The New American Cold War
by Stephen F. Cohen
The Nation magazine, July 10,
Contrary to established opinion, the gravest threats to America's
national security are still in Russia. They derive from an unprecedented
development that most US policy-makers have recklessly disregarded,
as evidenced by the undeclared cold war Washington has waged,
under both parties, against post-Communist Russia during the past
As a result of the Soviet breakup in 1991,
Russia, a state bearing every nuclear and other device of mass
destruction, virtually collapsed. During the 1990s its essential
infrastructures--political, economic and social--disintegrated.
Moscow's hold on its vast territories was weakened by separatism,
official corruption and Mafia-like crime. The worst peacetime
depression in modern history brought economic losses more than
twice those suffered in World War II. GDP plummeted by nearly
half and capital investment by 80 percent. Most Russians were
thrown into poverty. Death rates soared and the population shrank.
And in August 1998, the financial system imploded.
No one in authority anywhere had ever
foreseen that one of the twentieth century's two superpowers would
plunge, along with its arsenals of destruction, into such catastrophic
circumstances. Even today, we cannot be sure what Russia's collapse
might mean for the rest of the world.
Outwardly, the nation may now seem to
have recovered. Its economy has grown on average by 6 to 7 percent
annually since 1999, its stock-market index increased last year
by 83 percent and its gold and foreign currency reserves are the
world's fifth largest. Moscow is booming with new construction,
frenzied consumption of Western luxury goods and fifty-six large
casinos. Some of this wealth has trickled down to the provinces
and middle and lower classes, whose income has been rising. But
these advances, loudly touted by the Russian government and Western
investment-fund promoters, are due largely to high world prices
for the country's oil and gas and stand out only in comparison
with the wasteland of 1998.
More fundamental realities indicate that
Russia remains in an unprecedented state of peacetime demodernization
and depopulation. Investment in the economy and other basic infrastructures
remains barely a third of the 1990 level. Some two-thirds of Russians
still live below or very near the poverty line, including 80 percent
of families with two or more children, 60 percent of rural citizens
and large segments of the educated and professional classes, among
them teachers, doctors and military officers. The gap between
the poor and the rich, Russian experts tell us, is becoming "explosive."
Most tragic and telling, the nation continues
to suffer wartime death and birth rates, its population declining
by 700,000 or more every year. Male life expectancy is barely
59 years and, at the other end of the life cycle, 2 to 3 million
children are homeless. Old and new diseases, from tuberculosis
to HIV infections, have grown into epidemics. Nationalists may
exaggerate in charging that "the Motherland is dying,"
but even the head of Moscow's most pro-Western university warns
that Russia remains in "extremely deep crisis."
The stability of the political regime
atop this bleak post-Soviet landscape rests heavily, if not entirely,
on the personal popularity and authority of one man, President
Vladimir Putin, who admits the state "is not yet completely
stable." While Putin's ratings are an extraordinary 70 to
75 percent positive, political institutions and would-be leaders
below him have almost no public support.
The top business and administrative elites,
having rapaciously "privatized" the Soviet state's richest
assets in the 1990s, are particularly despised. Indeed, their
possession of that property, because it lacks popular legitimacy,
remains a time bomb embedded in the political and economic system.
The huge military is equally unstable, its ranks torn by a lack
of funds, abuses of authority and discontent. No wonder serious
analysts worry that one or more sudden developments--a sharp fall
in world oil prices, more major episodes of ethnic violence or
terrorism, or Putin's disappearance--might plunge Russia into
an even worse crisis. Pointing to the disorder spreading from
Chechnya through the country's southern rim, for example, the
eminent scholar Peter Reddaway even asks "whether Russia
is stable enough to hold together."
As long as catastrophic possibilities
exist in that nation, so do the unprecedented threats to US and
international security. Experts differ as to which danger is the
gravest--proliferation of Russia's enormous stockpile of nuclear,
chemical and biological materials; ill-maintained nuclear reactors
on land and on decommissioned submarines; an impaired early-warning
system controlling missiles on hair-trigger alert; or the first-ever
civil war in a shattered superpower, the terror-ridden Chechen
conflict. But no one should doubt that together they constitute
a much greater constant threat than any the United States faced
during the Soviet era.
