Call it cold war II, the sequel.
An intensifying shouting match between the US and Russia has stirred fears that the two former adversaries could be drifting back to a familiar ideologically charged rivalry.
Most experts play down the new mood as a worrisome "chill," and some suggest that a change in leadership - slated for 2008 in both countries - might reverse the slide in mutual ties. But many Russians, who have watched as Western influence has thrust decisively into the former Soviet heartland since the USSR's 1991 demise, see it in darker, more visceral tones.
The US is bent on spreading its power by "buying leaders and organizing state coups" throughout the former USSR, says Yevgeny Ivanov, chief ideologist for the pro-Kremlin group Nashi, Russia's biggest political youth movement. He's referring to the recent wave of pro-democracy "colored revolutions" that wrenched Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan from Moscow's orbit. "Their type of globalization is aimed at having the right to decide the world's destiny," he says.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Fyodor Suvorov, a retired military officer, agrees. "What is the US doing [in the former USSR]? It's as if Russia went to 'protect its interests' in Mexico. While we give in to their pressure, the Americans have pushed NATO right to our doorstep," he says.
A January poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 57 percent of Russians regard the US as a "threat to global security," while just 33 percent think it isn't.
As in the original cold war, which lasted from the end of World War II until the 1991 Soviet collapse, each of the two sides blames the other for the rift.
A report issued last month by the bipartisan US Council on Foreign Relations faulted "Russia's wrong direction" under President Vladimir Putin, and listed a catalog of alleged Muscovite sins that included growing authoritarianism, use of Russian energy supplies to bully neighbors such as Ukraine, and anti-American policies in areas such as Iran and former Soviet Central Asia.
A US State Department human rights report accuses the Kremlin of sidelining parliament, straitjacketing the media, pressuring the judiciary, and harassing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The White House National Security Strategy, a policy blueprint released in mid-March, warned that "efforts to prevent democratic development at home and abroad will hamper the development of Russia's relations with the US, Europe, and its neighbors."
"There is clearly a policy shift underway," says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "We're talking about a bad trend; not just a cooling but a deterioration in relations."
The crunch could come in July, when Russia is set to host a Group of Eight wealthy democracies summit in St. Petersburg - a moment that experts say Mr. Putin sees as crucial to his efforts to gain Russia's acceptance into the club of Western nations. A growing number of US politicians, including Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, are urging President Bush to boycott the event. "The glimmerings of democracy are very faint in Russia today, so I would be very harsh," Mr. McCain told a TV interviewer recently.
Russia's 12-year-old bid to join the World Trade Organization, which awaits only US agreement to become official, has already fallen victim to the new chill, Russian officials complain. "The negotiation process is being artificially set back," Putin told Russian business leaders this month, citing US demands over issues "we thought had been settled long ago."
Experts say the Russian security establishment was stunned by a report in the current issue of the US journal Foreign Affairs which suggests that due to the post-Soviet decay of Russia's nuclear forces coupled with key advances in America's strategic weaponry Russia has "become vulnerable to a US disarming attack." Russian officials have attacked the article as a "provocation."
"There is no doubt that such articles influence security thinking in the opposite country," says Natalia Narochnitskaya, vice chair of the Duma's International Affairs Committee. "Inevitably, it makes us think about how to respond. That's a dangerous thing to start."
The first cold war erupted amid Western alarm over the march of Soviet power into Eastern Europe after WWII, as Moscow staged coups against democratic governments and encouraged local Communist Parties to turn their countries into Soviet "satellites." Ironically, Russians today report similar feelings of outrage at what they view as Western incursions into the post-Soviet region through pro-democracy revolts. "Russians feel that these [neighboring] countries are part of us, and they can't accept that someone else wants to control them," says Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice rector of the Diplomatic Academy, which trains Russian diplomats.
Mr. Bazhanov argues that Washington is misreading Russia's efforts to restore national pride as "some kind of reversion" to the USSR. "There is no doubt that under Putin, Russia is more stable and better organized," he says. "What we had in the 90s was chaos. When we hear US criticism of what's going on here, it sounds to Russians as if Americans want us to be weak. They want to provoke chaos - not to democratize, but to destroy."