Both governments need to back off. Condoleezza Rice dismisses the concept of spheres of influence as an obsolete notion, but that doctrine is very much alive. U.S. and Russian leaders ignore that reality at their peril.
If a new cold war emerges, Washington will deserve most of the blame because of policies it has pursued since the mid‐1990s. But Russia has now become needlessly provocative as well. The dark hints last week that it might station bombers in Cuba is utterly reckless. For Americans, even the possibility that Moscow might deploy a nuclear‐capable weapon system in Cuba brings back memories of the most nightmarish episode of the cold war — the Cuban missile crisis. No American government would tolerate such a move — nor should it. Moscow’s growing flirtation with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, an obnoxious nemesis of the United States, is less provocative but still creates gratuitous tensions.
Those moves likely reflect mounting Russian anger at U.S. policies that seem calculated to undermine Russia’s influence in its own backyard and humiliate Moscow. Washington’s “in your face” approach is not a recent development. U.S. officials took advantage of Russia’s economic and military disarray during the 1990s to establish a dominant position in Central and Eastern Europe. Washington successfully engineered the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to NATO in 1998 — over the Yeltsin government’s objections. That expansion of the alliance was nonprovocative, though, compared to the second round earlier this decade that incorporated Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, entities that had been part of the Soviet Union.
NATO expansion was not the only manifestation of contempt for Russia’s interests during the 1990s. So too was Western policy in the Balkans — traditionally a key region of concern to Moscow. In 1995, NATO forces intervened in Bosnia’s civil war to the clear disadvantage of the Serbs, Russia’s long‐standing coreligionists and political allies. And then in 1999, the United States and its allies waged an air war against Serbia, ultimately wrenching away its restive province of Kosovo.
Although Russia’s political elite was furious at such behavior, given the weakness of the country, they could do little except issue impotent complaints. But that situation has changed. The country is much stronger both economically and militarily than it was a decade ago, and Moscow has begun to push back. For example, it has emphasized that Washington’s attempt to gain NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia crosses a bright red line and will not be tolerated.