The cold shower that Russian President Vladimir Putin unleashed
on the United States at the international security conference in
Munich last weekend should not have come as a surprise. After all,
Putin himself and a host of other senior spokesmen, including
Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov (one of the "official"
heirs-apparent) and military Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluevsky,
have said as much in the
The list of grievances that Putin lodged against the United
States and the West is long. The main complaint is that the
American "hyper power" is pursuing its own unilateral foreign,
defense, cultural and economic policy, disregarding international
law, and ignoring the U.N. (where Russia has a veto). French
President Jacques Chirac would be proud. However, Russia takes its
opposition much further.
Putin accused the U.S. of expanding NATO to Russia's borders and
deploying "five thousand bayonets" each in forward bases in Romania
and Bulgaria. He blasted the plans for U.S. missile defense bases
in Central Europe, possibly in Poland or the Czech Republic,
mocking the stated goal of such installations as defenses against
missile launches from Iran or North Korea. Putin clearly stated
that the missile defenses are aimed to neutralize Russian
retaliatory nuclear strike capability-a destabilizing factor in the
Russian 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
Adding to the rhetorical overkill, Putin blamed U.S. policies
for the failure of nuclear non-proliferation, implying
justification for North Korean and Iranian efforts to acquire
weapons of mass destruction.
Putin lambasted NATO members that refuse to ratify the
Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty; criticized the
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for
democracy promotion; warned against Kosovo's independence; and
rejected Western criticisms of Russia's track record in human
Putin waxed nostalgic about the bi-polar world in which the U.S.
and the USSR checked each other's ambition through a balance of
nuclear terror known as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). Many
Russian and Western experts perceive Putin's speech as a
declaration of a new Cold War.
Back to the Future?
Putin's speech 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.
While Russians enthusiastically embraced private business,
designer brands, and Costa-del-Sol Spanish vacations, they were
slow to internalize pluralistic values, support freedom of speech
and press, and defend human rights. The rule of law in Russia is a
far cry from Western standards.
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 ethno-centric, and
reject liberal values. Some 60 percent in a 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, fueled by massive oil revenues and nationalism.
The "America-as-the-enemy" construct bolsters the 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 is planning to spend $189 billion in the next five years
for a rapid military modernization. Announced on February 8 by
Defense Minister Ivanov, the program includes new nuclear
submarines, aircraft carriers, a fleet of TU-160 supersonic
strategic bombers, and development of a fifth-generation fighter
jet. Such a program is clearly aimed at balancing U.S. military
power, not fighting terrorists in the Caucasus mountains. It needs
the U.S. as "glavny protivnik"-the principal adversary.
Russia is also trying to corner the market in weapons sales,
especially to 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 is facing
severe difficulties in Iraq, does not exercise exclusive strategic
dominance in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East. Moscow is
back-with a vengeance-in the most important energy depot of the
world. It is no accident that the speech was delivered on the eve
of 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.
Where Are We Going From Here?
From Washington's perspective, the timing of Putin's speech
couldn' t be worse. With Iraq in limbo, and Iran remaining
truculent, the chances for Russian cooperation in taming Teheran' s
nuclear ambitions are dwindling. Russia was recalcitrant in
providing necessary pressure on Iran during the December 2006
negotiations on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1737, and may
refuse to do so when the Security Council revisits the Iranian
dossier in a few weeks.
Moreover, Putin is signaling that Russia is willing to be the
vanguard of the anti-American camp in Europe and the Middle East,
and from Caracas to Beijing. Russia is putting not just military
might behind its rhetoric, but economic muscle as well: Putin
publicly approved of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei'
s idea of creating an OPEC-style cartel for natural gas. Whether
such a coalition materializes, and whether it might translate
itself into a military alliance, remains to be seen.
What Should Washington Do?
The image of a new Cold War may be too simplistic to describe
the emerging global world architecture. Clearly, the post-communist
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 be bullied, but that
Washington is not interested in renewed hostility.
The U.S. should continue cooperation with Russia on matters of
mutual concern, such as energy, non-proliferation, and space.
It is also time to build bridges to potential Russian allies to
prevent the emergence of anti-American blocs. The 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 taxing game.
Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and
Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Sarah and
Douglas Allison Center of the Davis Institute for International
Studies at the Heritage Foundation