The American Legion Magazine
March 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

“There are at the present time two great nations in the world,” Alexis de Tocqueville declared in 1835, “the Russians and the Americans.” Even then, the two were “marked out by the will of heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” 

Any doubts about Tocqueville’s prediction were put to rest at the end of World War II, when the Soviet Union and United States emerged as the world’s lone superpowers, carved out rival empires that spanned the globe and waged a costly Cold War that often turned hot.  

Happily, sometime between the Reykjavik summit in 1986 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that exhausting conflict ended. Americans turned their attention homeward, at least until 9/11 forced them to refocus on the messy world beyond their shores. And Russians tried to transform their country into a democracy and constructive member of the international community.  

But Moscow has begun reverting to its old ways. The result is not a new Cold War, but a rather a cold peace. 

Czar Vladimir I?
Many of the West’s problems with today’s Russia begin with President Vladimir Putin, who is starting to resemble a latter-day czar. Just consider some of Putin’s recent actions.  

-Although he is required to relinquish the presidency after the elections in March 2008, Putin has engineered a way to become prime minister and thus extend his stranglehold on power. “This charade has only one meaning,” as The Economist magazine concluded. “Putin is staying on, probably for a very long time.”

-Moscow initially said it would limit the number of international observers for the 2007 parliamentary elections to just 70 monitors instead of the 400 that verified the 2003 elections. But then Moscow failed to grant visas to any of the observers.[i]

-In 2004, as Freedom House details, “Putin introduced legislative changes that eliminated direct gubernatorial elections in favor of presidential appointments.” Another law “stripped legislators of their seats if they changed parties and prohibited parties from supporting other parties during elections.”

-Freedom House concludes that freedom of the press exists only in name in Putin’s Russia, noting that the Russian government now “owns or controls the country’s three main national television networks.” 

The effect—and purpose—of these measures has been to strengthen Putin and weaken his opponents.  

Pointing to Moscow’s drift away from democracy, Vice President Dick Cheney declared in 2006 that “Russia has a choice to make.” It appears Putin has made that choice for the Russian people.  As President George W. Bush conceded in late 2007, it’s difficult “to reprogram the kind of basic Russian DNA,” which embraces “centralized authority.”

It’s even harder to ignore what the Putin government is doing beyond the Kremlin’s walls.  

Putin has laid waste to the breakaway enclave of Chechnya. Amnesty International cites “widespread and credible reports that Russian forces have been responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including disappearances, extrajudicial executions and torture, including rape.” 

Driven by what the Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan calls a “typically Russian blend of national resentment and ambition,”[ii] Moscow refuses to withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia, over the objection of their governments and in contravention of its own assurances.  

Plus, Moscow is shipping military hardware to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez. Yet Putin has the temerity to claim that “nobody feels safe anymore” because of U.S. foreign policy. 

Bad Old Days
To strengthen his hand along Russia’s southern borderlands, Putin forged the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). 

With a membership that includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan—and Iran as an observer—the SCO could become a counterweight to the U.S. alliance system. If Iran joins, as the East Asia Institute’s David Wall told The Washington Times, “It would essentially be an OPEC with bombs.” 

Russia’s ties to Iran are certainly growing. Recent transactions include components for the nuclear reactor in Bushehr and sophisticated air-defense systems. Moreover, during his ill-timed visit to Iran in late 2007, Putin warned that “No Caspian nation should offer its territory to third powers for use of force or military aggression against any Caspian state”—a thinly veiled threat for the region and Washington. 

In a similar vein, Russia used the SCO to pressure Uzbekistan to cut military ties with Washington.  

Most important, the SCO has given Putin a vehicle for building military links with China, which receives about half of Russia’s arms exports.[iii]  

In 2005, China and Russia teamed up for war games involving some 10,000 men. China and Russia reprised the maneuvers in 2007, highlighting their new “strategic partnership” by sending an armada of 20 Russian bombers into the skies over the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.[iv]   

Not since the end of the Cold War had Russian bombers conducted sorties of that nature. And Putin has made it clear that the bad old days are back. “I have made a decision to resume regular flights of Russian strategic aviation,” he declared. “Our pilots have been grounded for too long.”[v] 

Putin’s Russia is also making mischief in Europe.  

In 2006 and 2007, Moscow shut off oil and gas shipments into Europe—in the dead of winter—to bully Belarus and Ukraine.  

Moreover, Russia has interfered in the internal politics of Ukraine and Lithuania. In fact, Lithuania impeached its president in 2004 after connections to the Russian secret service were unearthed. And elements connected to the Russian government were implicated in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko (who is now president).  

In early 2007, after Estonia relocated a Soviet-era war memorial, Estonians endured diplomatic bullying and cyber-attacks from Russia. At least some of the cyber-salvos that crippled Estonian communications and commerce were traced back to Russian government offices. And the mobs of angry Russians that fomented disturbances inside Estonia, laid siege to the Estonian embassy and stalked the Estonian ambassador were coordinated and/or countenanced by Russian officials. The Kremlin coyly claimed it was unable to control the crowds—this from the same regime that quashes public assemblies and constrains unapproved religious groups with ease.  

“Democracies don’t behave like that,” argues Estonia’s president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. “Russia has bad relations with all the democratic countries on its borders,” he observes, adding that Russia has good relations with non-democratic countries. “That should make one think.”[vi] 

Russia recently announced plans to suspend its participation in the CFE Treaty, which limits the number of conventional weapons in Europe. Russia’s reasoning says much about the state of affairs in Europe. Moscow cites Europe’s delay in ratifying a new version of the CFE Treaty, but this delay is triggered by Moscow’s refusal to withdraw troops from Moldova and Georgia. 

