Ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, there's a familiar chill in the air.
Recent spy scandals and the biggest tit-for-tat diplomat explusions since the height of the cold war are symptomatic, say Russian experts, of an emerging dynamic between two new leaders on the world stage.
Presidents Bush and Putin are young, but more backward-looking, leaders who are pushing latent differences between Moscow and Washington into open confrontation.
Russia, under the former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, is returning to many of its old authoritarian ways, has repaired its relations with nearly the entire spectrum of former Soviet client states, is putting together a global coalition against US plans to build a missile-defense system and, some argue, setting out to modernize its economy by stealing Western technology.
"Russian external policies have brought on this chill," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies. "Putin -who was an active participant in the cold war and seems to have enjoyed being a spy - he is determined to prove that Russia is still a great power."
Mr. Bush, while not a former cold war player himself, has stacked his administration with people who were: Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "The Bush administration is really behaving aggressively," says Leonid Smirnyagin, former Kremlin adviser and fellow with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "The US is reverting to cold-war style in an effort to put Russia into its place. It's very dangerous."
The trigger for the crisis was the arrest last month of Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI agent accused of selling secrets to Moscow over a 15-year period. Last week, the Bush administration expelled four Russian diplomats from Washington and ordered another 46 to leave by July. Moscow swiftly retaliated, handing an equal number of Americans their walking papers on Friday.
But in recent weeks, Washington and Moscow have quarreled over Russian supplies of nuclear-power-plant fuel to India, Kremlin moves to sell billions of dollars in arms to Iran, and even Russian insistence on sending to the International Space Station an American businessman who paid the Russian Space Agency $20 million to visit Mir. Moscow reacted angrily to a US State Department report that depicted the human rights picture in Russia as dire, and is steaming over the Bush administration's decision to officially receive representatives of the rebel government of Chechnya in Washington tomorrow.
The US is particularly miffed by the Hanssen case, which seems stark evidence that the vast former Soviet spying machine remains alive and active. Experts agree that the level of spying on both sides has increased in recent years. Some say that Russia under Mr. Putin has revived the old KGB program of powering economic modernization through systematic theft of Western industrial and military secrets.
"I'm not saying [Russia] is a KGB state, but it's beginning to get that way," says Uri Ra'anen, director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy at Boston University. "Espionage activities are at an unprecedentedly high level. And that is just the tip of the iceberg."
Not so, says Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Kremlin-connected Politika Foundation and a former political adviser to the external-intelligence wing of the KGB in the waning days of the Soviet Union. "Governments inform themselves through intelligence activities, it is perfectly normal," he says. "But I am sure that CIA budgets today are 100 times greater than what Russia spends. The reality is that Russia is no longer an opponent for the USA in this area."
Moscow increasingly views the US as an ill-intentioned superpower, striving to crush potential competitors, and order the world in its own image. "Evidently, in the United States there are politicians who cannot realize their plans and projects under conditions of cooperation," said Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov of Bush's order to expel the 50 Russian diplomats. "They need again to create the image of Russia as the enemy in order to convince US public opinion that it is necessary to increase military spending."
Unlike Soviet times, when the public was largely indifferent to ideological appeals from the Kremlin, anti-Americanism appears to be growing a popular base. A third of Russians labeled the United States as an "enemy" in a recent poll taken by the independent Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow. "I teach at Moscow State University, and have been amazed at the levels of anti-Americanism among my students in the past couple of years," says Mr. Smirnyagin. "We never saw such attitudes in the past, even at the worst of times."
But is that undeniable chill in the wind really a new cold war on the way? Few experts think so.
"Like many incoming Republican administrations, the Bush White House is acting very strangely," says Mr. Nikonov. "They are focussing on a narrow agenda of negative items, and are not looking at the many positive areas where Russia and the US can work together. It will take a Bush-Putin summit to set things back on track."
Still, the post-Soviet honeymoon is definitely over.
"Russia has lost its illusions that doing things the American way will bring us major benefits," says Alexander Konovalov, an analyst with the Institute of Canada-USA. Studies in Moscow. "A lot of what the US views as anti-American behavior are just pragmatic steps by the Putin regime to rationalize Russia's national interests.
"Russia is not interested in a cold war-style confrontation with the US, but it is going to be more assertive on the international stage. You'd better get used to that."
Professor Ra'anen agrees. "While you are in a weak state, you do what the Soviet Union did as a weak state, you indulge in pin pricks - diversionary activities that keep the adversary busy, his decisionmaking body busy."
But former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - who won a Nobel Prize for ending the cold war - told an Italian newspaper this weekend: "One should always remember that trifles may provoke big consequences. The eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth rule is completely out of place in our time."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor