Cold War Clouds

Are Russia and the United States heading for a new Cold War? Yes, says an expert report circulated in the state Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. The report predicts a significant worsening in Russian-American relations in the next few years, warning that Washington will pursue a hostile policy towards Moscow regardless of who wins the next presidential election in the U.S. It says the U.S. will seek to promote a government change in Russia, weaken Russia’s energy power and undermine its position in the former Soviet states.

The report was prepared by two experts of the state Duma – Valentin Falin, former Central Committee Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and foreign policy adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and Lieutenant-General (retired) Gennady Yevstafiev, former top official of the SRV Foreign Intelligence Service.

What lends special weight to the report is that it is the first such study prepared for Russian legislators and it is highly critical of U.S. policy towards Russia. “There is no doubt that despite all their declarations of willingness to build equitable cooperation, the U.S. and the West as a whole are mainly motivated by a desire to infringe on Russia’s interests wherever they can and to achieve their long-term economic and political goals at Russia’s expense,” the report says.

Parliamentary sources said the report, titled “Likely scenario of U.S. policy towards Russia in 2006-2008″, was prepared in time for the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg in July but was held back so as not to jeopardise chances of striking a deal with the U.S. on the Russian bid to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on the sidelines of the summit. The deal fell through, as the U.S. demanded new concessions from Russia, and the report was released at the end of September.

Around 2004-2005, says the report, U.S. neo-conservatives abandoned their efforts to bend the Russian leadership to toe the American line and embarked on a plan to replace it with a more pliant regime in an “Orange revolution” scenario modelled after the state coups in Georgia and Ukraine.

The change of strategy came when American policy-makers found that the ruling elite of a resurgent Russia was not nearly as susceptible to outside pressure as the regime of former President Boris Yeltsin, whose survival largely hinged on the availability of U.S. and other Western credits.

“The Bush administration has substantially shifted the reference point of bipartisan policy on the Russian Federation towards Cold War,” the Russian experts wrote. “From the political struggle for democracy, the so-called battle for Russia, the United States is openly embracing efforts to neutralise Russia as an independent and in some cases also a magnetic centre of power and influence and undermine its main `weapon’, the new Russian energy strategy, and more broadly is engaging in a direct battle for Russian oil and gas.”

Citing recent U.S. think-tank and media reports and statements by American politicians, the Russian experts conclude that the new anti-Russian line is a product of foreign policy consensus between the Republicans and the Democrats as neo-cons “will call the shots” in both parties “for the foreseeable future, driving the least ideologically charged, moderate politicians from the top posts”.

The report argues that while President George W. Bush may be reluctant to harden his policy towards Russia as he tries to secure Moscow’s support on Iran, both the frontrunners in the U.S. presidential race, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hilary Clinton, favour a tougher line on Russia.

The report says: “Regardless of the outcome of upcoming U.S. elections in 2006 (for Congress) and 2008 (for President) one should not expect any radical improvement in Washington’s attitude toward the Russian government. The U.S. finds it unacceptable in principle to have to deal with an entirely sovereign Russia that possesses a defence capability devaluing America’s strike potential and that is not built into the system of `global American leadership’ and is not vulnerable to outside pressure.”

The report warns that the U.S. could sponsor efforts to undermine the Kremlin and help bring pro-Western forces to power taking advantage of the parliamentary elections to be held in Russia in late 2007 and the presidential ballot in the spring of 2008. Washington will encourage “a covert regrouping of forces” within the political and business elites that would “pave the way for a `quiet’ Orange revolution, Russian-style”, the study says.

To this end the U.S. will try to discredit top Russian officials and businessmen by accusing them of corruption, freezing their assets in the West, and refusing them U.S. visas. Washington may also try to step up pressure on the Russian leadership by refusing to recognise the election results for Parliament and President, foment social protests, increase support for the pro-Western media and the Opposition, and encourage regional separatism.

The report suggests the U.S. will attempt to undermine the Russian government’s control over energy resources, step up attacks on Russia for using energy as a political weapon and press Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to sign accords for the construction of energy shipment routes bypassing Russia.

The U.S. is expected to seek to subvert Russian positions in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by pushing for the admission of Ukraine and Georgia to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and stepping up pressure on Russian allies, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Uzbekistan.

