On Point

It's a Cold Snap, No Cold War

by Austin Bay

The good news for Russia: Oil and natural gas prices are on the uptick. That means cash for a debt-ridden nation.

The bad news for Russia: That's the rest of the news. OK, Mir crashed safely. The Russian economy, armed forces, justice system -- they've simply crashed.

Despite Russia's obviously chronic condition, the tit-for-tat expulsions of Russian and American diplomats following the Robert Hanssen spy scandal resurrected Cold War memories. In the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, TV cameras caught a glint of old-time Stalinist glare.

Grab your trench coat and take a chilly stroll through Berlin?

Forget it. This is a cold snap in U.S.-Russian relations -- at the very most -- and certainly no Cold War.

Obviously, Hanssen's peculiar treachery hurts. Perhaps he is the last of the "deep" Cold War Moscow moles. One can pray and hope, and kick the FBI to tighten up counter-intelligence operations. For that matter, the Bush administration needs to re-emphasize the importance of intelligence security.

Spying, of course, is a perennial state activity. In the spy game if you get caught you lose players. Icy glares and frosty diplomatic notes are part of that ritual process.

Washington's Russia policy, however, has been due for an injection of realpolitik, and the Hanssen arrest provides a sharp opportunity to deliver the dose.

  • Realpolitik point one: Russian power has declined precipitously (smell the coffee, Moscow). Yes, Russia's thousands of nuclear weapons matter, but their existence doesn't translate into decisive power.

    The Russians know they've dropped out of the bipolar big league, but old expectations linger. Perhaps it's a kind of "muscle memory," but Moscow has consistently demanded Washington grant it "special status" within any cooperative defense and foreign policy consultative arrangement. Up to a point, the Clinton administration accommodated that demand, as part of a U.S. strategy of engaging a democratizing Russia in a "web" of economic, political and cultural relationships.

    NATO expansion and the Kosovo War, however, proceeded over strong Russian objections. Russian nationalists gripe about American "arrogance." Complaining about American arrogance is easier than getting to work and addressing the causes of Russia's economic and military deterioration.


  • Point two: The Clinton administration's attempt to use personal relationships, loans and rhetorical rah-rah to nudge Russia toward domestic reform simply has not worked. The fault lies not so much with U.S. policy but with the Russians' own failure to make essential structural changes to their system.

    Several U.S. programs designed to foster judicial reform and encourage entrepreneurial creativity were well-intended and looked great on paper. At best, however, they have produced marginal results. Russia's problems were simply too big for rah-rah. Without the foundation of law, the economy became a mafia morass.

    In 1991, Russia faced a 30-year-long process of change. In 2001 Russia faces a 29-year-long process. Whose fault? Russian leaders. Systemic corruption. It's not Cold War when the Bush administration correctly fingers Russia's post-Cold War culprits.


  • Point three: Russia's weapons sales to Iran, technology transfers to China and Iraqi policy are harmful to U.S. interests. The Russians pursue these deals based on their own national interests. However, it's no Cold War act for the United States to assert its own interests when they collide with Russia's.

    Any nation that pursues policies which harm U.S. interests should risk political and economic consequences. That's not Cold War, that's statecraft.


  • Point four: Russia is in a political bind of its own creation, specifically over the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. Moscow's objections to missile defense are Cold War fossils. If Moscow wants to fundamentally improve U.S. relations, missile defense is the place to do it. The Russians know it and so does the Bush administration.


  • Point five: There are many areas ripe for U.S.-Russian cooperation. These include space exploration and counter-terror operations, as well as stabilizing Central Asia and the Balkans. The Cold War's over, this is the Millennium Era. Get with it.
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