FRED WOLFERMAN: Cold War II?: Russia Behaving Like the Old Soviet Union
Many historians would tell you that World Wars I and II were really a single episode consisting of two periods of fighting separated by an uneasy truce.
Could it be that the Cold War is following the same pattern? Phase I lasted from 1946 to 1989, there has been a 19-year truce since, and Phase II is just beginning?
Russia is certainly behaving a lot like the old Soviet Union, but there are a number of differences this time around, and they are not very encouraging.
The most obvious is that the United States' military is already fully engaged in two wars while Russia's has plenty of capacity to wander through Georgia at will, just as Sherman did through the other Georgia. Besides, we avoided getting into actual combat with the Soviets for 40-odd years; we don't need to start now.
Another is that, after World War II, we clearly remained the most important country on Earth for 50 years. That has changed. Emerging powers, most obviously China and Russia, are gaining on us quickly, and there is really nothing we can do about it. In China's case, economic, as opposed to political, liberalization has created a behemoth in every sense, with no end in sight.
In the case of Russia, whatever liberalization may have occurred post-1989 is steadily being undone, but Russia has a powerful new trump card: oil. Russia may -- indeed, probably does -- have the largest oil reserves on Earth. They're still looking. Russia supplies 30 percent of Europe's oil requirements and 50 percent of its natural gas.
This means that Europe is dependent on Russia's continuing good will for its energy needs. You can imagine how vigorously the European Union will contest Russian aggressiveness in the Soviets' former sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, Russia can use the revenue from that oil to build its military and an entrenched elite of interlocking bureaucrats and oil tycoons, with enough left over to placate Russians who might otherwise object to a resurgent dictatorship.
The United States, on the other hand, imports 70 percent of its oil and runs a budget deficit of $3 trillion and growing. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan basically bankrupted the Soviet Union by causing it to spend more than it could afford on its military. Now the roles are reversed. The Russians are swimming in oil money, and we are going bankrupt.
The Russian activity in Georgia is clearly intended to send a message to the West: Keep out! Russia has always considered the Caucasus region vital to its security, especially so now that it is both a source and pathway for oil.
We can only hope that Russia doesn't decide, once again, that Eastern Europe is similarly vital. If Mr. Putin should decide to march the Russian army through Prague to Vienna -- or on through Berlin to Paris, for that matter -- who will stop it?
This entire episode, which shows no serious signs of being undone, has cast a whole new light on American politics. John McCain has always been hawkish where Russia is concerned, and Barack Obama, who staked his original position on the deterrent power of United Nations resolutions, has moved steadily rightward as the electorate demands it and evidence of Russian intransigence mounts.
The president, too, is making threatening noises reminiscent of Eisenhower or Kennedy. The problem is, he can't back them up. We are not about to send an army into Georgia, and, even if we could, Russia is already there in force, with reinforcements and supplies easily available. Europe, as previously mentioned and profoundly demonstrated, can and will do nothing.
So what does this new Russian belligerence mean? Russia is out to reinsert itself into international power politics. We may hope that they intend to do so more or less peacefully (Georgia would be on the less side), and that our threats of cutting them out of international organizations may carry some weight.
On the other hand, Mr. Putin is a former KGB hardliner with the bit in his teeth, an obvious disregard for Western influence and authority, and lots of money. The world's reaction to our war in Iraq, irrespective of its righteousness, has shown us that we are no longer the undisputed big kid on the block.
The next question is: How far down the street will we have to move?
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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