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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Back to the Cold War?

The center of gravity in the debate over Russian policy in the United States has shifted. Voices arguing that we are edging close to a second Cold War are louder and more numerous than those urging a U.S.-Russian partnership.

The post-war consensus on U.S. policy concerning Russia appears to be breaking down. Views and policy positions are based more on conclusions about specific issues, as opposed to the anti-communism of earlier times. These questions include: Are political and economic reforms succeeding, or likely to succeed, and can outside help make a real difference? Is Russia becoming expansionist -- and even if so, what U.S. interests are affected by, for example, Russian activities in Central Asia, or closer to Europe? Indeed, does Russia even have the military capability to threaten U.S. interests, and might a more active Western role in central Europe undermine pro-Western Russian officials?

The importance of this emerging debate is twofold. First, it will be a key part of an overall discussion about the proper U.S. international role and strategy in the post-Cold War world; and, second, it will help shape the longer-term U.S. approach to Russia.

Concerns about the success of anti-reform parties in the December elections and about the overall status of Russia's domestic reform efforts have contributed to a changing U.S. climate of opinion. But the real cause of shifting attitudes is the perception of, in the words of the Wall Street Journal's Karen Elliott House, "a re-expanding Russia already moving to reabsorb its former empire."

This perception, whether accurate or not, has precipitated a hardening of American opinion and is beginning to arouse fears of a potential threat to both regional stability and to U.S. and Western security interests.

In addition to concerns about Russian military involvement in the "near abroad," the growing chorus of American critics also points to the apparent failure of some Russian officials and politicians, even among the "reformers," to acknowledge Ukraine's independence as a permanent fact, as well as to newly assertive nationalistic rhetoric coming from Russian officials, for example, Boris Yeltsin's address to parliament where he suggested that "a strong Russia is the most reliable and real guarantor of stability on the entire territory of the former Soviet Union." The sudden insertion of Russian troops into Serbia has also raised concerns.

A major focus of criticism has been the decision by the U.S. not to push for early NATO membership for the Central European nations at least partly on the basis that such a policy might offend Russia, and possibly undercut Boris Yeltsin.

There is a mini-debate about when and how the United States should react to Russian activities along its periphery. Some critics have suggested that the United States should actively condemn all Russian involvement in its former republics.

But the majority bring a realpolitik frame of reference to bear and make four arguments: First, a relatively strong nation such as Russia will inevitably have some involvement on its periphery; second, U.S. interests may not be affected by Russian actions in some areas, while they may be more directly engaged in other areas closer to Europe, particularly with respect to Ukraine; third, in some instances Russian involvement may further American interests as well; and, fourth, the United States should not react strongly against a particular Russian action unless it is willing to back up its words with diplomatic or economic action against Russia.

The tone of debate in the foreign policy community has also changed with respect to the priority of Russia's domestic reforms. In the early days after communism's demise, there was all but unanimous support for encouraging rapid democratization both for its own sake and on the reasonable theory that democracies tend to be relatively pacific. But now an emerging theme is that, while democracy remains desirable, as Russia expert Dmitry Simes has put it, "neither Yeltsin's political future nor democracy should be ends in themselves."

Few if any of the new critics have thus far advocated drastic changes in U.S. policy, such as a U.S. or NATO military build-up, or tough diplomatic measures. But if this new wave of criticism continues, at some point there will likely be calls for a fundamental reassessment of the U.S. approach.

Even in the shorter term, some politicians are beginning to urge a reduction in economic aid. There have also been demands that the United States publicly and forcefully denounce Russian maneuvering in the internal affairs of its newly independent neighbors.

Given the ongoing evolution in U.S. attitudes towards Russia, it is clear that the "romantic" period in post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations is ending. But this is not necessarily a bad thing.

A longer-term positive relationship is still very possible, but such a relationship is more likely if based on realism. Among other things, this means realizing that while the United States and Russia have a variety of common or parallel interests, there will also be situations where interests differ or even clash.

Most fundamentally, U.S. attitudes are likely to be shaped in reaction to the fate of Russia's reform efforts and its international policies. Whether the world witnesses a second Cold War, or, more preferably, growing cooperation, will thus depend largely on Russia itself.

W. Bruce Weinrod, of the law firm of Allen and Harold, was U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European Policy from 1989 to 1993. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.