The post-Cold War warmth in U.S.-Russia relations disappears after Moscow begins to resist Washington's bid to create a unipolar world.
THE Kremlin has been giving out strong indications that Russia once again wants to play an important and assertive role in international affairs. In 2001, President Vladimir Putin warned that the "era of Russian geopolitical concessions is coming to an end". In his recent interactions with heads of state and political leaders of various countries, President Putin has been warning about the dangers posed by the United States to global security. Moscow has been especially critical of Washington's obsession to create a "unipolar" world. At the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg last year, Putin ridiculed President George W. Bush's attempts at spreading the American brand of democracy in West Asia and its disastrous consequences.
The Russian President's speech at the Munich Security Conference, held in the second week of February, however, seems to have taken the West and the international community by surprise. In front of the assembled world leaders, Putin made a no-holds-barred speech, accusing the U.S. of overstepping its borders in "every way" in its bid to establish global hegemony. "What is a unipolar world? No matter how we beautify this term, it means one single centre of power, one single centre of force and one single master," he said. He went on to add that the U.S. had "overstepped its borders in all spheres - economic, political and humanitarian, and has imposed itself on other states".
Putin, in his landmark speech that could define the course of future Russian foreign policy, said that the world had expected lasting peace after the end of the "Cold War" two decades ago. Instead, he noted, local and regional wars had only increased. The number of people killed in conflict had also dramatically increased. The U.S., he said, had lurched from "conflict to conflict without achieving a full-fledged solution to any of them".
Putin emphasised that the only body that may authorise the use of force to resolve international disputes should be the United Nations. He observed that the Russians were being lectured about democracy by the West, "but for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves".
Western media commentators and security experts were quick to pronounce that a new "Cold War" had started between Moscow and Washington. There were tough statements from American and Russian officials following Putin's speech. A few days before the Russian President's speech, the Russian Defence Ministry criticised the American military expansion in Europe. Moscow was particularly unhappy with the U.S. decision to go ahead with the construction of a missile base in Czech Republic and the placing of interceptor rockets in Poland. Washington insists that the installations are necessary to disable missiles from Iran and North Korea.
Russia's Chief of the Army Staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevski, had earlier warned that the expansion of American military bases into Russia's traditional zone of influence was being viewed as a top security threat. The Army chief also said that Russia might have to pull out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) if Washington went ahead with its plan to build a missile shield in Eastern Europe. The INF treaty was signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in December 1987. In 2002, the Bush administration walked out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. As part of its missile defence policy in East Europe, dubbed by the media as the "son of Star Wars", the U.S. would reintroduce medium-range missiles in the region. Such a move will contravene the INF Treaty. An article in the influential American journal Foreign Policy boasted about America's capability "to destroy the long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia or China with a first-strike capability". Two-thirds of the Polish and Czech people have opposed the move by their right-wing governments to allow the setting up of new military bases in their territories.
Russia has announced that it is planning to overhaul its military infrastructure in the next eight years and earmarked $189 billion for the purpose. America's defence expenditure continues to be more than 20 times that of Russia. With the Russian economy now in good health, Moscow seems to have finally decided to counter Western machinations, which started when Russia was reeling under the after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are already present in half of the 14 former Soviet republics.
One of the commitments given to Moscow by Washington before the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War was the disbanding of NATO. The West not only reneged on the commitment but also expanded NATO by bringing in former Soviet Bloc nations as members. The perceptive U.S. commentator, Stephen. S. Cohen, has written that the U.S. has built a "reverse iron curtain" around Russia after the end of the Cold War.
The West has also been busy promoting "colour revolutions" in Russia's backyard, starting with the dismantling of the Yugoslav state and the regime change in Belgrade. The West has meddled in the politics of Ukraine and Georgia, facilitating temporary regime changes. There have been attempts to influence the course of elections in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. Many Russians have not forgotten that Washington had a key role to play in the installation of the incompetent Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin. Washington tolerated the widespread corruption and misrule that characterised the Yeltsin era.
Vladimir Putin was the first head of state to ring up the American President and offer unqualified support to the U.S. in the wake of the bombings of September 11, 2001. But Washington used the "war on terror" as an excuse to open permanent military bases in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Moscow was initially told that the military bases in Kyrgyzstan and other former Soviet Central Asian republics would be dismantled after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Though the U.S. has been kicked out of its base in Uzbekistan, it is desperately trying to hang on to its military base in Kyrgyzstan.
Many observers are of the view that a new Cold War in fact started some time ago and most experts believe that it was not started by Russia. Others are of the opinion that the new "Cold War" started in earnest following the speech of U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney in Lithuania in the middle of 2006. The high priest of the neo-conservatives accused Russia of committing widespread human rights violations. In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush and Cheney along with the Republican establishment expressed support for the Chechen separatists. Cheney's double standards were evident as he flew off to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan after making the speech on human rights, where he heaped lavish praise on the leaders of the two countries. Neither of the two is exactly famous for its human rights records but both have plenty of oil and gas.
Some commentators have described the existing relationship between the U.S. and Russia as one of "cold peace". Ever since Putin started restoring stability and prosperity to his country, influential sections of the American establishment, cutting across partisan lines, have been busy demonising Russia and Putin. A "task force report" brought out under the chairmanship of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards last year put all the blame for the downturn in relations to "Russia's wrong direction under Putin".
The Washington elite is unhappy with Russia having regained control over its precious natural resources. In retaliation, Washington has tried to keep Russia out of the lucrative oil and gas projects in Central Asia and elsewhere. There have been efforts to have pipelines such as the Baku-Ceyhan one bypass the gas grid controlled by Russia.
Russia has started selling significant amounts of sophisticated arms to countries such as Iran and Venezuela. Both these countries are currently on the hit list of Washington. Recently Russia signed a deal with Iran to sell $700 million worth of TOR M-1 anti-aircraft batteries.
After he made his speech in Munich, Putin left on a highly publicised visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Russian President talked about creating a cartel of gas-producing countries, like the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The three countries, along with Iran, control the bulk of the known gas reserves in the world. Russia has strongly signalled that it wants to play a more active role in the region, especially in the West Asia peace process. Putin had criticised the American invasion of Iraq from the outset, warning that such a move would spread instability around the region.