Nor is a catastrophe involving weapons
of mass destruction the only danger in what remains the world's
largest territorial country. Nearly a quarter of the planet's
people live on Russia's borders, among them conflicting ethnic
and religious groups. Any instability in Russia could easily spread
to a crucial and exceedingly volatile part of the world.
There is another, perhaps more likely,
possibility. Petrodollars may bring Russia long-term stability,
but on the basis of growing authoritarianism and xenophobic nationalism.
Those ominous factors derive primarily not from Russia's lost
superpower status (or Putin's KGB background), as the US press
regularly misinforms readers, but from so many lost and damaged
lives at home since 1991. Often called the "Weimar scenario,"
this outcome probably would not be truly fascist, but it would
be a Russia possessing weapons of mass destruction and large proportions
of the world's oil and natural gas, even more hostile to the West
than was its Soviet predecessor.
How has the US government responded to
these unprecedented perils? It doesn't require a degree in international
relations or media punditry to understand that the first principle
of policy toward post-Communist Russia must follow the Hippocratic
injunction: Do no harm! Do nothing to undermine its fragile stability,
nothing to dissuade the Kremlin from giving first priority to
repairing the nation's crumbling infrastructures, nothing to cause
it to rely more heavily on its stockpiles of superpower weapons
instead of reducing them, nothing to make Moscow uncooperative
with the West in those joint pursuits. Everything else in that
savaged country is of far less consequence.
Since the early 1990s Washington has simultaneously
conducted, under Democrats and Republicans, two fundamentally
different policies toward post-Soviet Russia--one decorative and
outwardly reassuring, the other real and exceedingly reckless.
The decorative policy, which has been taken at face value in the
United States, at least until recently, professes to have replaced
America's previous cold war intentions with a generous relationship
of "strategic partnership and friendship." The public
image of this approach has featured happy-talk meetings between
American and Russian presidents, first "Bill and Boris"
(Clinton and Yeltsin), then "George and Vladimir."
The real US policy has been very different--a
relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia's post-1991
weakness. Accompanied by broken American promises, condescending
lectures and demands for unilateral concessions, it has been even
more aggressive and uncompromising than was Washington's approach
to Soviet Communist Russia. Consider its defining elements as
they have unfolded--with fulsome support in both American political
parties, influential newspapers and policy think tanks--since
the early 1990s:
§_A growing military encirclement
of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases, which
are already ensconced or being planned in at least half the fourteen
other former Soviet republics, from the Baltics and Ukraine to
Georgia, Azerbaijan and the new states of Central Asia. The result
is a US-built reverse iron curtain and the remilitarization of
§_A tacit (and closely related) US
denial that Russia has any legitimate national interests outside
its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former
republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. How else to explain,
to take a bellwether example, the thinking of Richard Holbrooke,
Democratic would-be Secretary of State? While roundly condemning
the Kremlin for promoting a pro-Moscow government in neighboring
Ukraine, where Russia has centuries of shared linguistic, marital,
religious, economic and security ties, Holbrooke declares that
far-away Slav nation part of "our core zone of security."
§_Even more, a presumption that Russia
does not have full sovereignty within its own borders, as expressed
by constant US interventions in Moscow's internal affairs since
1992. They have included an on-site crusade by swarms of American
"advisers," particularly during the 1990s, to direct
Russia's "transition" from Communism; endless missionary
sermons from afar, often couched in threats, on how that nation
should and should not organize its political and economic systems;
and active support for Russian anti-Kremlin groups, some associated
with hated Yeltsin-era oligarchs.
That interventionary impulse has now grown
even into suggestions that Putin be overthrown by the kind of
US-backed "color revolutions" carried out since 2003
in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and attempted this year in
Belarus. Thus, while mainstream editorial pages increasingly call
the Russian president "thug," "fascist" and
"Saddam Hussein," one of the Carnegie Endowment's several
Washington crusaders assures us of "Putin's weakness"
and vulnerability to "regime change." (Do proponents
of "democratic regime change" in Russia care that it
might mean destabilizing a nuclear state?)
§_Underpinning these components of
the real US policy are familiar cold war double standards condemning
Moscow for doing what Washington does--such as seeking allies
and military bases in former Soviet republics, using its assets
(oil and gas in Russia's case) as aid to friendly governments
and regulating foreign money in its political life.
