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The Russian Bear is awake again

by Archives January 29, 2008

The ‘new Cold War’ is an illusion, but the Russian economic and military resurgence is real and its consequences are already being felt on the world stage.
On Jan. 21 warships from the Russian Northern and Black Sea fleets commenced maneuvers off the Atlantic coast of NATO members France and Spain. Entering the area of operations on Jan. 23, Russian long-range bombers skirted the Norwegian coast, and proceeded to fire cruise missiles at imaginary targets in the Bay of Biscay.
“This is the biggest exercise of its kind in the area since Soviet times,” a spokesman for Russia’s navy said.
Capping extended tours in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the Russian Navy is demonstrating the capability to operate en masse, in blue water, far from any support base. That capability had been crippled since the Kursk nuclear submarine accidentally sank in 2000, killing 118 sailors.
For the NATO alliance, this represents the latest in a series of aggressive Russian moves designed to push against the Western cordon of containment, which has been kept in place since the end of the Cold War.
On July 24, 2007, Russian President Putin issued a decree that would suspend participation in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty after 150 days. The CFE Treaty has formed the backbone of Europe’s security framework since its implementation in 1990.
On Aug. 9, 2007, tensions between Georgia and Russia briefly went hot when the Russian Air Force allegedly dropped a bomb in a field north of Tbilisi.
On Aug. 17, 2007, Russian strategic bombers returned to long range patrol for the first time since the Soviet period; forcing NATO to mobilize air assets in response. “Starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly and on a strategic scale,” President Putin explained.
The most troubling development came on Jan. 19, when Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff Yury Baluyevsky released a statement re-asserting Russia’s right to a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The Western response came on Jan. 22, in the form of a NATO report published in the Guardian newspaper. The report called for a revamp of the alliance and, notably, for NATO’s own right to a tactical first strike option.
Pundits left, right, and centre have pointed to saber-rattling on both sides to bolster declarations of a ‘new Cold War.’ While United States Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has accused Russia of “unwise and irresponsible rhetoric” she has also described such declarations as “hyperbolic nonsense.”
The pundits are wrong; Secretary Rice is right. The Cold War was a global stand off, between two carefully balanced super powers, for the right to dictate the terms of the post World War II international order. Today, Russia is merely looking to reassert itself in what it sees as its traditional sphere of influence.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Gorbachev’s implementation of the Glasnost and Perestroika reform programs, Russia experienced one of the largest economic recessions in its history. Statisticians have argued that it was comparable to the United States’ ‘Great Depression’ of the 1930’s and, by 1993; 39 to 49 per cent of the Russian population was living in poverty. By the end of the decade Russia’s military strength, economic clout, and international influence had dried up. Worse, most of its Warsaw Pact allies, and Baltic territories, had joined the European Union, or NATO, or both. Russia was weak.
That is no longer true. Russia, which nearly declared bankruptcy in 1998, has amassed $476 billion in foreign currency reserves and $88.7 billion in a “stability fund.” Vladimir Putin has steadily centralized most major political and economic institutions. The disintegration of the security forces has been reversed.
So, having cleaned house, Russia has shifted focus to its backyard, and it now plans to reclaim its lost sphere of influence. Regions of specific concern are Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, which have historically fallen under the Russian thumb.
Of course, the West has interests in all of these regions as well, so tensions are inevitable. But, that’s the point, the Russians are back and, this time around, they’ll be damned if their interests are ignored.

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