Following Putin's cue, Russian political and military leaders have unleashed a steady stream of uncompromising rhetoric in the days since the Munich conference.
Of them, the most serious was the Kremlin's threat to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and target missile-defense facilities that the United States is proposing to base in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Washington's response has been firm but formally conciliatory. Plans for the missile-defense bases remain unchanged, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the facilities are not intended for use against Russia, and that he does not understand Moscow's concerns.
U.S. President George W. Bush also dispatched his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, to Brussels and Berlin this week for talks with NATO and Russian leadership. Hadley, currently in Moscow, told Russian Security Council chief Igor Ivanov that Washington is eager to talk through its problems with the Kremlin.
At the same time, a U.S. congressional delegation -- led by Tom Lantos (Democrat, California), the chairman of the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives -- this week extended its own olive branch. The representatives urged the U.S. government to lift the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which restricts trade relations with Russia and has been one of the main roadblocks to Moscow's entry into the World Trade Organization.
Back in Europe, meanwhile, the standoff continues. The Czechs and the Poles have expressed willingness to host the U.S. missile-defense facilities. Germany, perhaps sensitive to its fuel-dependent ties with Russia, has issued a warning note, with Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung expressing concern that the project has the power to "undermine stability and split Europe."
Is Russia intentionally pitting "old" Europe against "new" Europe in hopes of driving a wedge between NATO and EU members?
If so, it's not a new tactic. In 1983, the Soviet Union successfully encouraged antiwar protests throughout Europe after the United States deployed Pershing missiles in West Germany. The KGB launched a propaganda campaign that effectively persuaded many Europeans that the U.S. Pershings would force Soviet missiles to target Europe.
Putin, a young KGB officer at the time, had ample opportunity to observe the strategy at work.
This time around, Russia's threat to target the U.S. missile-defense bases proposed for the Czech Republic and Poland may be a bluff. Even if Russia makes good on its threat to withdraw from the INF treaty, it will take many years, and many rubles, before it can resume production of the short- and medium-range missiles needed to conduct such a strike.
Still, sentiment against the INF is running high. Lieutenant General Gennady Yevstafiyev, who in the 1990s headed the arms-control department of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, told the pro-Kremlin website km.ru that Russia no longer needs the INF.
Yevstafiyev complained that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who signed the treaty with then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, had made too many concessions to the United States.
"The missiles that we had before the signature of the INF treaty are the most efficient thing for fighting against the objects now being created by the Americans," Yevstaviyev said.
Russian officials have also suggested that they are prepared to withdraw from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE), which was intended to enhance arms control in post-Cold War Europe.
The CFE, concluded in 1990 by the 22 members of NATO and the now-defunct Warsaw Pact, was updated in 1999 to reflect a "new balance" of forces and geopolitical reality in Europe.
Russia signed and ratified the treaty, but NATO members have refused to follow suit until Moscow withdraws all its military bases from former Soviet republics like Georgia and Moldova.
But now, officials like Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov say the CFE has no relevance now that most of the former Warsaw Pact states have joined NATO. Yevstafiyev, for his part, says the "new balance" has already been "broken."
History Repeating Itself?
If Russia in fact withdraws from the INF and CFE treaties, the world may move closer to a condition that could be termed "Cold War Lite." Russian production of a new generation of intermediate-range missiles that could reach Europe in 10 minutes could stimulate a new arms race. Freedom from CFE military restrictions could allow Moscow to build up troop presence in "frozen" regions like Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.
But is this what Russia wants? The answer is probably no. Russia is simply not ready to embark on a new confrontation with the West. Russia's defense budget is still a fraction of that of the United States, and despite its recent economic progress, it was only in December 2006 that the country finally reached the level of industrial production it last held in 1990.
Furthermore, unlike the Cold War era, Russia has neither allies in Europe nor irreconcilable ideological differences with the West. Instead of Cold War Lite, Russia may simply be thirsting for an opportunity to show off its rising geopolitical and economic ambitions. With the U.S. preoccupied with Iraq and Iran, and Europe eager for trouble-free energy imports, the Kremlin might think it is a good time to ratchet up the rhetoric.
Russia's advanced S-300 air-defense system (epa file photo)
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