Feature

Russia: The specter of Cold War II

Russia’s brutal invasion of Georgia last month left the West dazed, “disunited,’’ and wondering if we’ve entered a new Cold War.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the start of “a new world order.” Now that the Russian bear is once again growling menacingly, said Robert Marquand in The Christian Science Monitor, that hopeful era is but “a faint memory.” Russia’s brutal invasion of Georgia last month left the West dazed, “disunited,’’ and wondering if we’ve entered a new Cold War. Russia this week continued to defy Western protests by provocatively recognizing Georgia’s breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent nations, putting them back in the Russian sphere of influence. And in response to a new agreement to put a U.S. missile shield in Poland, Moscow blustered that it “will be forced to react,” hinting at a new military buildup. A defiant President Dmitri Medvedev declared, “We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War.” 

There’s no mistaking Russia’s intentions, said Peter Brookes in the New York Post. “Today’s Kremlin is cocky, nationalistic, rich,” and bent on reinstating Russia as a superpower that the world must respect and fear. Under the leadership of former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin, a modern czar, Russia has been throwing its new weight around for years. Putin’s thuggish regime once tried to rig Ukraine’s presidential elections by poisoning a pro-Western candidate, cut off natural gas to Western Europe, and has claimed all mineral and oil rights at the North Pole. That’s a worrisome record, said Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal, and it’s time to stand up to Russia as we did to the Soviets during the Cold War. “Stinger missiles for Georgia would be a start.”

Let’s keep some perspective, said Robert Robb in The Arizona Republic. The new Russia may be aggressive and nationalistic, but it hardly poses the same existential threat as the old Soviet Union. Bristling with a nuclear arsenal that could incinerate every inch of the U.S., the Soviets had an ultimate goal of global communist domination. Today’s Russia has much narrower goals: authoritarian control of its own people, and keeping what it calls the “near abroad”—former Soviet republics—from leaving its orbit and allying with the West. Seeing today’s events through the old Cold War prism would be foolish, said Anne Applebaum in The Washington Post. We shouldn’t forget that Russia’s economy cannot function without the investment of foreign banks and companies, and Russian leaders value their role in the Group of Eight powers and their luxury apartments in Paris and London. If the West can manage “to speak with one voice,” and respond to Russian bad behavior by firmly using its leverage, we can keep the Bear under control. 

No, we can’t, said Ronald Steel in The New York Times. If Russia wants to play the neighborhood bully, there’s not much the world can do about it, short of going to war. It’s a basic rule of geopolitics: “Great powers zealously guard what they benignly refer to as their ‘sphere of influence.’” Moscow has long regarded Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a buffer zone protecting it from the West, just as the U.S. views Latin America as its own backyard. “This may be a shame, but it is the way the world works and always has.” If we do want to avert a new Cold War, the West had better start dealing with what Russia perceives to be its “vital interests” openly and honestly—instead of pretending that these interests “can be safely ignored.”

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