It's true enough that Moscow and Washington have been exchanging cross words. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 7 that Russia's military modernization constitutes a threat; the assessment went largely unnoticed here, but not in Moscow.
Things got really nasty three days later. At an international conference in Munich, Germany, with Gates looking on, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin accused the U.S. of riding roughshod over international law and global public opinion and behaving like a rogue state.
The salvos continue. American officials and opinion makers criticize the Kremlin's creeping authoritarianism, on display most recently in its ham-handed harassment of former chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov's anemic opposition movement. (Before that, it was the slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the mysterious poisoning of ex-KGB agent turned Putin antagonist Alexander Litvinenko.) Moscow, in turn, accuses Washington of rank hypocrisy, charging that its invocation of democratic principles is laughable given that it befriends so many illiberal regimes around the world (which, of course, it does) and uses torture and detention without trial whenever it feels the need.
There are quarrels about foreign policy too. The White House sees Russia's use of gas prices to squeeze Belarus, Ukraine and Georgia and its backing of separatist "statelets" in Moldova and Georgia as evidence of imperialism. The Kremlin retorts that these are appropriate responses to Washington's campaign to undercut Russia's influence in its backyard by funding democratic (read anti-Russian) movements and encouraging the building of energy pipelines that bypass its territory.
The brouhaha this week about American plans to install missile defenses in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic is just the latest area of contention. As he left for the G-8 summit, Putin, assuming his street-tough persona, sought to fan opposition to the deployments, warning that Russia would target Europe with missiles if it hosted American missile defenses.
So it is a new Cold War after all, right? Wrong. Like the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BC, the Cold War was an ideological contest between two superpowers with dramatically different blueprints for the world. That epic struggle is history. Today's tiffs between Russia and the United States are minor by contrast. If both sides have the will and skill, they can set things right by taking some deep breaths and switching from rhetoric to diplomacy.
Putin's government may reject American-style democracy, but it offers no systematic alternative with global, even regional, appeal. The now-defunct Soviet Union was wedded to supplanting capitalism, but today's Kremlin surely is not. Although Putin has increased state control over the energy sector, Russia's elite hardly reject market principles, let alone capitalism, which has made many of them plutocrats. And Moscow wants to join the World Trade Organization, for goodness sake.
The Cold War was also a contest of raw power. With its gargantuan budget, the Soviet military machine was a formidable foe. But now, Russia's defense expenditures come to only about 8% of America's; in dollar terms, the Pentagon spends almost three-fourths the value of Russia's yearly GNP. Much of Russia's arsenal is aging and shopworn; its conscripts are demoralized, poorly paid and ill-equipped.
Russia can bully weak neighbors, but unlike the Red Army, its military does not menace Europe and it lacks a global reach. Recent increases in its defense spending and the testing of a new ICBM should not obscure these weaknesses.
It's the gap between Russia's self-image (it sees itself as a great power) and reality (it is a regional power at best, and could soon be overtaken by India and China) that explains the anger emanating from the Kremlin. Russian leaders feel "dissed" by the United States, and with anti-American nationalism pervasive in Russia nowadays, Putin's tough talk plays well at home.
Still, predictions of a new Cold War are political hyperventilation. Russia and the U.S. don't threaten each other's vital interests; they agree on many common dangers, among them terrorism, nuclear proliferation and the fragmentation of states such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Yes, Iraq. Should it shatter and become a self-sustaining source of terrorism, Russia has much to lose given the resilience of militant Islam in its North Caucasus region.)
But Russian and American leaders can't cooperate while trading insults. If they are serious about pursuing mutually beneficial projects such as arms control, they should first practice some word control. Rhetoric can create its own reality, and the current reality benefits neither side, even though it's hardly a prelude to a Cold War.