Finally, as with Iran, Moscow is obstructing UN action on Kosovo, reverting to the sort of ethno-nationalist politics that most of Europe tried to bury in the 20th century.

Second Thoughts
However, none of that impacts U.S. security as directly as Putin’s reactionary response to the nascent international missile defense system (IMD).

The U.S. and its closest allies have been building IMD for the better part of a decade. In 2001, when Bush notified Putin of America’s intentions to pull the plug on the moribund ABM Treaty, Putin concluded that Washington’s decision “does not pose a threat to the national security of the Russian Federation.” Putin welcomed America’s related promise to slash its nuclear arsenal from 6,000 warheads to 1,700, a promise which was codified in the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

But Putin is having second thoughts. He has balked on deployment of IMD elements in the Czech Republic and Poland, claiming that Washington did not fully consult him. In fact, according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Washington and Moscow held ten formal IMD discussions between spring 2006 and spring 2007.

That apparently wasn’t enough for Putin and his generals. Trapped in the ice of a Cold War that ended 20 years ago, Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, warns that Russia could withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and retarget its arsenal to strike Poland and the Czech Republic. “The Strategic Missile Forces,” he blusters, “will be capable of carrying out this task.”[vii] 

Of course they are capable of that. Russian missiles can strike anywhere on earth. But Putin knows this system is not designed to shield Europe or North America from his vast arsenal. As the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) explains, “There would not be sufficient time to detect, track and intercept” Russian missiles using the radars and interceptor beds planned for Central Europe. However, that same equipment can protect the U.S. and its friends from madmen in the Middle East.

In mid-2007, Putin tried to derail or at least delay deployment of IMD by making a disingenuous offer to use a radar base in Azerbaijan rather than facilities in Central Europe. In response, Washington dispatched a high-level team to inspect the Soviet-era facility. Afterwards, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who heads the MDA, delivered a blunt assessment of the Russian proposal. “We do not anticipate, and cannot see, that what they are proposing can take the place of what we are proposing for Poland and the Czech Republic,” he concluded.

The U.S. has tried to assuage Russia’s concerns by promising to allow Russian personnel to be stationed at IMD sites in Europe and even proposing to delay activating the sites until Moscow and Washington agree that there is “definitive proof of the threat,” in the words of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Of course, that would seem to invite more mischief from Moscow, which is why Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried adds, “We will not ask Russia’s permission to turn it on.”[viii]

“We’ve leaned about as far forward as we can,” according to Gates. “The question is whether the Russians are serious about partnering with us, or whether this is merely a pose to try to stop us from going forward with the Czech Republic and Poland.”

We know the answer. This is not about going forward for Russia; it’s about looking backwards. Russians view the deployment of anti-missile systems on Polish and Czech soil as encroachment on their historic sphere of influence. After watching their former vassal states dissolve the Warsaw Pact, join NATO and enter the EU, this must be difficult for Russians. Of course, as Czechs and Poles might remind us, it’s not as difficult as living under Soviet domination for almost half-a-century—or living as orphans in a no-man’s for a decade.  

Past and Present
Putin is quick note that America and Russia “do not look at each other through the sights of our weapons systems.” Try telling that to the fighter pilots who are intercepting Russian Tu-95 bombers. 

Still, the U.S.-Russia relationship is decidedly different today than it was during the Cold War. After all, the two powers are slashing their nuclear arsenals. Plus, it pays to recall that Moscow and Washington waged a number of proxy wars that spun off from the Cold War—and almost spun out of control. Today, their disagreements play out in conference rooms rather than on battlefields. In fact, their top defense and foreign policy officials meet every six months. 

The State Department notes that annual trade between the former enemies exceeds $24 billion. The two collaborate on counterterrorism initiatives. Russia has played a helpful role in the North Korean nuclear crisis and Middle East peace process. At least until recently, Russia worked with NATO to stabilize the Balkans. And on the lighter side, Putin’s backers actually cite FDR’s unprecedented four-term presidency to justify the Russian leader’s decision to stay in power.[ix] 

In short, it would be fair to say that today’s cold peace is better than yesterday’s Cold War. But Putin is giving every indication that he prefers the past over the present.  “Russia’s complaint today is not with this or that weapons system,” as Kagan ominously concludes. “It is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and wants to revise.” 

[i] Clifford J. Levy, “Russia formally proposes curbs to election monitors,” IHT, October 31, 2007.

[ii] Robert Kagan, “End of Dreams, Return of History,” Policy Review, August/September 2007.

[iii] Oliver Bullough, “Russian arms sales: A rising worry,” International Herald Tribune,  June 21, 2006.

[iv] AP, “Russia and China hold joint military exercise,” August 17, 2007.

[v] AP, “Russia and China hold joint military exercise,” August 17, 2007.

[vi] See Ilves interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 2007.

[vii] Claire Bigg, “Russia Warns Czech Republic, Poland On Missile Defense” Radio Free Europe, February 20, 2007.

[viii] Quotes from Kristin Roberts, “US offers to keep shield on standby,” Reuters, October 23, 2007; Reuters, “No veto for Russia on missile shield: US official,” October 24, 2007.

[ix] Peter Finn, “Putin finds expedient hero in four-term US president,” Washington Post, October 19, 2007.