The Cold War is not back with us. Not yet. But there’s more than enough to be concerned about in relations between the G7 and new new kid on the block, Vladimir Putin. The media seems to be reporting the individual bits, but, as usual, it lacks much analytical focus. So let’s try at least to string things together. Here is what I would call the “worry list”:
- The eruption of the world’s first “cyberwar,” between Russia and Estonia – clearly no more than Spring cyber-military maneuvers at this point, but a hint of what the future holds, especially for the “near abroad” countries.
- The instability of Ukraine, which seems largely provoked or driven by Moscow and Ukrainian factions closest to Moscow, who now seem to believe that they are in a position to wrestle power from the pro-Western President Yushchenko – why share what you can have outright?
- The arrest warrants and extradition requests for two FSB agents tied to the murder of a British citizen in London, using a radioactive isotope as the lethal medium. Moscow announces its intention to shelter its agents, which of course many will see as confirmation of the Kremlin’s involvement in the hit in the first place. Will the targeted killing continue?
- Energy supply disruptions – the lynchpin of Russia’s energy-driven European policy has been to ensure European dependency on Russian gas and oil supplies, and then to jerk the chain at will. The have already repeatedly demonstrated their quite arbitrary ability to jerk the chain. As a German diplomat says, “the old Soviet Union was a more reliable supplier. I get nostalgic for them.”
- The U.S. missile shield proposal, which the U.S. claims is defensive and directed towards Tehran, but is viewed by the Kremlin as an anti-Russian provocation. This is a growing irritant and neither side appears ready to give.
- Russia’s own new missile program, a surprising development showing a shift in Putin policy on armaments.
- The Kosovo issue.
Now that last one is something that next to no one in the U.S. is covering, but it’s very important and potentially at least as likely to lead to confrontation between the United States and Russia as the missile deployment questions. Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president (who hails from Vyborg, in current day Russia) has painstakingly put together a plan for resolution of the Kosovo situation. Russia is sure to reject this plan, because it does not return Kosovo to Serbia, but instead features managed autonomy for the ethnically Albanian region. After all this is played out, it’s quite possible that the Russians will side with their historic Serb allies, and the Western Europeans and the United States with the Kosovars. A potentially explosive situation in the Balkans.
This will also be bad news for the post-Soviet “Near Abroad,” especially nations like Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine and Georgia, which are likely to suffer from a more “robust” assertion of Russian interests. Georgia is particularly vulnerable. Indeed, Georgia has emerged as Russia’s whipping boy – it takes the blows that the Kremlin would like to direct at the West.
In today’s Times (London), Putin gives a jarring interview.
“I am not President of the Russian Federation to bring our country to the brink of catastrophe, on the contrary,” he said at the start of an interview on Friday night that continued until nearly midnight.
“Of course, I am a pure and absolute democrat,” he said. “But you know what the problem is – not a problem, a real tragedy – that I am alone. There are no such pure democrats in the world. Since Mahatma Gandhi, there has been no one…”
Mr Putin argued that “an arms race is unfolding”, but blamed the US for starting it by quitting the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, planning to deploy missiles in outer space and developing smaller nuclear weapons. He cautioned that “we do not want to use our resources” for an arms race and that “we will find an asymmetric answer”, pointing missiles at Europe or declining to cut conventional forces near Europe. “Of course, we are returning to that time” when Russian missiles were aimed directly at Europe, he said. Nor did he offer hopes of gentler treatment for Russia’s neighbours with whom he has picked recent fights.
In sum: I am not surprised by the recent bellicose rhetoric of Vladimir Putin, and I don’t consider it to be empty. Rough seas ahead.