Cold War II?

Is a new Moscow-Washington conflict in the cards? Growing Russian nationalism and assertive Kremlin policies threaten to usher in a new era of competition.

Is a new cold war on the horizon? More than fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the idea that we have to worry about Russia again seems outdated, ridiculous and hysterical. Yet, the chatter in the news media and in Washington policy circles is eerily similar to what we might have heard in 1985: What of the various clans vying for power in Moscow? What is Putin up to? Is Medvedev a reformer or opportunist?

Looking at Russia's internal machinations isn't the same as peering into a crystal ball, but it can provide insight into whether a new Iron Curtain is falling over Moscow. Contrary to popular belief, the current Russian Federation-for all its resemblances with the Soviet Union-is not totalitarian. Whereas elections in Russia are neither free nor anything close to fair, the voting itself happens, in most regions, in a relatively orderly fashion. Although Russia's mass media is under the open or hidden control of the Kremlin, manifest censorship is rare, and pundits are free to formulate competing visions of Russia's future in public. While civic and political groups are closely watched by the government, they can develop relatively uninhibited-as long as they pose no threat to the current regime. High energy prices give Putin and his entourage considerable autonomy, but do not eliminate constraints on the Kremlin: The regime's stability is a reflection of its popularity. Russia's current state is a hybrid-neither fully authoritarian nor meaningfully democratic; actively manipulating, but also ultimately dependent on, public opinion.

But what is more disturbing is that the modicum of free expression tolerated by the regime betrays a flourishing radicalism among the Russian population. And after years of incessant anti-Western propaganda, Russia's establishment has also largely adopted a paranoid worldview. Moscow's mainstream TV and radio stations, major newspapers and political spokesmen have been spreading the idea that most of Russia's problems come from abroad. You hear it on popular talk shows, at political congresses, or during scholarly conferences: They usually blame it on the United States, IMF or NATO, claiming they are, at least indirectly, responsible for this or that problem of Russia-economic mishaps, loss of international influence, cultural degradation, social issues-the list goes on. In one way or another, the amerikantsy and their "agents of influence" in Moscow are to blame for the breakup of the Soviet Union and all the economic struggles that came after. The dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the Orange Revolution in Kiev, Russia's estrangement from Georgia, its humiliation by Estonia-who other than Brussels and Washington could be responsible for this?

Until recently, such conspiracy theorizing merely raised eyebrows or even provided a chuckle in the West. All this changed in 2007: Putin's anti-American speech at a Munich security conference in February began a series of similar public accusations by the Russian president throughout the year. According to Putin, Russia's (and the whole non-Western world's) major contemporary challenge is to limit the various machinations of the neo-imperialist United States. In Moscow's brave new world, the American-led West is trying to undermine the independence, sovereignty and distinctiveness of non-Western civilizations, not the least of which is Russia. So-called non-governmental organizations and democratic movements are little more than "fifth columns" in this process, fronts for pushing the national interest of the only remaining superpower. Whether or to what degree the Kremlin itself believes this story is, eventually, inconsequential-these accusations have become commonplace in Russian public life. They are reproduced on a daily basis in the media, taught in schools and colleges, and elaborated on in academic research; they have found their way into the post-Soviet Russian national identity. Each year, newspapers, publishing houses and think tanks produce more bizarre attacks on the United States and the West that increasingly resemble Soviet propaganda, though they are more sophisticated.

Right now it is unclear how this trend could be reversed or even stopped. The fear is that anti-Western sentiment in Russia may spiral out of the Kremlin's control. A number of ideologues from the lunatic fringe are already part of Russia's political establishment. Take Alexander Dugin, a political commentator little known in the West but prominent in Russian public and intellectual life. A rabid anti-American, Dugin openly praised the Third Reich, the SS and fascism in general in the 1990s. Nevertheless, his "International Eurasian Movement" has today among its official members Russia's minister of culture (Alexander Sokolov), Deputy Speaker of the Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament) Alexander Torshin and presidential advisor Aslambek Aslakhanov. As recently as 2006, Dugin singled out for praise the ideas of Gregor and Otto Strasser- two Germans who helped Hitler build the Nazi party in the 1920s. Yet in spite of such statements Dugin has become a well-respected participant on primetime political talk shows; some of his numerous tomes are used as textbooks in Russian schools and universities.

Now Putin's turn to conspiracy-theorizing has given Dugin and others of his ilk a powerful push: Their ideas have been confirmed by Russia's most popular man and entered the cultural mainstream. The president has publicly condemned U.S. foreign policy, compared Russia's liberals to jackals skulking around foreign embassies and warned the West "to keep its nose out" of Russia's internal affairs. This is pretty much what Moscow's post-Soviet "ultras" have been saying since the early 1990s. If the popularization of Moscow radicals' Manichean views continues in Russian society unabated, sooner or later we will find ourselves in another cold war.

 

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