For Vladimir Putin, who grew up knowing nothing of a world not divided by the Cold War, his return to confrontation with the West is like finding his lost security blanket.It's a return to the familiar, to the intellectually comfortable. It's also self-created and self-serving.
The fateful Russian disease of paranoia works well to justify a seemingly instinctive aggressiveness of Putin and his old KGB comrades. The difference between now and the past is that present day Russia has a relatively stable and growing economy, an open door to friendship with America and Western Europe and, if it would only take advantage of it, is in a position to act as a major peacemaker in the Middle East.
The trouble with this political portrait is that Western leaders have let Putin get away with his display of gorilla-like breast beating. In recent days Vladimir Putin has done everything convenient to him to provoke retaliation by Great Britain and the United States.
The American announcement of plans to place missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic came as no surprise to Moscow. It had been apprised of this long before and well understood there was no intent whatsoever to target their country. The Russian reaction was calculated and specifically timed.
The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko also was a well thought out attack on Tony Blair's government when Downing Street steadfastly refused to turn over the exiled billionaire Boris Berezovsky and his ex-KGB employee.
As a result there is an escalating expulsion of embassy personnel in both London and Moscow. The Russians defiantly kicked out the high-ranking British trade official responsible for all of the U.K.'s commercial, economic and scientific affairs with Russia. This was on top of the serious rupture by Putin's government of cooperation on counter-terrorism issues.
Putin this week has repeated that the "missile crisis" (his term) now requires a major Russian military build-up including substantially increased intelligence activity. (A conspicuously disingenuous statement as Russian foreign intelligence ops already have grown exponentially in the last several years.)
In a display of old Cold War rhetoric the Russian president told a graduating class of military and security officers that their country must respond to "American global threats." In this same speech, in a most derogatory manner, he attacked the British, "who act as if they are still a colonial power."
Why the vivid rhetoric and the threatening posture? The simple answer is "because they can do it." And one can add that they think they can get away with it. The charismatic Blair is gone and the dour Scot, Gordon Brown, was long considered as unwilling to be confrontational in international matters. The U.S. administration of George Bush has been adjudged by Moscow as an emasculated political entity on both domestic and foreign fronts.
The timing was perfect for resumption of some form of political warfare -- if not an actual cold war, at least a stingingly biting winter chill. Yet the question remains as to exactly why Putin would choose to act now, if at all.
The answer is obvious enough. Vladimir Putin and his supporters actually have found this a propitious time to restart a cold war as a justified response to what they believe was exploitation by the West after the fall of the Soviet Union. At least that's what they are pushing in international news circles.
Even Western-feted Mikhail Gorbachev has lent his support by claiming America wants to "build a new empire...ignoring the UN Security Council." Opportunistic as ever, Gorbachev would like to struggle out from under his countrymen's view that he was responsible for destroying the USSR.
It's a good time politically to get on the anti-American bandwagon. Russia for the first time since the communist revolution is growing into a major economically viable nation. Moscow can take advantage of the anti-U.S. momentum in the Middle East and throughout the developing world.
Putin is a careful risk taker. Now is the time to move and he has done so, and done it sharply. The question is whether he is right about the weakness and preoccupation of the administrations in London and Washington -- or do they have the political ability, and the will, to respond effectively?
The challenge is nothing less daunting than standing up to V.V. Putin's provocation of a new form of cold war driven this time by the same raw national ambition but without the ideological cover of the past.
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