Poking the Bear

July 29, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on National Interest (Online) on July 29, 2008.

Few people want to return to the animosity and tensions that marked relations between Washington and Moscow throughout the cold war. But clumsy policies by both the United States and Russia now threaten to bring back those unhappy days. The Bush administration presses for further expansion of NATO to Russia’s border and is meddling in parochial disputes between Russia and its small neighbor, Georgia. For its part, the Medvedev/​Putin regime shows signs of trying to cause headaches for the United States in the Caribbean.

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.

Unfortunately, U.S. policy makers don’t seem to grasp that the power relationship is different than it was in the 1990s. In just the past month, the Bush administration has pressed forward with plans to deploy missile‐​defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that Russia views as an attempt to degrade the effectiveness of its strategic nuclear forces. In response, Moscow has warned Warsaw and Prague that it will target both countries for retaliation in wartime.

Washington’s Balkan policy has also remained shockingly insensitive. In February, the United States and its leading European allies bypassed the UN Security Council (and hence, Russia’s veto) to grant Kosovo independence. Russia responded by rallying other countries who worry about that precedent with regard to their own secessionist‐​minded minorities and has blocked Kosovo’s entry into various international organizations. Thanks in part to Moscow’s lobbying, only forty‐​three governments have recognized Kosovo’s independence — most of them long‐​standing U.S. allies and clients.

Russian leaders also are showing Washington that Moscow can exploit the Kosovo precedent. In recent months, Russia has stepped up its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist regions in neighboring Georgia. Unfortunately, instead of beating a graceful diplomatic retreat, the Bush administration has responded with further meddling, even dispatching one thousand U.S. troops for joint training exercises with Georgia’s military.

One could scarcely imagine an issue with less relevance to genuine American interests than the political status of two obscure regions in a small country on Russia’s border. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine what genuine Russian interests justify Moscow’s bid to forge closer ties with the likes of Cuba and Venezuela. Both Russia and the United States are engaged in grotesquely immature behavior. We are not yet in a new cold war, but unless the two governments adopt far more responsible policies, they may soon produce that tragic outcome.

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