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The New American Cold War | The Nation

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The New American Cold War

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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 pretense.

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Stephen F. Cohen
Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His ...

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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."

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