More broadly, when NATO expands to Russia's
front and back doorsteps, gobbling up former Soviet-bloc members
and republics, it is "fighting terrorism" and "protecting
new states"; when Moscow protests, it is engaging in "cold
war thinking." When Washington meddles in the politics of
Georgia and Ukraine, it is "promoting democracy"; when
the Kremlin does so, it is "neoimperialism." And not
to forget the historical background: When in the 1990s the US-supported
Yeltsin overthrew Russia's elected Parliament and Constitutional
Court by force, gave its national wealth and television networks
to Kremlin insiders, imposed a constitution without real constraints
on executive power and rigged elections, it was "democratic
reform"; when Putin continues that process, it is "authoritarianism."
§_Finally, the United States is attempting,
by exploiting Russia's weakness, to acquire the nuclear superiority
it could not achieve during the Soviet era. That is the essential
meaning of two major steps taken by the Bush Administration in
2002, both against Moscow's strong wishes. One was the Administration's
unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,
freeing it to try to create a system capable of destroying incoming
missiles and thereby the capacity to launch a nuclear first strike
without fear of retaliation. The other was pressuring the Kremlin
to sign an ultimately empty nuclear weapons reduction agreement
requiring no actual destruction of weapons and indeed allowing
development of new ones; providing for no verification; and permitting
unilateral withdrawal before the specified reductions are required.
The extraordinarily anti-Russian nature
of these policies casts serious doubt on two American official
and media axioms: that the recent "chill" in US-Russian
relations has been caused by Putin's behavior at home and abroad,
and that the cold war ended fifteen years ago. The first axiom
is false, the second only half true: The cold war ended in Moscow,
but not in Washington, as is clear from a brief look back.
The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev,
came to power in 1985 with heretical "New Thinking"
that proposed not merely to ease but to actually abolish the decades-long
cold war. His proposals triggered a fateful struggle in Washington
(and Moscow) between policy-makers who wanted to seize the historic
opportunity and those who did not. President Ronald Reagan decided
to meet Gorbachev at least part of the way, as did his successor,
the first President George Bush. As a result, in December 1989,
at a historic summit meeting at Malta, Gorbachev and Bush declared
the cold war over. (That extraordinary agreement evidently has
been forgotten; thus we have the New York Times recently asserting
that the US-Russian relationship today "is far better than
it was 15 years ago.")
Declarations alone, however, could not
terminate decades of warfare attitudes. Even when Bush was agreeing
to end the cold war in 1989-91, many of his top advisers, like
many members of the US political elite and media, strongly resisted.
(I witnessed that rift on the eve of Malta, when I was asked to
debate the issue in front of Bush and his divided foreign policy
team.) Proof came with the Soviet breakup in December 1991: US
officials and the media immediately presented the purported "end
of the cold war" not as a mutual Soviet-American decision,
which it certainly was, but as a great American victory and Russian
That (now standard) triumphalist narrative
is the primary reason the cold war was quickly revived--not in
Moscow a decade later by Putin but in Washington in the early
1990s, when the Clinton Administration made two epically unwise
decisions. One was to treat post-Communist Russia as a defeated
nation that was expected to replicate America's domestic practices
and bow to its foreign policies. It required, behind the facade
of the Clinton-Yeltsin "partnership and friendship"
(as Clinton's top "Russia hand," Strobe Talbott, later
confirmed), telling Yeltsin "here's some more shit for your
face" and Moscow's "submissiveness." From that
triumphalism grew the still-ongoing interventions in Moscow's
internal affairs and the abiding notion that Russia has no autonomous
rights at home or abroad.
Clinton's other unwise decision was to
break the Bush Administration's promise to Soviet Russia in 1990-91
not to expand NATO "one inch to the east" and instead
begin its expansion to Russia's borders. From that profound act
of bad faith, followed by others, came the dangerously provocative
military encirclement of Russia and growing Russian suspicions
of US intentions. Thus, while American journalists and even scholars
insist that "the cold war has indeed vanished" and that
concerns about a new one are "silly," Russians across
the political spectrum now believe that in Washington "the
cold war did not end" and, still more, that "the US
is imposing a new cold war on Russia."
