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Power politics: Cold War Two

London Independent | April 15, 2007
Rupert Cornwell

As energy-rich Russia grows ever more confident, accusing the US of flouting international law, and Washington moves to deploy an anti-missile system on Moscow's doorstep, you could be forgiven for believing that we're back to the bad old days of Soviet-US confrontation .

Take a Russian leader who accuses the US of flouting international law and threatens a new arms race. Add an American President who accuses Moscow of bullying its neighbours and who wants to deploy an anti-missile system on the outer marches of the old Soviet empire to protect them. Stir in an increasingly autocratic Kremlin that seeks to eliminate (perhaps even physically) its enemies, be they at home or in exile abroad.

A bare couple of decades ago, such ingredients added up to the old, real Cold War. History never repeats itself, Mark Twain famously remarked; at best it rhymes. Right now, however, the rhyming is becoming quite deafening.

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The Soviet Union may be no more, and Russia no longer a superpower. But study the mix of circumstances, and a casual historian could be forgiven for believing a new Cold War is upon us.

For all the above elements are in place today, as they were back in the 1970s and early 1980s. "The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way," thunders the master of the Kremlin, "and as a result, no one feels safe... such a policy stimulates an arms race." The speaker could have been Leonid Brezhnev a generation ago. In fact, it was Vladimir Putin, addressing a European security conference in Munich in February.

Back in those same early 1980s, Ronald Reagan sketched out his "Star Wars" vision of a strategic defence system to destroy incoming Soviet missiles. Today, the US is about to install an anti-missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Moscow denounces as the first step towards an American encirclement, aimed at rendering its own nuclear arsenal useless.

Domestically, too, Mr Putin's Russia is rekindling memories of the old repressive Soviet Union. These days, it is true, opposition is permitted - but not much. Criticise too harshly, and you risk sharing the fate of the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow by persons unknown, or of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent and Putin critic who was poisoned by polonium in London last year, in equally mysterious and suspicious circumstances.

Despite appearances, however, this is not a return to the past. The real Cold War ended in the storm-tossed seas off Malta in December 1989 - as this correspondent, who was there and not noted for his sea legs, uncomfortably and vividly remembers.

The Soviet Union staggered on for two more years, but at their summit aboard the cruise liner Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Gorbachev and the father of the current President Bush buried the hatchet. From that moment, the two countries no longer regarded each other as enemies - as Gennady Gerasimov, the suave Kremlin spokesman of the day, put it in a rhyme that Twain would have enjoyed: "From Yalta to Malta."

Almost 18 years later, that remains the case. "This isn't the first time since the end of the Cold War that that there's been talk of a new one," says Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state and President Bill Clinton's point man for dealings with Russia. "Back in 1995, Boris Yeltsin talked of a 'cold peace'. What I see now is not a return to the old difficulties, but the exacerbation of new ones."

These new difficulties fall far short of war. In war, whether hot or cold, each side seeks victory. Right now Russia and the US glare icily at each other, but neither is seeking the elimination of the other. No longer do they offer rival ideological models; no longer is Europe, the prime battleground of the real Cold War, divided into two opposing, heavily armed military blocs.

True, Russia - not al-Qa'ida, Osama bin Laden or even China - remains the one state capable of wiping the US off the face of the Earth. But it has neither the intention nor the incentive to do so. In the bad old days, none knew better than Moscow's intelligence services the weaknesses of the Soviet Union and the limits to its power. That applies to the new Russia under Mr Putin, an old KGB hand himself.

Beyond argument, relations have gone from bad to worse since 2001, when this President Bush proclaimed after his first meeting with Mr Putin that he had been able to "get a sense of his soul" and the 9/11 attacks made Moscow and Washington allies in the war on radical Islamist terror. Then came the unilateral US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, cornerstone of every superpower arms agreement since 1972, followed by the US-led war on Iraq that Russia, like "Old Europe", so vehemently opposed.

Trampling on Russian sensibilities, the US pushed strongly to have the three Baltic states, former constituent republics of the Soviet Union, admitted to Nato in 2004. As Mr Putin tightened his domestic grip, Washington handed out ever more frequent lectures about the "democracy deficit" in Russia. Then came the plans to install the missile shield in two former Warsaw Pact states - provoking Mr Putin's tirade in Munich against "a world in which there is one master, one sovereign, with a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. Who likes this? Who is happy about this?" Most certainly not Russia.

But Mr Putin's complaints are not a return to specifically Soviet, Cold War attitudes. They are the refrain of Russia's rulers throughout the ages, be they tsars, general secretaries or elected presidents. This is the Russia eternally paranoid about encroachment from the West, the Russia that was invaded by Napoleon in 1812 and by Hitler in 1941, the Russia that believes that control of the countries that border it, especially to the west, is essential for its own security.

To outsiders - not to mention those neighbours Moscow wants to push around - such assertiveness comes across as bullying aggression. But that is not how Russia sees it. Even the most revanchist accept that the outer ring of old Eastern Europe is gone, probably for good. But Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania belong to the "near abroad", the inner ring of non-Russian republics that were actually part of the Soviet Union. Their accession to Nato was thus seen as the West pushing Russia's back against the wall.

The difference now is that Russia can push back. A decade ago, under the chaotic Mr Yeltsin, the country almost fell apart. It could bluster, but invariably, and humiliatingly, it had to give in. No longer. Thanks to its vast energy riches, today's Russia is solvent, self-confident and awash in the commodities everyone craves. Mr Putin's political methods may not be pretty, but Russia once again has a strong central state that demands respect.

Though the Soviet Union and the former Communist Europe are gone, Russia can legitimately claim to be a great power. But, Mr Talbott asks: "What do they mean by great power? They want to be part of the globalised world. Yet they want the rest of the world to accept them on Russian terms. That can't be the end of the conversation. They have to accept the rules of the international community, the rule of law and so on." Which, of course, is exactly Mr Putin's complaint against the US.

In that sense we are back to the Cold War, when each side used double standards. Today, the US condemns Russia for seeking to meddle in the affairs of its neighbours, even as it meddles in Ukraine and Georgia. Russia answers in similar vein, even as it opens and shuts the oil and gas taps to show who's boss. The White House says Russia must let events in Ukraine and elsewhere take their course - but would it sit idly by, were Moscow to actively seek pro-Russian governments in Mexico or Canada?

The row over the anti-missile shield should be seen in this context. Both sides' arguments make sense, up to a point. Russia is right to point out that neither Iran nor North Korea, the "rogue states" Washington claims are the reason for the shield, is going to launch an attack on Western Europe, nor is an Iranian long-range threat against the US likely for a decade at least. So why the rush?

The US can equally argue that it is ludicrous for Moscow to claim that this tiny deployment - an initial 10 interceptors in Poland and a hi-tech radar system in the Czech Republic - could nullify the thousands of warheads in Russia's arsenal.

Mr Talbott himself calls the proposal "a big mistake". Not only is it unclear if the scheme would work ("Basically, it's the ghost of 'Star Wars' clunking around in heavy chains"); it also puts further strain on an already wobbly arms control system.

"A unilateral anti-missile project would fundamentally alter the continent's strategic landscape" and be "an affront to all Europeans", Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, told the FT last week. Moscow's game could not be clearer. It has noted the differences between Europe and the US, and seeks to drive the wedge deeper. But that's not war, not even a cold one. It's just a cold shower of reality.

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