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A Cold War Redux?

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated: February 15, 2007

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Warmer-than-usual weather in Russia this winter has had little effect on the Kremlin’s chilly view of America. President Vladimir Putin’s diatribe at a weekend security conference in Munich starkly outlined his objections to U.S. foreign policy. He claims Washington’s “hyper use of military force” is “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” He shudders at the notion of an anti-ballistic missile shield based in Russia’s backyard and lambastes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as an antediluvian alliance whose intended target is Russia, not the rogue threats alluded to in its official communiqués.

Talk of a new Cold War is in the air, though who bears the blame remains unclear. To be sure, some commentators are asking: Does Putin have a point? “What Putin says is not entirely crazy,” says Marshall Goldman of Harvard University in this new Backgrounder. “A very large number of Democrats in the United States and traditional U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere would agree with much of Putin’s critique of the Bush administration,” longtime foreign policy observer Martin Walker of UPI points out. Russians appear to share their president's concerns. Polls show anti-Americanism on the rise in Russia. “Putin's comments may be jarring to Americans, but they express a bitterness that's widespread here,” writes the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. “His generation of Russians grew up in a country that claimed the status of ‘superpower,’ and they don't like being taken for granted.”

Others say Putin’s bluster smacks of hypocrisy, particularly his swipes at Washington for jumpstarting a new arms race. “This from the largest exporter of arms (LAT) to the developing world, with clients that include such charmers as Syria and Venezuela,” writes CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot. Helle Dale, writing in the Washington Times, likens his speech to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s “nutty rant” at the UN General Assembly in September. Critics of the Kremlin point out that Russian moves to bully Georgia (i.e. banning its wine exports) and its price spats with Ukraine and Belarus highlight its neo-Soviet tendencies. They argue Russia’s foreign policy, not the one formulated in Washington, is what’s destabilizing the region.

Putin’s speech, delivered on the eve of his visit to the Middle East, also aims to rile the Arab Street, writes Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation. The Russian president’s message there is: “Moscow is back—with a vengeance—in the most important energy depot of the world.” Russia already has ratcheted up its energy contracts and arms shipments to Iran, as this Backgrounder explains. Now the Kremlin is cozying up to traditional U.S. allies in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The White House downplayed Putin’s anti-U.S. barbs and insisted there would be no shift in U.S.-Russian relations. Spokesman Tony Snow stressed that Washington and Moscow work together on a number of multilateral fronts, including counterterrorism, North Korea, and nuclear proliferation. U.S. officials also point to the positive working relationship between President Bush and his Russian counterpart. Putin has said Bush is “a decent man, and one can do business with him” (SFChron). Yet with both men set to leave office in 2008, this CFR Task Force report predicts U.S.-Russia relations will remain chilly at best.

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