That ominous view is being greatly exacerbated
by Washington's ever-growing "anti-Russian fatwa," as
a former Reagan appointee terms it. This year it includes a torrent
of official and media statements denouncing Russia's domestic
and foreign policies, vowing to bring more of its neighbors into
NATO and urging Bush to boycott the G-8 summit to be chaired by
Putin in St. Petersburg in July; a call by would-be Republican
presidential nominee Senator John McCain for "very harsh"
measures against Moscow; Congress's pointed refusal to repeal
a Soviet-era restriction on trade with Russia; the Pentagon's
revival of old rumors that Russian intelligence gave Saddam Hussein
information endangering US troops; and comments by Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice, echoing the regime-changers, urging Russians,
"if necessary, to change their government."
For its part, the White House deleted
from its 2006 National Security Strategy the long-professed US-Russian
partnership, backtracked on agreements to help Moscow join the
World Trade Organization and adopted sanctions against Belarus,
the Slav former republic most culturally akin to Russia and with
whom the Kremlin is negotiating a new union state. Most significant,
in May it dispatched Vice President Cheney to an anti-Russian
conference in former Soviet Lithuania, now a NATO member, to denounce
the Kremlin and make clear it is not "a strategic partner
and a trusted friend," thereby ending fifteen years of official
More astonishing is a Council on Foreign
Relations "task force report" on Russia, co-chaired
by Democratic presidential aspirant John Edwards, issued in March.
The "nonpartisan" council's reputed moderation and balance
are nowhere in evidence. An unrelenting exercise in double standards,
the report blames all the "disappointments" in US-Russian
relations solely on "Russia's wrong direction" under
Putin--from meddling in the former Soviet republics and backing
Iran to conflicts over NATO, energy politics and the "rollback
of Russian democracy."
Strongly implying that Bush has been too
soft on Putin, the council report flatly rejects partnership with
Moscow as "not a realistic prospect." It calls instead
for "selective cooperation" and "selective opposition,"
depending on which suits US interests, and, in effect, Soviet-era
containment. Urging more Western intervention in Moscow's political
affairs, the report even reserves for Washington the right to
reject Russia's future elections and leaders as "illegitimate."
An article in the council's influential journal Foreign Affairs
menacingly adds that the United States is quickly "attaining
nuclear primacy" and the ability "to destroy the long-range
nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first strike."
Every consequence of this bipartisan American
cold war against post-Communist Russia has exacerbated the dangers
inherent in the Soviet breakup mentioned above. The crusade to
transform Russia during the 1990s, with its disastrous "shock
therapy" economic measures and resulting antidemocratic acts,
further destabilized the country, fostering an oligarchical system
that plundered the state's wealth, deprived essential infrastructures
of investment, impoverished the people and nurtured dangerous
corruption. In the process, it discredited Western-style reform,
generated mass anti-Americanism where there had been almost none--only
5 percent of Russians surveyed in May thought the United States
was a "friend"--and eviscerated the once-influential
pro-American faction in Kremlin and electoral politics.
Military encirclement, the Bush Administration's
striving for nuclear supremacy and today's renewed US intrusions
into Russian politics are having even worse consequences. They
have provoked the Kremlin into undertaking its own conventional
and nuclear buildup, relying more rather than less on compromised
mechanisms of control and maintenance, while continuing to invest
miserly sums in the country's decaying economic base and human
resources. The same American policies have also caused Moscow
to cooperate less rather than more in existing US-funded programs
to reduce the multiple risks represented by Russia's materials
of mass destruction and to prevent accidental nuclear war. More
generally, they have inspired a new Kremlin ideology of "emphasizing
our sovereignty" that is increasingly nationalistic, intolerant
of foreign-funded NGOs as "fifth columns" and reliant
on anti-Western views of the "patriotic" Russian intelligentsia
and the Orthodox Church.
Moscow's responses abroad have also been
the opposite of what Washington policy-makers should want. Interpreting
US-backed "color revolutions" as a quest for military
outposts on Russia's borders, the Kremlin now opposes pro-democracy
movements in former Soviet republics more than ever, while supporting
the most authoritarian regimes in the region, from Belarus to
Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, Moscow is forming a political, economic
and military "strategic partnership" with China, lending
support to Iran and other anti-American governments in the Middle
East and already putting surface-to-air missiles back in Belarus,
in effect Russia's western border with NATO.
