Thursday, February 22, 2007

U.S.-Russian Relations Descending Into Cold Peace

Sunday's Week in Review at the New York Times ran an interesting story on Russian President Vladimir Putin's outburst against American power at the security conference last week in Munich, Germany. Here's a snippet:

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN’S acerbic assault on American unilateralism last weekend in Munich might not have heralded a return to the bad old days of global ideological confrontation — of blocs and proxy wars, dissidents and spies, arms races and mutually assured destruction — even if some were quick to say it did.

The problem is, Cold War II could in its own way be just as messy and unpredictable. For all the talk of strategic partnership and even personal friendship between Mr. Putin and President Bush, the relationship between
Russia and the United States has reached what is probably its lowest point since the Soviet Union collapsed a decade and a half ago.

This is now “the world of one master, one sovereign,” Mr. Putin said in Munich, and he was in no way pleased. “The United States,” he said, “has overstepped its national borders, and in every area.”

The countries seem headed into a period of tensions when every step is met with distrust and some counterstep, putting them on opposite sides of hotspots around the world, from Iran to Georgia to Kosovo.

And with presidential elections in both countries coming in 2008, it is unlikely to get better, since candidates rarely score points at home by being conciliatory abroad.
The article goes on to discuss areas of disagreement, for example, Russia's resistance to U.S. plans for the establishment of ballistic missile defenses in Poland and Czechoslovakia. The article notes further: "The areas in which Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush have cooperated closely — against terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons — suddenly seem like sources of confrontation as much as collaboration."

What struck me as particularly interesting about all this is Putin's language of resistance to American unilateralism, as well as the article's theme that bilateral relations are descending into a "cold peace," something reminiscent of the epochal U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry. It's hard to imagine U.S-Russian relations deteriorating into such grim territory. For one thing, in terms of the distribution of capabilities, Russia's nowhere near as powerful as the old Soviet Union. It was just seven years ago when the Russian submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents sea, in a catastrophe that analysts said highlighted the deep collapse of Russian military might since the disintegration of the Soviet Union (see
here and here). Currently, Russia's GDP per capital is just a fraction to that of the United States, at $2,140 in 2004. The Russian population, furthermore, is declining at a strikingly fast rate, which has some demographers speculating that without a turnaround, Russia may disintegrate entirely, or at least the state, based on the model of great Russian nationalism, will cease to exist.

Niall Ferguson in last week's Time also remarked about the similarities between Putin's tough talk and the Cold War environment. Ferguson argues, though, that Putin's tough talk is based on a resurgence of Russian power in the realm of petroleum politics:

Since then he has ruthlessly reasserted Kremlin control over the energy sector and the media. The economy has bounced back, with growth averaging 6.8% and inflation coming down into single digits. Putin's most impressive achievement, however, has been to restore Russia's global clout. While his predecessor acted the clown on the international stage, Putin has relished playing the tough guy. Indeed, when I saw him speak at the recent international Conference on Security Policy in Munich, the Russian President gave a striking impersonation of Michael Corleone in The Godfather--the embodiment of implicit menace. An American delegation that included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and presidential contender John McCain heard Putin warn that a "unipolar world" -- meaning one dominated by the U.S. -- would prove "pernicious not only for all those within this system but also for the sovereign itself." America's "hyper use of force," Putin said, was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts."
The consequences of these developments, for Ferguson, is not in the creation of a new superpower conflict to rival that of the Cold War-era, but in the emerging renewal of Russian influence on sensitive regions around the globe: Russia's power is bolstered by conflicts in the Middle East, for example, which contribute to increasing petroleum profits for the Russian state:

That is why Russia poses America's biggest problem when it comes to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. True, at Munich, Putin declared his commitment to nonproliferation. But the fact remains that it is the Russians who are building the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr and the Russians who have just won the contract to build an additional six such plants. Putin may have spoken at Munich of the "risk of global destabilization" emanating from the Middle East. In reality, nothing would suit him better. For it is the destabilization of the Middle East that guarantees the high energy prices on which Russian power has come to depend. Putin may have led Russia out of its Time of Troubles. Could this be the start of a new Time of Troublemaking?
Whatever the case, so far recent Russian moves to resist American international preponderance have not amounted to a full blown example of counterbalancing in great power relations. Putin showed his moxie last week, based on increasing petro-receipts, but Russia is a long way off from the restoration of power capabilities to rival those of the United States. Still, Ferguson's warning of an increasingly troubled U.S.-Russian partnership bears consideration.

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