Monday, September 8, 2008

Can we get some detente over here, please?

There was a time that we stood in the gap and avoided direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. With a combination of strength, intelligence gathering and diplomacy, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to de-escalate hostilities and enter a period of detente in the seventies.

Both sides were wary and took great care to avoid bellicosity and hostility after staring into the chasm of nuclear war in 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis was very sobering for both sides.

Now, in the wake of the dust-up in South Ossetia, the United States and Russia are right now on a firmer war footing than we have ever been at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. No matter where in the world you read this from or which side you see things from, you have to hope that, once again, cooler heads will prevail.

Those cooler heads remain a fond wish, but far from reality. It was Dick Cheney who was dispatched to the region last week, to visit Georgia and the Ukraine. (This had the additional advantage of getting him almost far as earthly possible from the Republican convention in St. Paul.)

On Thursday, Cheney told the Georgians that the United States will continue strong support for the country's NATO application — which the Kremlin vehemently opposes and other member states are do not support — and said that Moscow's intervention "cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner."

The next day he was in the Ukraine, another country that wants to join NATO over Russian opposition. There, he thundered about the "threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation" from Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did not flinch in the face of Cheney's bellicosity. "We are not interested in bad relations with the United States," Lavrov told CNN. "It wouldn't be our choice, but if the United States does not want to cooperate with us on one or another issue, we cannot impose." In other words, where it goes from here is up to the United States, but keep in mind that Russia won't be cowed.

The potential for this to go bad, and go bad fast, can not be overstated. Especially with McCain lumping Russia in with Al Qaeda and Iran, like some sort of "Axis of Evil: The Next Generation."

"Russia's leaders, rich with oil wealth and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power," McCain said in his nomination-acceptance speech. "As president, I will work to establish good relations with Russia so we need not fear a return of the Cold War," he said. "But we can't turn a blind eye to aggression and international lawlessness that threatens the peace and stability of the world and the security of the American people."

Democratic contender Barack Obama promised to "renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can curb Russian aggression."

Andrei Klimov, a Russian parliament member with the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, said he didn't think there would be fighting between the United States and Russia, but acknowledged that he's taken aback by how much more possible it seems now.

"If you have a lot of people on the streets with pistols, it is very dangerous," said Klimov, the deputy of the foreign affairs committee in the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Russian analysts say there are three possible flash points, all centered on or around the Black Sea, once almost lakefront property for the Soviet empire. The sea borders three NATO members — Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania — and two applicants, Georgia and Ukraine. If the two applicants join the alliance, Russia's Black Sea coastline would be surrounded by NATO.

"Now it looks like there is a certain red line that exists in the heads of Russian leadership and they are willing to do anything to stop it from being crossed," said Nikolai Petrov, a Moscow scholar in residence with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "And this red line is Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO."

t's a crucial area for any attempts by Russia to reassert its power in former Soviet territory:

_ In Ukraine, the government of U.S.-backed President Viktor Yushchenko is splintering in a power struggle. If Yushchenko or his opponents use force, the country could split between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions, creating pressure for Washington and Moscow to take sides, if not become directly involved.

_ American warships are deploying in and near Georgian ports, carrying humanitarian aid. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has suggested that they're also bringing military aid to the defeated Georgian army. On Friday, the USS Mount Whitney, the command ship for the U.S. Navy's 6th Fleet, docked in Poti, Georgia, not far from Russian outposts on shore.

_ Russian warships have been sent to the coast of nearby Abkhazia, a breakaway province of Georgia now occupied by Russian troops and recognized as an independent state by Moscow. In the relatively close proximity in which the Russian and American ships operate there and elsewhere in the Black Sea, one misunderstanding could create an international incident.

Sergei Markov, a Duma member who is also a member of United Russia is quick to remind all that while the United States might not harken back to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, but they certainly remember, in vivid detail.

Markov accused the Bush administration of playing "a very dirty and bloody game" in which it was intentionally provoking Russia to create the appearance of a new cold war to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The more hostile relations appear between the United States and Russia, the neo-con thinking goes, the more attractive McCain's hawkish campaign will look to voters who want to see the U.S. hem in Russian power.

The situation as it exists today is as tense as it has ever been with Russia responding to the hostility coming from the west by probing the perimeters to see how far the west is willing to go. This gives me greater concern than I felt even in 1983, because today there is a faction in the U.S. ruling party that is war-oriented as a default position, right now it looks like the hard-liners are in charge.

But Russia has hard-liners, too. Aleksandr Dugin is one of them. Dugin is a Russian analyst whose theories about weakening American geopolitical standing are all the rage among many Kremlin leaders. DSugin says that Russia is challenging U.S. domination and that confrontation may be unavoidable.

Russia changed the game with the decision to invade Georgia. Now the odds of a confrontation with the United States is, perhaps not inevitable, but increasingly likely. And the stakes are higher than they have ever been.

This is the area we need to be focusing on right now, and we certainly do not need our next president to be a bellicose little Napoleon whose idea of diplomacy is "I'll tell them to knock this shit off."

Source article from McClatchy