If American policy and Russia's predictable
countermeasures continue to develop into a full-scale cold war,
several new factors could make it even more dangerous than was
its predecessor. Above all, the growing presence of Western bases
and US-backed governments in the former Soviet republics has moved
the "front lines" of the conflict, in the alarmed words
of a Moscow newspaper, from Germany to Russia's "near abroad."
As a "hostile ring tightens around the Motherland,"
in the view of former Prime Minister Evgeny Primakov, many different
Russians see a mortal threat. Putin's chief political deputy,
Vladislav Surkov, for example, sees the "enemy...at the gates,"
and the novelist and Soviet-era dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
sees the "complete encirclement of Russia and then the loss
of its sovereignty." The risks of direct military conflict
could therefore be greater than ever. Protesting overflights by
NATO aircraft, a Russian general has already warned, "If
they violate our borders, they should be shot down."
Worsening the geopolitical factor are
radically different American and Russian self-perceptions. By
the mid-1960s the US-Soviet cold war relationship had acquired
a significant degree of stability because the two superpowers,
perceiving a stalemate, began to settle for political and military
"parity." Today, however, the United States, the self-proclaimed
"only superpower," has a far more expansive view of
its international entitlements and possibilities. Moscow, on the
other hand, feels weaker and more vulnerable than it did before
1991. And in that asymmetry lies the potential for a less predictable
cold war relationship between the two still fully armed nuclear
There is also a new psychological factor.
Because the unfolding cold war is undeclared, it is already laden
with feelings of betrayal and mistrust on both sides. Having welcomed
Putin as Yeltsin's chosen successor and offered him its conception
of "partnership and friendship," Washington now feels
deceived by Putin's policies. According to two characteristic
commentaries in the Washington Post, Bush had a "well-intentioned
Russian policy," but "a Russian autocrat...betrayed
the American's faith." Putin's Kremlin, however, has been
reacting largely to a decade of broken US promises and Yeltsin's
boozy compliance. Thus Putin's declaration four years ago, paraphrased
on Russian radio: "The era of Russian geopolitical concessions
[is] coming to an end." (Looking back, he remarked bitterly
that Russia has been "constantly deceived.")
Still worse, the emerging cold war lacks
the substantive negotiations and cooperation, known as détente,
that constrained the previous one. Behind the lingering facade,
a well-informed Russian tells us, "dialogue is almost nonexistent."
It is especially true in regard to nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration's
abandonment of the ABM treaty and real reductions, its decision
to build an antimissile shield, and talk of pre-emptive war and
nuclear strikes have all but abolished long-established US-Soviet
agreements that have kept the nuclear peace for nearly fifty years.
Indeed, according to a report, Bush's National Security Council
is contemptuous of arms control as "baggage from the cold
war." In short, as dangers posed by nuclear weapons have
grown and a new arms race unfolds, efforts to curtail or even
discuss them have ended.
Finally, anti-cold war forces that once
played an important role in the United States no longer exist.
Cold war lobbies, old and new ones, therefore operate virtually
unopposed, some of them funded by anti-Kremlin Russian oligarchs
in exile. At high political levels, the new American cold war
has been, and remains, fully bipartisan, from Clinton to Bush,
Madeleine Albright to Rice, Edwards to McCain. At lower levels,
once robust pro-détente public groups, particularly anti-arms-race
movements, have been largely demobilized by official, media and
academic myths that "the cold war is over" and we have
been "liberated" from nuclear and other dangers in Russia.
Also absent (or silent) are the kinds
of American scholars who protested cold war excesses in the past.
Meanwhile, a legion of new intellectual cold warriors has emerged,
particularly in Washington, media favorites whose crusading anti-Putin
zeal goes largely unchallenged. (Typically, one inveterate missionary
constantly charges Moscow with "not delivering" on US
interests, while another now calls for a surreal crusade, "backed
by international donors," to correct young Russians' thinking
about Stalin.) There are a few notable exceptions--also bipartisan,
from former Reaganites to Nation contributors--but "anathematizing
Russia," as Gorbachev recently put it, is so consensual that
even an outspoken critic of US policy inexplicably ends an article,
"Of course, Russia has been largely to blame."
