Cold War reheated as U.S. and Russia duke it out over Georgia
The temperature at the United Nations Security Council hasn’t been this high in years — and it’s not because the U.N. management raised the thermostat slightly to cut electricity costs. It’s due to the heated exchange of insults and accusations between Russia and the United States, which has reached a fever pitch reminiscent of the Cold War years.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Russia on Sunday of using the Georgian incursion into Georgia’s breakaway enclave of South Ossetia as an excuse for a massive military assault against its tiny pro-Western neighbor whose ultimate goal is “regime change” in Tbilisi. He also assailed Moscow for waging a “campaign of terror” against the civilian population of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin shot back that regime change is an “American invention” and suggested it was hypocritical of Washington to talk about attacks on civilians in light of what it has done in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia. Churkin said Russia is only trying to defend its peacekeepers and protect civilians from Georgian “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” in South Ossetia, a small pro-Moscow province that threw off Tbilisi’s rule in the 1990s and has been managed by Russian troops since.
There’s a subtext to this dispute and it isn’t just the U.S. and European support for the declaration of independence of Kosovo, a former breakaway region of Serbia that seceded in February. Serbia and its ally Russia were both enraged by what they saw as an unjustified tearing away of a large chunk of Serbian territory in violation of international law. (Of course, the Georgian separatists in South Ossetia and Abkhazia — another Georgian breakaway region — took notice.)
Tensions between Russia and the United States have been simmering for a while.
When the United States announced it was planning to build a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic several years ago, then President Vladimir Putin was outraged. He dismissed U.S. statements that the shield was to guard against Iran, not Russia. In February 2007 at a security conference in Munich, Germany, Putin accused the United States of trying to create a “unipolar” world with Washington as its “one single master”. He made clear that Russia would not stand idly by while Washington tried to subjugate the planet. U.S. officials were taken aback at the force of Putin’s speech, which some said sounded like a declaration of a new Cold War.
Russia, richer than ever thanks to its massive oil and gas revenues, has made no attempt to hide its irritation at Washington’s staunch support for Georgia’s NATO aspirations. It views the expansion of NATO towards its borders as an encroachment on its sphere of influence.
Is it possible that when Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili decided to go into South Ossetia and try to put it back under Tbilisi’s control, he gave Russian leaders a golden opportunity to severely punish Georgia’s pro-Western leadership and show the world that Russia is no longer the weak, economically devastated nation it was in the 1990s?
Perhaps the message is — Russia is back, it’s powerful and it won’t tolerate anyone messing around in its backyard.
Or is there another message here?