The prevailing view of the Bush Administration’s expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy scandal has been that it was a throwback to cold war days when the great game of tit for tat was the normal way of doing things. But the apparent recrudescence of the cold war mindset should be cause for concern. The only alternative interpretation–that Washington hasn’t any better ideas for dealing with Moscow–is equally troubling.

For one thing, the size of the expulsions was excessive. One would have to go back to 1986 to find comparable numbers. Also, they come on the heels of a stream of in-your-face pronouncements by Administration figures–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, calling Russia an “active proliferator” and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying it is “willing to sell anything to anyone for money”–and the loud insistence that the ill-conceived National Missile Defense scheme must go through regardless of Moscow’s (or China’s or Europe’s) objections.

In fact, America does need a new Russia policy after the Clinton Administration’s failures. Russia should be our number-one security worry–not because of its strength or aggressiveness but because of its weakness. Its economy has collapsed, its military is demoralized. But it remains a nuclear power equal to the United States. Indeed, the difference between now and cold war times is that the Soviet state was in control of its nuclear devices. Now, it sits atop a crumbling nuclear infrastructure, with poorly maintained reactors, vulnerable stockpiles and a dangerously degraded control system over missiles that remain, like our own, on hair trigger alert. The possibility of an accidental launch triggering a nuclear exchange has never been greater.

The reversion to mindless cold war games obscures these new threats and makes even more difficult the US-Russian cooperation needed to deal with them. That each side will spy on the other is a fact of international life and should not be used as a pretext for further distancing. Washington’s priority should be working more closely with Moscow to make the latter’s nuclear armaments more secure. The cold war is over. It is frightening that the Bush people show no signs of comprehending this.