Why Georgia is not start of 'Cold War II'

Despite tensions over missile deals and NATO expansion, the West's ties with Russia are far more nuanced than in Soviet days.

Two weeks into the Georgia crisis, Russia maintains leverage, adroitly playing a great game of obfuscation and tit-for-tat – both militarily and diplomatically – with a disunited West struggling to determine whether this is a new cold war.

Vladimir Putin's idea of the 21st century appears different from that described by President Bush in calling for Russia to withdraw. As NATO officials this week fought to show strong support for Georgia without irreparably damaging ties to Russia, the "new world order" described by Mr. Bush's father as the Soviet empire collapsed seems a faint memory.

Yet while Russia's action has been termed a new cold war, that concept doesn't capture the dramatic global changes since Mikhail Gorbachev disbanded the Soviet Union in 1991, say diplomats and Russian area specialists. In a more globalized world, Russia is at once a competitor, a partner, and an opponent.

"It is the greatest challenge for any statesman today to see what is the right priority," says Pierre Hassner, a Paris-based scholar ofEast-West relations. "Is it Iran, Russia, the price of oil, terrorism? It may in some ways look like the cold war again – but the context today is blurred past recognition."

This week, rhetoric and emotion escalated: As Poland and the US signed a missile shield deal Tuesday, Moscow said Russia "will be forced to react, and not only through diplomatic means" – and is hosting Syria's president today to discuss further military cooperation.

NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said this week it will no longer be "business as usual" with Moscow, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Tbilisi defied Russia threats over NATO expansion and said Georgia will "one day" be a member. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shot back that "NATO is trying to make a victim of an aggressor [Georgia] and whitewash a criminal regime."

Muddled view of Moscow's intent

Meanwhile, Moscow's intent in Georgia remains unclear. Russian troops on the ground have contradicted official promises; Russian authorities have avidly reinterpreted a French-brokered cease-fire. It remains unclear whether troops will withdraw into South Ossetia, or create their own unbrokered security zone in a swath of Georgia outside Ossetia. Moscow first said its troops would pull out, then said troops would only pull back. All the while, Russian forces have moved freely on Georgian territory and taken control of several cities. The delay is widely seen as a bid to dramatize the West's inability to deter. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili called the delay an opportunity for Moscow to "laugh at" the West.

Russian military authority remains split between a president elected in May with no opposition, and Prime Minister Putin, who once called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century."

Such remarks may feed new definitions of a "cold war," as does Putin's putative intent to exert power and influence in weaker states around Russia – particularly any Eurasian oil corridors through Georgia that would deny lucrative tariffs for Moscow.

1950s vs. 2008: Radio vs. iPod

Yet world dynamics in the cold war versus those in 2008 are as different as the transistor radio and the iPod. The interlinked economies of Russia and Europe, vastly freer global media access, the rise of China, greater travel, new generations, disparate wealth, and changed attitudes and expectations – make a different world than during the rigid standoff between the liberal West and communist Soviets. Russia is no longer a self-contained empire animated by the discipline of socialist morality – far from it, and the West is no longer focused on a single opponent. Issues without borders, such as energy, the environment, terror, trade, banking, and mafias – emerged more strongly after the Berlin Wall went down. The West needs Russia's help to constrain Iran.

The term cold war itself may actually block new thinking, argues Paul Goble, a former State Department and CIA analyst and expert on Soviet nationalities.

"The Russian Federation and the United States are not about to enter a new cold war even if tensions between Moscow and Washington rise dramatically," says Mr. Goble. "The cold war pitted an ideologically driven Soviet Union against the free world, a conflict [where] both sides ... devoted enormous resources to defeat the other."

"References to the cold war now are ... unhelpful ...," he adds, "an ideologically driven notion that the only possible choices these two countries have for relations are total conflict or total agreement, neither of which is possible or desirable."

In Poland, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters, "I don't think this is a new cold war."

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy warned of the risk of a "new cold war" days ago, but has not repeated the phrase. French foreign affairs analyst Daniel Vernet, writing in Le Monde, argues that Russia is acting more like "a czarist power" than a Soviet power – and says the phrase "cold war" is useful to Moscow, since it conceptually divides east and west Europe into old zones of influence in which each side can act with relative impunity.

"We are stuck in relationships in which major powers are not enemies, but not friends," says Mr. Hassner at the Center of International Studies and Research in Paris. "The UN isn't working. The new world order and the democracy surplus never came to be – but there are networks of capital and cooperation between Russia, China, and the West that weren't there before."

A new world, yes, but not cold war

To be sure, thinkers – diplomats, scholars, writers – say the Russian blitz into Georgia represents a new world, but what kind of new world is undefined.

Cold war certainties have given way to an international climate that is mixed up, unpredictable, contrary, and quite corrupt. Russia's action is creating "a new context of fear rippling through its border regions," says Goble, causing "effects we can't even understand yet."

In the post-cold-war world of 2008, there's no one overarching reality that provides an orienting stability. Russians again feel Moscow's power and authority, and are assured by it. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make NATO, the US, and Europe appear weak. In this world, "if you take one action, it can boomerang and harm something else," says Hassner. The "war on terror" isn't an adequate principle around which to center all focus, he adds.

Some East European analysts say Russia doesn't want to attack or allow hostile relations with the West à la cold war; Rather, Moscow's intent is to exploit the riches and technology of the West.

"Russia's strength is made possible by oil at $150 a barrel," says Bartosz Weglarczyk, foreign editor of influential Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "If oil is cut to $60 a barrel, Russia is sunk. [Russians] spend less on research and development than Poland. They want bank accounts in the West, to make millionaires off sales to Europe. They don't want a big war. They want to gain influence and manipulate."

1947: Truman pledges US support to any country threatened by communism.

1948: The US and Britain airlift supplies into a Berlin blockaded by the USSR.

1950: Communist N. Korea invades S. Korea; the US enters the Korean War.

1961: Communist East Germany erects Berlin Wall to prevent travel westward.

1962 US spots Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. Kennedy orders a naval blockade. After tense negotiations, the Cuban missile crisis is defused.

1965: Vietnam War: The US enters the Vietnam War to prevent the spread of communist control to South Vietnam.

1979: The USSR invades Afghanistan. The US funds jihadists to drive them out. The Soviets leave in 1988.

1989: Berlin Wall falls.

1991: After a failed coup against Gorbachev by communist hard-liners, the USSR collapses.

Source: 'War Since 1945,' by Jeremy Black; CNN; 'The Cold War,' by John Lewis Gaddis. Compiled by Corinne Chronopoulos.

Cold-war snapshot

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.