Making these political factors worse has
been the "pluralist" US mainstream media. In the past,
opinion page editors and television producers regularly solicited
voices to challenge cold war zealots, but today such dissenters,
and thus the vigorous public debate of the past, are almost entirely
missing. Instead, influential editorial pages are dominated by
resurgent cold war orthodoxies, led by the Post, whose incessant
demonization of Putin's "autocracy" and "crude
neoimperialism" reads like a bygone Pravda on the Potomac.
On the conservative New York Sun's front page, US-Russian relations
today are presented as "a duel to the death--perhaps literally."
The Kremlin's strong preference "not
to return to the cold war era," as Putin stated May 13 in
response to Cheney's inflammatory charges, has been mainly responsible
for preventing such fantasies from becoming reality. "Someone
is still fighting the cold war," a British academic recently
wrote, "but it isn't Russia." A fateful struggle over
this issue, however, is now under way in Moscow, with the "pro-Western"
Putin resisting demands for a "more hard line" course
and, closely related, favoring larger FDR-style investments in
the people (and the country's stability). Unless US policy, which
is abetting the hard-liners in that struggle, changes fundamentally,
the symbiotic axis between American and Russian cold warriors
that drove the last conflict will re-emerge. If so, the Kremlin,
whether under Putin or a successor, will fight the new one--with
all the unprecedented dangers that would entail.
Given different principles and determined
leadership, it is still not too late for a new US policy toward
post-Soviet Russia. Its components would include full cooperation
in securing Moscow's materials of mass destruction; radically
reducing nuclear weapons on both sides while banning the development
of new ones and taking all warheads off hair-trigger alert; dissuading
other states from acquiring those weapons; countering terrorist
activities and drug-trafficking near Russia; and augmenting energy
supplies to the West.
None of those programs are possible without
abandoning the warped priorities and fallacies that have shaped
US policy since 1991. National security requires identifying and
pursuing essential priorities, but US policy-makers have done
neither consistently. The only truly vital American interest in
Russia today is preventing its stockpiles of mass destruction
from endangering the world, whether through Russia's destabilization
or hostility to the West.
All of the dangerous fallacies underlying
US policy are expressions of unbridled triumphalism. The decision
to treat post-Soviet Russia as a vanquished nation, analogous
to postwar Germany and Japan (but without the funding), squandered
a historic opportunity for a real partnership and established
the bipartisan premise that Moscow's "direction" at
home and abroad should be determined by the United States. Applied
to a country with Russia's size and long history as a world power,
and that had not been militarily defeated, the premise was inherently
self-defeating and certain to provoke a resentful backlash.
That folly produced two others. One was
the assumption that the United States had the right, wisdom and
power to remake post-Communist Russia into a political and economic
replica of America. A conceit as vast as its ignorance of Russia's
historical traditions and contemporary realities, it led to the
counterproductive crusade of the 1990s, which continues in various
ways today. The other was the presumption that Russia should be
America's junior partner in foreign policy with no interests except
those of the United States. By disregarding Russia's history,
different geopolitical realities and vital interests, this presumption
has also been senseless.
As a Eurasian state with 20-25 million
Muslim citizens of its own and with Iran one of its few neighbors
not being recruited by NATO, for example, Russia can ill afford
to be drawn into Washington's expanding conflict with the Islamic
world, whether in Iran or Iraq. Similarly, by demanding that Moscow
vacate its traditional political and military positions in former
Soviet republics so the United States and NATO can occupy them--and
even subsidize Ukraine's defection with cheap gas--Washington
is saying that Russia not only has no Monroe Doctrine-like rights
in its own neighborhood but no legitimate security rights at all.
Not surprisingly, such flagrant double standards have convinced
the Kremlin that Washington has become more belligerent since
Yeltsin's departure simply "because Russian policy has become
Nor was American triumphalism a fleeting
reaction to 1991. A decade later, the tragedy of September 11
gave Washington a second chance for a real partnership with Russia.
At a meeting on June 16, 2001, President Bush sensed in Putin's
"soul" a partner for America. And so it seemed after
September 11, when Putin's Kremlin did more than any NATO government
to assist the US war effort in Afghanistan, giving it valuable
intelligence, a Moscow-trained Afghan combat force and easy access
to crucial air bases in former Soviet Central Asia.
