Why Georgia Is Not Start of 'Cold War II'

Article excerpt

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. …

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