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Russian President Vladimir Putin's remarks over the weekend that he was retargeting his country's nuclear missiles against Europe automatically triggered headlines throughout the world's media of a new cold war.
The United States' insistence on building a new anti-missile shield in former Soviet bloc countries, coupled with President George Bush's high profile visit to the Czech Republic where the radarwarning station is slated to be based, all on the eve of the G-8 summit where Bush and Putin are about to meet, seemed like an equally defiant gesture on the American side.
In many ways this is a turf war between the two powers. The Czech Republic and Poland, where the interceptor missiles are to be based, have now firmly cut themselves off from the Russian orbit, joining NATO and the EU in the process.
Putin wants to reassert some kind of influence in the old Soviet empire. His claim that the new system threatens Russia is obviously disingenuous, it is defensive by definition and the US has enough missiles in other places to threaten any spot on the globe. But ultimately, his foreign policy is totally domestic.
Putin, about to enter the last year of his presidency, is anxious to perpetuate his real control over the country through his successor. The incessant campaign by democracy activists in Russia is a direct threat to that succession. In addition, a high-profile dispute with the United States and the new democracies on Russia's borders serves to cast his local opponents as agents of hostile foreign powers, making it easier to whip up patriotic feeling over the external and internal threats.
One of the senior diplomats accompanying Bush said that "Czech Republic is a sovereign country, Russia is trying to bully it and we're not going to let that happen." But at the same time, Bush has invited Putin later in the year to visit his family home at Kennebunkport, Maine, a privilege never before accorded to any foreign leader.
The invitation drew criticism from democracy activists at the Democracy and Security Conference in Prague where Bush delivered a keynote speech. Chief among them was former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, now the leader of the Other Russian Alliance, who said that "Putin will use this against us. Every time he gets such an invitation he uses it to show the Russian people that he is accepted around the world as a democrat."
US officials acknowledged that this might be interpreted as mixed signals towards Russia but said that they were interested in avoiding any kind of cold war rhetoric, without giving in on any matter of substance. Meanwhile the policy is to "just let Putin make his speeches."
When asked about the missile furor, Kasparov also agreed that it was an artificial crisis created by Putin for domestic consumption. "When I hear about the new cold war I am laughing," he said. "In the cold war there were ideals, but Putin's only ideal is let's all steal together. This is the beginning of the end for him."
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