The Kremlin understandably believed that
in return Washington would give it an equitable relationship.
Instead, it got US withdrawal from the ABM treaty, Washington's
claim to permanent bases in Central Asia (as well as Georgia)
and independent access to Caspian oil and gas, a second round
of NATO expansion taking in several former Soviet republics and
bloc members, and a still-growing indictment of its domestic and
foreign conduct. Astonishingly, not even September 11 was enough
to end Washington's winner-take-all principles.
Why have Democratic and Republican administrations
believed they could act in such relentlessly anti-Russian ways
without endangering US national security? The answer is another
fallacy--the belief that Russia, diminished and weakened by its
loss of the Soviet Union, had no choice but to bend to America's
will. Even apart from the continued presence of Soviet-era weapons
in Russia, it was a grave misconception. Because of its extraordinary
material and human attributes, Russia, as its intellectuals say,
has always been "destined to be a great power." This
was still true after 1991.
Even before world energy prices refilled
its coffers, the Kremlin had ready alternatives to the humiliating
role scripted by Washington. Above all, Russia could forge strategic
alliances with eager anti-US and non-NATO governments in the East
and elsewhere, becoming an arsenal of conventional weapons and
nuclear knowledge for states from China and India to Iran and
Venezuela. Moscow has already begun that turning away from the
West, and it could move much further in that direction.
Still more, even today's diminished Russia
can fight, perhaps win, a cold war on its new front lines across
the vast former Soviet territories. It has the advantages of geographic
proximity, essential markets, energy pipelines and corporate ownership,
along with kinship and language and common experiences. They give
Moscow an array of soft and hard power to use, if it chooses,
against neighboring governments considering a new patron in faraway
Economically, the Kremlin could cripple
nearly destitute Georgia and Moldova by banning their products
and otherwise unemployed migrant workers from Russia and by charging
Georgia and Ukraine full "free-market" prices for essential
energy. Politically, Moscow could truncate tiny Georgia and Moldova,
and big Ukraine, by welcoming their large, pro-Russian territories
into the Russian Federation or supporting their demands for independent
statehood (as the West has been doing for Kosovo and Montenegro
in Serbia). Militarily, Moscow could take further steps toward
turning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization--now composed of
Russia, China and four Central Asian states, with Iran and India
possible members--into an anti-NATO defensive alliance, an "OPEC
with nuclear weapons," a Western analyst warned.
That is not all. In the US-Russian struggle
in Central Asia over Caspian oil and gas, Washington, as even
the triumphalist Thomas Friedman admits, "is at a severe
disadvantage." The United States has already lost its military
base in Uzbekistan and may soon lose the only remaining one in
the region, in Kyrgyzstan; the new pipeline it backed to bypass
Russia runs through Georgia, whose stability depends considerably
on Moscow; Washington's new friend in oil-rich Azerbaijan is an
anachronistic dynastic ruler; and Kazakhstan, whose enormous energy
reserves make it a particular US target, has its own large Russian
population and is moving back toward Moscow.
Nor is the Kremlin powerless in direct
dealings with the West. It can mount more than enough warheads
to defeat any missile shield and illusion of "nuclear primacy."
It can shut US businesses out of multibillion-dollar deals in
Russia and, as it recently reminded the European Union, which
gets 25 percent of its gas from Russia, "redirect supplies"
to hungry markets in the East. And Moscow could deploy its resources,
connections and UN Security Council veto against US interests
involving, for instance, nuclear proliferation, Iran, Afghanistan
and possibly even Iraq.
Contrary to exaggerated US accusations,
the Kremlin has not yet resorted to such retaliatory measures
in any significant way. But unless Washington stops abasing and
encroaching on Russia, there is no "sovereign" reason
why it should not do so. Certainly, nothing Moscow has gotten
from Washington since 1992, a Western security specialist emphasizes,
"compensates for the geopolitical harm the United States
is doing to Russia."
