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Commentary: The start of a New Cold War?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 19, 2008 - Events this past summer have led observers to wonder whether we are entering a new cold war. These started on Aug. 8, when Russia unleashed an attack after an ill-conceived Georgian bombardment in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The Russians routed the Georgian army in a matter of days and then moved well beyond South Ossetia to occupy other sites in Georgia. After the cease-fire, Russia made a point of taking its time to withdraw, thereby reminding everyone that it is back as a major power and is not going to be pushed around by NATO or anyone else.

Within days of the attack on South Ossetia, Poland moved to accept an anti-ballistic missile system on its territory, leading a Russian general to note that it had thereby become a legitimate target of Russian nuclear weapons. The Bush administration claimed that this system was directed against future threats from Iran, but the Russians would have none of this, insisting that it is part of a hostile effort directed at them.

These events suggest that we might indeed be heading toward a new cold war. In the social and economic chaos of the 1980s and 1990s, Russia was in no position to engage in such a struggle and was left feeling humiliated. But now that it is awash in petrodollars and the United States is tied down in the Middle East, Russia seems intent on reversing the breakup of the Soviet Union, a development that Vladimir Putin called "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

But if this is a cold war, it is not like the first one, and it is important to understand why.

We are no longer engaged in a grand ideological struggle that pits Soviet communism against Western capitalism. Instead, Russian actions are guided by older forces of nationalism that stem from deep collective memories about invasions by foreign aggressors. This perspective leads Russians to see threats where others often see small actors minding their own business. Instead of an experiment in democracy on their border, for example, Russia sees in Georgia a Trojan horse of NATO preparing to spread political turmoil -- and worse.

Russian thinking is also shaped by deep insecurity over whether it is accorded the respect it deserves as a civilized and powerful nation. This insecurity is reflected in the grand literary tradition of authors such as Dostoevsky, and it continues to exert its influence today.

These strands of Russian culture can be seen in Putin's comments about the invasion of Georgia. At a recent news conference, he said, "We punched the aggressor in the face. Did you expect us to wipe the bloody snot off our faces and bow our heads?" These observations provide a reminder, if one is needed, of the sense of victimhood and the fear of humiliation that often shape the Russian worldview.

Putin's comments should not be taken simply as the bombast of a leader. Instead, they reflect the mainstream view of a nation. We often assume that Russian actions reflect little more than the perspective of authoritarian leaders who control information and dictate policy. But the collective memories behind Putin's comments are widely shared in Russia, and if anything he and others reflect rather than create public opinion. The fact that the poll numbers for Russian leaders rose sharply after the invasion of Georgia suggests that they were doing something that already enjoyed widespread popularity.

In addition to its overtly nationalistic tendencies, today's confrontation differs from old cold war patterns in another way. This has to do with global economic forces. It turns out that these can serve as a brake on Russia's new assertiveness. Since May the Russian stock market has lost over half of its value and has even been closed down for several days out of fear of further losses. This has led to rising alarm by investors, including wealthy elites. Despite Putin's claims to the contrary, at least some of this decline stems from fears about Russia as a safe environment for investment as its confrontation with the West grows.

To try to understand the factors involved in Russian thinking is not to excuse its massive overreaction in Georgia. Its invasion and bombing of a sovereign country cannot be justified as self-defense or on any other grounds. But as American and Russian armed forces continue to operate in very close proximity in the region, including the Black Sea, we need to be more intelligent in avoiding miscalculation and unnecessary provocation. The alternative could be a conflict that would make the violence of August pale by comparison.

James V. Wertsch is the Marshall S. Snow professor in Arts and Sciences and the director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St. Louis. 

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