The Cold War Is Not On, but Russia Is Back

Posted in Russia | 04-Jan-08 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari

Russian President Vladimir Putin seen in the Moscow Kremlin late Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2007.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was surprisingly blunt and outspoken in his opposition to the U.S. proposal to station 10 missile interceptors in Poland and radar-tracking installations in the Czech Republic.

In a sarcastic and unexpected note, he stated, “Of course, we can some time in the future decide that some anti-missile defense should be established somewhere on the moon, but before we reach such an arrangement, we will lose an opportunity of fixing some particular arrangements between us.”

He also suggested that Russia would withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which barred short- and medium-range missiles from Europe, unless it were renegotiated and expanded to include other countries (presumably India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, who are manufacturing such missiles).

Both U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who were in attendance during a trip to Moscow, were caught off-guard.

The United States has maintained an ostensibly reasonable position that those defensive devices planned for Poland and the Czech Republic are aimed at deterring Iran against launching attacks on Europe. However, Russia has never accepted that explanation.

On the contrary, Moscow has considered the proposal to station these devices in neighboring states as one more step in a series of deft U.S. maneuvers to contain Russia and expand the NATO defensive umbrella closer to its borders.

Russia has been watching, infuriated, while a number of former members of the Warsaw Pact either have joined NATO or will do so in the future.

Russia, as the chief successor of the imploded Soviet Union, knows a lot about the nuances of nuclear deterrence. Moscow is convinced that, even if Iran were to emerge as a nuclear weapon power and obtain long-range ballistic missiles, the last thing it would do is attack any U.S. ally for fear of becoming a target of America’s awesome retaliatory response.

Thus, Moscow envisions all assurances from Washington — that it no longer views Russia as an enemy — as diplomatic gloss to hide America’s not-so-latent resolve to remain a superior military power.

Russia well remembers that the United States regarded the Soviet Union as its equal during the Cold War years only because it possessed a large nuclear arsenal. In the realm of economic power, the former Soviet Union remained quite weak and underdeveloped. That reality, more than anything, contributed to the eventual Soviet implosion.

As Russia envisages it, that reality remains intact today. As was the case in the Cold War years, the United States has maintained its status as a first-rate military and economic power.

A March report by the Project on Defense Alternatives, “Is the United States Spending Too Much on Defense?”, takes a look at the surge in U.S. military spending.

“Whereas the United States accounted for 28 percent of world defense expenditures in 1986 and 34 percent in 1994, today it accounts for approximately 50 percent,” according to the report. “The change in America’s proportion of world military expenditure is due partly to the resurgence in U.S. spending that began after 1998, and partly to reduced spending by other nations.

“Significantly, the greatest average decline in spending has occurred in that group of nations that the United States might consider ‘adversaries’ or ‘potential adversaries.’ China, for one, is spending much more than it did prior to 1990, but ‘adversary spending’ as a whole has receded substantially,” the report says.

America’s defense-related research and development in the 21st century remain unsurpassed. Even in the realm of economic competition, the two so-called rising powers of China and India continue to keenly emulate the American template of economic growth and competitiveness.

Such realities have convinced Putin that, while he works diligently to spend Russia’s petrodollars on building economic infrastructures, it does not hurt to escalate the level of stridency against what he considers America’s real intention of containing Russia. Such a maneuver is aimed at signaling the United States that Russia’s inter-ests be fully considered as America maneuvers in the world.

In this regard, Gates was spot on in noting that Putin’s real message to America is, “We are back.” Such a palpable upsurge in strident rhetoric does not mean that a new Cold War is in the making. It merely means that Russia is likely to be more assertive in expressing its strategic priorities and preferences related to its neighborhood.

Putin’s statement that he does not share America’s interpretation that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to that reality.

Through such elaborate maneuvers, Putin very much wants to resuscitate the lively process of diplomatic give-and-take that was the hallmark of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War years. å

Ehsan Ahrari is professor of security studies (counterterrorism) at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. These views reflect only those of the author and not of the center or the U.S. Defense Department.