The cold shower Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed on the United States at the international security conference in Munich should not have come as a surprise. After all, Mr. Putin himself and a host of other senior spokesmen, including his defense minister and one of the official heirs-apparent Sergey Ivanov and military Chief of Staff Gen. Yuri Baluevsky have said as much in the past.
The list of complaints Mr. Putin heaped against the United States is long. The main beef is that the American "hyperpower" is pursuing its unilateral foreign, defense, cultural and economic policy, disregarding international law and ignoring the U.N. (where Russia has a veto power). French President Jacques Chirac would be proud. However, Russia takes its opposition much further.
Mr. Putin accused the U.S. of expanding NATO to Russian borders and deploying "5,000 bayonets" each in forward bases in Romania and Bulgaria. He blasted the future U.S. missile defense bases in Central Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic. Mr. Putin said the missile defenses aim to neutralize Russian retaliatory nuclear strike capability -- a destabilizing factor in Russia's nuclear playbook.
He further accused Washington of not meeting its obligations on nuclear disarmament treaties and trying to hide hundreds of nuclear weapons in warehouses, "under the blanket and under the pillow."
In a rhetorical overkill, Mr. Putin blamed U.S. policies for the failure of nuclear nonproliferation, implying justification for North Korean and Iranian efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Putin lambasted NATO members which refuse to ratify Conventional Forces Europe (CFE) Treaty; criticized the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for democracy promotion and criticisms of Russia's track records in human rights.
Many Russian and Western experts perceive Mr. Putin's speech as a declaration of a new Cold War. The outburst has a number of domestic and international "drivers," which add up to a picture of Russia craving strategic parity with the United States and defining its national identity in opposition to the West.
Domestically, several years of increasingly loud anti-American and anti-Western propaganda in pro-government and nationalist media have nurtured a generation of Russians who are ethnocentric, and reject liberal values. Sixty percent in the recent poll supported the slogan "Russia for Russians." Sustained nationalist and anti-American brainwashing bridged the gap between the Soviet superpower chauvinism and the new Russian assertiveness.
An "America-as-the-enemy" construct bolsters legitimacy of the current regime, headed largely by former KGB officers, as the defender of Mother Russia. It rejects fully integrating Russia into the global economic and political community, as the other official "heir-apparent" Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev suggested in his January 2007 speech at the Davos World Economic Forum.
Russia also plans to spend $189 billion in the next five years for a rapid military modernization. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has announced the program on Feb. 8, which includes new nuclear submarines; aircraft carriers; a fleet of supersonic strategic TU-160 bombers; and development of the fifth generation fighter jet. Clearly, such a program aims at balancing off the US military power, not fighting terrorists in the Caucasus Mountains. It needs U.S. as "glavny protivnik" the principal adversary.
Russia is also trying to corner weapons sales markets, especially those of rogue and semi-rogue states. Russia is the largest arms supplier to China and Iran; it signed a $3 billion arms deal with Hugo Chavez's Venezuela over U.S. objections; and is courting Middle Eastern buyers.
Russia is happy to play into the Arab and Muslim street's anti-Americanism and to signal that the U.S., which faces severe difficulties in Iraq, does not have exclusive strategic dominance in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East. Moscow is back -- with vengeance -- in the most important energy depot of the world. It is no accident that the speech was delivered on the eve of Mr. Putin's historic visit to Saudi Arabia, the first for any Russian or Soviet leader, and to Qatar and Jordan, America's allies in the Middle East.
The timing of Mr. Putin's speech couldn't be worse from Washington's perspective. With Iraq in limbo, and Iran remaining truculent, the chances for Russian cooperation in taming Tehran's nuclear ambitions are dwindling. Russia was recalcitrant in providing necessary pressure on Iran during the December 2006 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737 negotiations, and may refuse to do so when UNSC revisits the Iranian dossier in a few weeks.
Russia is putting not just a military might behind its rhetoric, but also an economic muscle: Mr. Putin publicly approved of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's idea of creating a natural gas OPEC-style cartel. Whether such a coalition materializes, and whether it may translate itself into a military alliance, remains to be seen.
The image of a new Cold War may be too simplistic to describe the emerging global world architecture. Clearly, the postcommunist honeymoon is over, dead and buried. A realistic reassessment of the relationship is in order.
The United States should avoid a rhetorical confrontation with Moscow. Deeds, not words, are necessary to send a message to the Kremlin that the U.S. and its allies will not by bullied but that Washington is not interested in a renewed hostility.
The United States should continue cooperation with Russia on issues and interests of mutual concern, such as energy, nonproliferation and space.
It is time to build bridges to potential Russian allies, to prevent the emergence of anti-American blocs. U.S. should also appeal to its traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere to recognize the changing geo-strategic balance in the Eastern hemisphere, to boost mutual defenses, to coordinate energy policy and cooperate on energy security among the consumers.
This is hardly the end of history, but rather continuation of an old and tasking game.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of "Kazakhstan: Energy Cooperation with Russia -Oil, Gas and Beyond" (BMG Publishers, London, 2006).
First appeared in The Washington Times