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HOLMES: If Russia looked in mirror, it’d see a Cold War thinker

- - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Russia often accuses the United States and NATO of still harboring Cold War prejudices. In February, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, "Cold War stereotypes remain strong in Euro-Atlantic policies, and NATO is continuing its expansion." He accused NATO of global ambitions and implied its out-of-area operations in places like Afghanistan violate the U.N. Charter.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. No one is more steeped in Cold War thinking than the Russian government. Many of its policies are rooted in ancient Russian ideas of empire and spheres of influence — ideas that were as much part of the Soviet Union as Imperial Russia.

Resentful over the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders today appear dead set on reasserting Russia as a great power to regain some of the stature and respect they believe their country enjoyed during the Cold War but lost with the USSR's fall.

Case in Point No. 1: Russia's bitter opposition to NATO expansion. Let's get something straight: Moscow is not afraid of a Western military attack. But it is determined to keep countries along its borders within its sphere of influence. That's why it has rebuffed nearly every attempt by NATO to work together. Rather than join a Western club, Russia wants to be in charge of its own club — the center hub surrounded by smaller, dependent border countries that owe Russia respect and in some cases even fealty.

For President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the real threat from NATO is not military, but geopolitical. No one, probably not even the Russian General Staff, seriously believes that today's NATO will mount a military offensive against Russia. But a strong military alliance that includes former members of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact is a blow to Russian prestige — a direct affront to Russia's claim of great-power status and its ability to influence its "near abroad" neighbors.

This attitude explains why Russians are trying to negotiate a new "European security architecture" with NATO. At the end of the Cold War, Mikhail Gorbachev talked of a "common European house" as a way of breaking down Europe's resistance to the Soviet Union. Moscow's renewed interest in a new European architecture is a throwback to that idea. Then, as now, the goal was to minimize U.S. influence in Europe and, through the soothing words of peace and common interest, suggest that the price of Russian contentment in Europe was to give it some degree of influence or control over Europe's destiny (particularly its foreign policies).

Russians seem unable to understand that countries want to join NATO because they share its democratic values. Nor do they admit that the historic reasons countries like Poland and the Czech Republic give for joining NATO are far more convincing than Russian reasons for opposing it. The Russian government often poses as a victim of NATO, but we shouldn't fall for it. More often than not, its rhetoric masks an inherently aggressive strategy against its neighbors. The sad truth is that the Russians think their neighbors have less of a right than they do to organize their external affairs. Just ask the Georgians.

Case in Point No. 2: Russians' attitudes about nuclear weapons. Russian thinking about the centrality of nuclear weaponry hasn't changed appreciably since the end of the Cold War. They believe Russia's nuclear arsenal is the one thing that makes it a great power. They are not about to give it up to satisfy President Obama's dream of a world without nuclear weapons.

One reason Russians are thrilled with the New START treaty is that it codifies and even enhances the military and geopolitical importance of nuclear weaponry. It either limits or raises questions about the utility of nonnuclear U.S. forces like conventionally armed ballistic missiles and missile defenses (which Russia opposes). At the same time, Russia's tactical nuclear weapons targeting Europe and others are left untouched. By some counting rules, moreover, Russia doesn't have to reduce its number of nuclear warheads as much as the U.S. does under the treaty.

Russia's resurrection of its ideological warfare against U.S. missile defenses is another throwback to the Cold War. After we withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited our defenses, we thought that chapter of history was behind us. Today, not only are Russians routinely railing against U.S. missile-defense plans with Soviet-style vehemence, they are finding the Obama administration to be receptive to their complaints.

It may be understandable why some Russians think this way, but it is completely baffling why some Americans do. In a classic Orwellian case of doublethink, some pundits claim that to call attention to Russia's Cold War thinking is in itself Cold War thinking. "What sphere of influence?" they ask. "Give the Russians what they ask for and get over it!"

The same is true for Mr. Obama's claim that his arms-control policies will "put an end to Cold War thinking." It's the exact opposite. If ratified, Mr. Obama's New START treaty will enhance the Cold War's centrality of Russia's nuclear arsenal.

This is misguided. It's one thing to say you don't want to make enemies of the Russians or to reduce nuclear weapons. It's another to make excuses for them when they employ Cold War tactics against their neighbors or when they demand treaties that enhance a military mindset born in the USSR.

We should expect more from our leaders, who instead of trying to "reset" relations should be looking out for our best interests.

Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.