Friday, August 15, 2008

U.S.-Russia Tensions Evoke Cold War Imagery

Various commentators have evoked the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry to characterize the heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow over Russia's invasion of Georgia.

I commented on the issue in my previous essay, "
The Neocons, Russia, and the Soviet Union," where I took issue with the left's attack on neoconservatives for allegedly provoking a a new "Cold War."

It turns out, however, that the mainstream media's picked up on the meme. This morning's Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article entitled, "
U.S.-Russia Tensions Heighten Over Georgia Conflict":

With Russia still defying U.S. demands to pull its troops from Georgia, the short, one-sided fight over two small mountain provinces widened Thursday into the sharpest exchanges yet between Washington and Moscow, threatening to unravel the post-Cold War consensus between them.

As Washington dispatched humanitarian relief, but no military aid, to its Georgian allies, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that unless Russian forces relented from their incursion into Georgia, "the U.S.-Russian relationship could be adversely affected for years to come."
Saturday's New York Times has also joined the chorus:

“The cold war is over,” President Bush declared Friday, but a new era of enmity between the United States and Russia has emerged nevertheless. It may not be as tense as the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union, for now, but it could become as strained.

Russia’s military offensive into Georgia has shattered, perhaps irrevocably, the strategy of three successive presidential administrations to coax Russia into alliance with the West and integration into its institutions.

From Russia’s point of view, those efforts were never truly sincere or respectful of its own legitimate political and security interests. Those interests, it is now clear, are at odds with those of Europe and the United States.

As much as Mr. Bush has argued that the old characterizations of the cold war are no longer germane, he drew a new line at the White House on Friday morning between countries free and not free, and bluntly put Russia on the other side of it.

“With its actions in recent days Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world,” Mr. Bush said in his fourth stern statement on the conflict in five days, and the strongest to date. “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.”

Tensions are manifest already, and both sides have done their part to inflame them. The flare-up over an obscure territorial dispute in the Caucasus, one barely known to most Americans, has set off a series of tectonic shifts.

The United Nations Security Council has reverted to a cold-war-like stalemate, with American and Russian vetoes blocking meaningful action over Georgia and other issues. While the United States and Russia will continue to negotiate out of necessity, as the old superpowers did, cooperation and collaboration — however limited in the past few years — now appear even more remote over such issues as Iran’s nuclear program.

The Russian offensive — the first outside its territory since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — has crystallized a realignment already taking place in Central and Eastern Europe, where the new members of NATO and the European Union have warned of the threat posed by a resurgent Russia. And it is already forcing a reassessment of American strategy toward Russia, as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said on Thursday.

The United States and Poland, which spent months negotiating the basing of American antimissile interceptors on its territory, quickly completed the deal in the wake of Russia’s offensive. The administration dropped its opposition to sending Patriot missiles, which would defend the Polish site in case of any attack — presumably from Russia.
Poland's acceptance of the missile interceptor base triggered a bellicose response from Moscow, with Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn saying the U.S. deployment of missile defenses at the Russian perimeter marks a provocative esclation of tensions, threatening a Russian strike against the facilities.

This language is certainly reminiscent of earlier periods of U.S.-Soviet hostility, although a lot has changed in the nearly 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall: Russia no longer controls the East Bloc alliance. Moscow has been accepted into international institutions such as the G-8 grouping of leading economic powers. And the driving ideology of all-encompassing Marxist-Leninist global expansion no longer finds its home in the Kremlin.

While a new Cold War is unlikely, the ongoing crisis in the Caucasus does herald a return to multipolar military competition in the inter-state system, with Moscow's actions this last week reviving legitimate historical analogies
to Russia's history of imperialist domination of the near abroad in Eastern Europe and South Asia.

The stakes are certainly high, for continued advances of Russian capabilities beyond Georgia could impinge on American assets and interests to the Persian Gulf region and beyond. But until we see some formation of contrasting alliance blocs with rigid commitments to the two major poles of a renewed bipolar system of world power, talk of a new "Cold War" is premature.