American crusaders insist it is worth
the risk in order to democratize Russia and other former Soviet
republics. In reality, their campaigns since 1992 have only discredited
that cause in Russia. Praising the despised Yeltsin and endorsing
other unpopular figures as Russia's "democrats," while
denouncing the popular Putin, has associated democracy with the
social pain, chaos and humiliation of the 1990s. Ostracizing Belarus
President Aleksandr Lukashenko while embracing tyrants in Azerbaijan
and Kazakhstan has related it to the thirst for oil. Linking "democratic
revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia to NATO membership has
equated them with US expansionism. Focusing on the victimization
of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkhovsky and not on Russian poverty
or ongoing mass protests against social injustices has suggested
democracy is only for oligarchs. And by insisting on their indispensable
role, US crusaders have all but said (wrongly) that Russians are
incapable of democracy or resisting abuses of power on their own.
The result is dark Russian suspicions
of American intentions ignored by US policy-makers and media alike.
They include the belief that Washington's real purpose is to take
control of the country's energy resources and nuclear weapons
and use encircling NATO satellite states to "de-sovereignize"
Russia, turning it into a "vassal of the West." More
generally, US policy has fostered the belief that the American
cold war was never really aimed at Soviet Communism but always
at Russia, a suspicion given credence by Post and Times columnists
who characterize Russia even after Communism as an inherently
"autocratic state" with "brutish instincts."
To overcome those towering obstacles to
a new relationship, Washington has to abandon the triumphalist
conceits primarily responsible for the revived cold war and its
growing dangers. It means respecting Russia's sovereign right
to determine its course at home (including disposal of its energy
resources). As the record plainly shows, interfering in Moscow's
internal affairs, whether on-site or from afar, only harms the
chances for political liberties and economic prosperity that still
exist in that tormented nation.
It also means acknowledging Russia's legitimate
security interests, especially in its own "near abroad."
In particular, the planned third expansion of NATO, intended to
include Ukraine, must not take place. Extending NATO to Russia's
doorsteps has already brought relations near the breaking point
(without actually benefiting any nation's security); absorbing
Ukraine, which Moscow regards as essential to its Slavic identity
and its military defense, may be the point of no return, as even
pro-US Russians anxiously warn. Nor would it be democratic, since
nearly two-thirds of Ukrainians are opposed. The explosive possibilities
were adumbrated in late May and early June when local citizens
in ethnic Russian Crimea blockaded a port and roads where a US
naval ship and contingent of Marines suddenly appeared, provoking
resolutions declaring the region "anti-NATO territory"
and threats of "a new Vietnam."
Time for a new US policy is running out,
but there is no hint of one in official or unofficial circles.
Denouncing the Kremlin in May, Cheney spoke "like a triumphant
cold warrior," a Times correspondent reported. A top State
Department official has already announced the "next great
mission" in and around Russia. In the same unreconstructed
spirit, Rice has demanded Russians "recognize that we have
legitimate interests...in their neighborhood," without a
word about Moscow's interests; and a former Clinton official has
held the Kremlin "accountable for the ominous security threats...developing
between NATO's eastern border and Russia." Meanwhile, the
Bush Administration is playing Russian roulette with Moscow's
control of its nuclear weapons. Its missile shield project having
already provoked a destabilizing Russian buildup, the Administration
now proposes to further confuse Moscow's early-warning system,
risking an accidental launch, by putting conventional warheads
on long-range missiles for the first time.
In a democracy we might expect alternative
policy proposals from would-be leaders. But there are none in
either party, only demands for a more anti-Russian course, or
silence. We should not be surprised. Acquiescence in Bush's monstrous
war in Iraq has amply demonstrated the political elite's limited
capacity for introspection, independent thought and civic courage.
(It prefers to falsely blame the American people, as the managing
editor of Foreign Affairs recently did, for craving "ideological
red meat.") It may also be intimidated by another revived
cold war practice--personal defamation. The Post and The New Yorker
have already labeled critics of their Russia policy "Putin
apologists" and charged them with "appeasement"
and "again taking the Russian side of the Cold War."
The vision and courage of heresy will
therefore be needed to escape today's new cold war orthodoxies
and dangers, but it is hard to imagine a US politician answering
the call. There is, however, a not-too-distant precedent. Twenty
years ago, when the world faced exceedingly grave cold war perils,
Gorbachev unexpectedly emerged from the orthodox and repressive
Soviet political class to offer a heretical way out. Is there
an American leader today ready to retrieve that missed opportunity?