The authors of the report call on the Russian leadership to counter the U.S. offensive with greater activism in the former Soviet Union by pursuing non-confrontational democratic modernisation of ex-Soviet regimes; forging a confederative union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, to be later expanded to include Uzbekistan, on the basis of a “gas OPEC”; and using more boldly energy and economic levers to reward friendly regimes and punish hostile ones.

Analysts said the state Duma report was a sign of the worsening relations between Russia and the U.S. and a Russian response to a New York Council on Foreign Relations report earlier this year that claimed Russia was heading in the “wrong direction”. Pro-Western liberals in Russia were quick to dismiss the report as a piece of “anti-U.S. paranoia”. However, facts on the ground bear out the study.

The U.S. has sought to break up the Russia-led CIS by promoting a rival pro-Western organisation of former Soviet republics, GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova). It has masterminded patently anti-Russian “Orange revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine and is pushing for their admission to NATO. Russia has accused the U.S. of using the former Soviet republic of Georgia as a pawn in the U.S. game against it. Commenting on the U.S. role in provoking the latest crisis in Russia’s relations with Georgia over the arrest of four Russian military officers in Georgia in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Bush that Moscow found it “unacceptable” when “third countries” encouraged Georgia’s “destructive policies”.

Washington is seeking to perpetuate its military presence in Central Asia and has floated the idea of a “Greater Central Asia” which would include Afghanistan and the oil-rich Caspian and is designed to wean Central Asian states away from Russia and China.

The Pentagon is beefing up its military presence in Eastern Europe and has announced plans to deploy anti-ballistic missile defences at Russia’s doorstep, in Poland and in the Czech Republic. The U.S. has stalled Russia’s long-sought bid to join the WTO and has unleashed a virulent Russia bashing campaign, with Vice-President Dick Cheney accusing Russia of using its massive oil and gas reserves as instruments of manipulation and blackmail. Leading U.S. Senators denounced Putin for steering Russia “away from democracy and toward authoritarianism”.

Putin explained America’s anti-Russian policy thus: “Not everyone was ready to see Russia begin to restore its economic health and its position on the international stage so rapidly.”

Indeed, Russia has been forcefully asserting its interests worldwide, challenging the U.S. on nearly every international issue of consequence. It opposed the U.S.-led war against Iraq, has dug its heels against sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, invited Hamas to Moscow and refused to brand Hizbollah a terrorist organisation. It blocked Washington’s bid to get an observer seat on the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and led the group’s campaign to throw out the U.S. military from Uzbekistan. It has supplied air-defence systems to Syria and Iran and sold scores of fighter jets and helicopters to America’s sworn enemy, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

However, a resumption of the Cold War with America is the last thing President Putin wants. On the other hand, the danger of destabilisation in Russia from outside forces is very low. Putin’s approval ratings have consistently topped 70 per cent, while political opposition to his government remains weak and fragmented. The publication of an anti-U.S. report should be seen as a part of the Kremlin’s subtle multi-tier game designed to get the best deal for Russia with the U.S. without compromising on national interests.

The report serves the purpose of pressing a point Putin made recently to a group of Russia experts from the West when he sought to position himself as more pro-Western than the average Russian. “They (media) say what people want to hear from them,” Putin said when asked about the growth of anti-Americanism in the state-controlled electronic media in Russia. “There is a difference between the mood of society and the policy of the Russian government.”

An opinion poll conducted by the Levada Centre earlier this year showed that the share of Russians who view the U.S. as an enemy had jumped by more than a half over the past year, to 37 per cent.

What Putin was trying to say was that he is the best bargain the U.S. can have in Russia. Speaking to the same group of Western experts, a senior Kremlin official put it quite bluntly: by working against Putin the U.S. strengthens the hand of “siloviki”, the Kremlin hawks, in the unfolding battle to succeed Putin in the 2008 presidential election.

The Duma report also fits into Moscow’s game plan to play the U.S. against Europe. It was released on the eve of a Russian-French-German summit in Paris on September 22, where Putin announced Russia’s plan to supply up to half the natural gas from its vast Shtokman field to Europe. Previously, Russia had planned to prioritise the U.S. as the key market for the Shtokman gas and included America’s ConocoPhillips and Chevron in a short-list of likely partners for developing what is tipped to be the world’s biggest gas field. It is now likely that the U.S. companies will lose to their European rivals.

The parliamentary report on U.S. policies towards Russia is designed to highlight the motives behind such decisions as diversion of energy supplies from the U.S. to Europe. It emphasises Putin’s point that Russia has freedom of manoeuvre in its relations with various Western countries.