Last Friday and Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
and Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Moscow. They met with
President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and First
Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov, for what are known as the "2 +
2 talks." These were agreed upon in Kennebunkport, Maine, between
Presidents George W. Bush and Mr. Putin. The Moscow talks did not
Before the talks started, Mr. Putin made Miss Rice and Mr. Gates wait for him for 40 minutes - a deliberate diplomatic slight. Greeting the two senior U.S. Cabinet members in front of TV cameras, Mr. Putin came out adamantly against deployment of the U.S. component of the global ballistic missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The one thing on which I would like to focus attention is that in the process of these difficult negotiations we hope that you will not force through previous agreements with eastern European countries," the ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Mr. Putin as saying.
As Miss Rice and Mr. Gates were visiting Moscow, the Russian capital was in the midst of two overlapping political games: the overt Duma and presidential election cycle of December 2007-March 2008, and the mostly covert power struggle between competing pro-Putin factions over the architecture of the next Russian regime.
In it, competing factions such as the Russian Federal Security Service and the Anti-Narcotics Committee - both headed by Mr. Putin's loyalists - are lobbing op-eds at each other, but, more significantly, arresting each other's senior officers and generals.
At stake is not just power, but control of tens of billions of dollars in property and state-owned enterprises, including oil, gas, other commodities, weapons, shipping, autos and aerospace industries.
Every move the Putin administration makes today is dictated by the desire to shape Russia's future internal power structure and to set the course for the country's foreign and security affairs in general, and its relationship with the United States in particular for years to come.
Keeping the relationship with Washington on the verge of a crisis and inventing an imaginary "American enemy" is creating much needed legitimacy for the current Russian leadership, which now has only Mr. Putin's personal popularity as its political base.
The image of Russia surrounded by enemies is absolutely necessary for today's Russian ruling class of senior secret police officers, as it positions them in the eyes of the people as the saviors and defenders of Mother Russia.
This approach has venerable roots in Russian history, hearkening back to the Romanov police state of the 19th and early 20th centuries or even Ivan the Terrible's rule of the late 16th century.
By trying to prevent bilateral security arrangements between the United States and Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia is reasserting its veto power in its former Eastern European empire. "We are fighting American imperialism," Russian security expert Alexander Pikayev told this author during a BBC debate on Friday.
Mr. Putin has threatened to pull Russia out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by President Ronald Reagan and former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, that eliminated the Russian SS-20 missiles and U.S. Pershing-2 missiles deployed in Europe.
This chilling rhetoric has quickly acquired specific military target sets. Before the June G-8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, Mr. Putin issued an unprecedented threat to retarget Russia's nuclear missiles at Europe in response to potential future deployment of missile defenses there.
Russia has also threatened to pull out of the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits its troop levels between the Baltic and the Black Seas. Russia claims NATO members do not abide by or did not ratify the CFE Treaty. Russia may also be reluctant to extend the START-2 and the accompanying Moscow Treaty past 2009, the two agreements which limit strategic nuclear weapons .
By destroying the European security treaties regime, Mr. Putin is returning to the Soviet strategic posture that predated the Reagan-Gorbachev era in which the Cold War was ended. He also undoes the achievements of U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Mr. Yeltsin's own predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
But Russian ambitions go beyond missiles. At the St. Petersburg Economic Summit in June, Mr. Putin suddenly called for revising the global economic architecture, including the World Trade Organization (WTO). This unprecedented initiative reflects Moscow's current anti-status quo mindset.
The deteriorating trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations may allow the Kremlin to retaliate further. Russia - and possibly China - could bolster Iran's stalling tactics. The U.S.-European coalition has demanded, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. Security Council, intrusive verification and inspections of Iran's sprawling nuclear complex.
Russia may enable the Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapons and the platforms to deliver them, with far-reaching destabilizing consequences for Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Sunni-Shia relations and vital U.S. interests in the region as well as the security, including the survival, of Israel. The crisis with Russia may also lead to more Russian arms supplies to Syria, another principal Middle East adversary of the United States.
Finally, the Moscow fiasco occurred before the Annapolis conference on the Middle East peace, which will attempt to find a solution to the century-old conflict between Arabs and Israelis. Russia, a member of the Quartet, is a key player in the Middle East.
The United States is also concerned about destabilizing Russian arms sales to Iran and Syria. The Russians know how to play well the game of spoiler.
The old Soviet obsession - that Russia's fate, its cosmic goal, is to fight "American imperialism" - remains undiluted, even 15 years after the collapse of communism. This is tragic - for Russia, Europe and the world.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and senior adviser to the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.
First appeared in the Washington Times