CFE treaty -- a threat he followed through on signing a law doing so on November 30.

Also in March, Russia reacted furiously to Estonia's decision to move a Soviet-era monument to Red Army soldiers from central Tallinn. Western politicians say an ensuing cyber-attack on Estonian government websites and riots by ethnic Russians in the Estonian capital were orchestrated by the Kremlin.

In a May 9 speech, Putin -- in a barely veiled reference that elicited an angry U.S. reaction -- compared an unidentified global power that was striving to dominate the world to Nazi Germany.

Moscow and the United States were at odds all year over Washington's plans to deploy components of a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin threatened to target Russia's missiles at those two countries if the system was deployed.

The year was also marked by a series of conflicts between Russia and Georgia -- which is seeking to join NATO and the EU -- over the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Attention Deficit

Pifer says one underlying problem in Russia's relations with the West -- and particularly with the United States -- is that Moscow craves the attention it received as the centerpiece of international politics during the Cold War:

"The Russians like attention. But the problem that you have is that at the level of the president or the secretary of state or the national security adviser is that there are only so many hours in the day," Pifer says. "And when certainly the domestic requirements in Washington are driving you to remain so focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, there is only so much time you've got."

Nevertheless, as the "Time" selection of Putin as its Person of the Year suggests, Russia -- for better or worse -- has won some of the attention it craves. The question remains, what will they do with their newfound status in the coming years.

In an opinion essay published in the English-language daily "The Moscow Times" on December 19, Lukyanov offers a critique of Moscow's current posture and advise for the future. "The United States and its European allies could no longer afford to treat Russia with indifference. But after gaining the West's attention...Moscow found itself at a loss as to what it wanted to say. It lacked a well-defined and logical set of ideas and desires," Lukyanov writes.

"It is time to move away from the practice of denouncing various imperfections in the world order and toward making constructive, substantive suggestions. Strategic vision and solutions to problems are needed, not empty rhetoric," Lukyanov asserts. "Propagandistic retorts are not constructive."

The Next Phase Of U.S.-Russia Relations

Washington and Moscow remain locked in an uneasy limbo between strategic partnership and confrontation over Kosovo, Iran, and missile defense.

But with a Russian presidential election scheduled for March 2008, and a U.S. vote the following November, that balance could tip. Here's what some of the front-runners in the U.S. presidential race have to say about their future strategies in engaging or confronting Russia:

Arizona Senator John McCain (Republican) has suggested that Russia should be barred from the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrial nations because of its "diminishing political freedoms" and "efforts to bully democratic neighbors, such as Georgia." Of Russian President Vladimir Putin, McCain said: "This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions." Alluding to U.S. President George W. Bush's 2001 comment that he had "looked into Putin's soul," McCain said, "I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three things -- a K and a G and a B."

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney (Republican) has stressed the importance of Russia's cooperation in antiproliferation efforts. "They've got to be engaged in frank and open discussions about the serious and disturbing turn of events in their own country. But we also have to remain a partner with them on the issue of securing the vast amount of highly enriched nuclear material in their country."

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (Republican) has backed expanding NATO and shoring up relations with Eastern European democracies, naming Ukraine in particular as a "hedge" against Russia. "We should make it clear that America can speak softly and carry a big stick.... We want to continue to commercially engage Russia; at the same time, we should move as quickly as we can to build missile defense."

New York Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat) wrote in "Foreign Affairs" magazine that Putin has "suppressed many of the freedoms won after the fall of communism, created a new class of oligarchs, and interfered deeply in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics.... We must make clear that our ability to view Russia as a genuine partner depends on whether Russia chooses to strengthen democracy or return to authoritarianism and regional interference."

Illinois Senator Barack Obama (Democrat) has made curbing nuclear proliferation a key point of his foreign policy. "We know that Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn't shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure every one of its nuclear weapons and every cache of nuclear material is secured," Obama said. "One way we could strengthen this relationship is by thinking about the Russians as more of a partner and less of a subordinate" in nonproliferation efforts.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards (Democrat) has called for maintaining a strategic partnership with Russia because of its influence over issues of global security. As the co-author of an article published by the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations, Edwards writes, "it is in the U.S. national interest for Russia to be a part of the G8 and eventually other key institutions such as the World Trade Organization," but adds that Russia's inclusion must be justified by changes in policy.