U.S. Decline Gives Moscow a Golden Chance

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Victory Day is the only true national holiday in Russia. The pride in the country's role in defeating Adolf Hitler is shared by Russians across social, economic and generational boundaries.

History has gone beyond the black-and-white vision of the Great Patriotic War. Its origins were murky, and both sides committed unspeakable atrocities. In war as in peace, communism was just as murderous and ruthless as Nazism -- sometimes more so. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the full picture of the Soviet liberation of Eastern Europe has come out -- and it is not a pretty one.

It may be morally untenable to condemn one side while finding excuses for the other, but it still seems that Nazi Germany presented a greater danger to the world than the Soviet Union ever did. It may be because Germany lay in the heart of Europe and was an integral part of its history, culture and civilization.

But aside from debates about which regime was more evil, a fundamental issue underlay two world wars in the first half of the 20th century -- the need to contain Germany. With Germany's rapid economic development after the 1870 unification, one state came close to establishing hegemony over Europe and upsetting the balance of power on which the modern world was based. Britain, France and Russia went to war in 1914 to cut the Kaiser's Germany down to size, and the same nations formed an alliance to oppose Hitler by 1941, even though by then they had even less in common.

We instinctively know that for all the crimes of Stalin's regime, in World War II, Russia struck a blow for all of humankind. It may have to do it again.

At the end of the Cold War, the United States emerged as the world's only superpower. For the first time, the world came under the domination of a single nation. Despite a burst of prosperity following the collapse of communism, there are signs that Washington is overreaching and the system is starting to crack.

Even excluding spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military budget is larger than the rest of the world's combined. The Pentagon has a presence in over 100 countries. It can project military force to every corner on the globe and fight two major wars simultaneously. Its military doctrine, drafted in 1992 when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was defense secretary, requires the United States to fight pre-emptive wars against any rival threatening its military superiority.

For the past eight years, Washington has tried to impose its will to other nations. It has been a failure, reducing, not enhancing, U.S. influence and alarming not only former foes but even close allies. In the process, it has veered away from its own vaunted principles of democracy and freedom, as well as from its conservative, isolationist roots. It has violated international rules and laws it helped put in place after World War II and undermined its own economy, producing anger, resentment and a nasty anti-foreigner backlash. This has created a rift with the international community, which the next president may not be able heal, whichever candidate is elected.

Russia is the only nation with a nuclear arsenal to rival that of the United States. However distasteful many aspects of the tandem of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev may be for the rest of the world, Russia may yet again become a pivotal piece in the next global strategic realignment.

Russian generals are presiding over a ramshackle, corrupt force, barely able to pacify Chechnya and in no way ready to fight a modern foe. Yet Russia's political and military leaders should pay serious attention to alarming signals emanating from Washington since the start of the 21st century.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.