New East-West Proxy Wars

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Yes, there is a crisis between Russia and the West. Yes, Moscow is engaged in a battle with Washington and Brussels over which side can make the most inflammatory statement about the other.

But no, there isn't any possibility of a new Cold War. The United States and its West European allies have their hands full in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The last thing they need now is to complicate matters by adding Russia to its list of enemies. Understanding this very well, Kremlin leaders have felt free to make reckless and provocative statements about the West over the past three years.

Let Prime Minister Vladimir Putin say whatever he wants against the West. For domestic political reasons, he desperately needs to convince the Russian people that the country is "getting up off its knees."

The truth is that for all of its bluster and verbal brinkmanship Moscow has not taken a single concrete action that could be objectively classified as a military threat to the West. Furthermore, the U.S. defense budget is 20 times larger than Russia's. For Russia to compete in anything close to a Cold War-era arms race, President Dmitry Medvedev and Putin would have to spend all of the country's oil income on defense -- a move that would have huge negative consequences for the economy and would lower the people's standard of living.

Moreover, Russia and the West need each other. Of course, Moscow can use its position as leading global energy supplier to pressure -- or even blackmail -- a few countries that are dependent on Russia's natural resources. But on the whole, the seller is even more dependent on the buyer than the other way around.

But there is one catch to this argument: Its validity is based upon the assumption that all sides in the conflict will behave rationally. This can hardly be taken for granted. For example, nearly all analysts, including me, were certain several weeks ago that a Russian-Georgian war would not break out, despite the escalation of tensions between the two countries. According to the rational argument, war would be avoided because it would be disastrous for both sides.

Russia and the West are in a similar situation. Both sides are directing increasingly incendiary statements at the other, assuming they will have the wisdom and strength to stop the shouting match before matters reach a military confrontation. That seems to make sense on a rational level, but threats and provocation lobbied back at forth at each other can easily spin out of control.

After U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's harsh words for Russia during his visit to Ukraine and Georgia and the measured support given Moscow by nations attending the recent summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the beginning stages of a new Cold War seem to be taking shape. Obviously, we are not talking about a new arms race; after all, the first Cold War proved that NATO would never risk a direct military conflict with a nuclear power.

One distinguishing feature of the Cold War was fought largely on another battlefield -- countries from the developing world, where the Soviet Union and the West engaged in proxy battles for global control and influence. It is highly symbolic that the first leader to officially recognize South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's independence was Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who 20 years ago was one of the developing world's central figures in the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Now, the developing world is at Russia's border. Cheney promises that Georgia and Ukraine will soon join NATO. It is not difficult to imagine that the next crisis could break out in December if Ukraine is given the green light for NATO's Membership Action Plan. In exploiting the sharp, politicized and highly emotional division among Ukrainians over the NATO issue, Moscow is likely to use every weapon at its disposal to drive the wedge even further between the country's mostly Ukrainian, pro-NATO population in the west and the predominately Russian, anti-NATO population in the east.

Hopefully, Russia and the West will be able to limit their conflict to a relatively harmless war of words. Should it escalate into a more serious confrontation, however, this would mean unpleasant consequences for the West. But for Russia, these consequences would be catastrophic.

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.