An intriguing difference of opinions arose on the sidelines of last week's Davos economic forum, which, as far as summits go, is one of the most overrated on the calendar. If anything, the clash (if it can be called such) between Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice boiled down to a matter of semantics and personal perception, both of which are difficult to prove or disprove. So in a sense, they are both right.
In an interview to The Financial Times printed Jan. 22, Adamkus opined that the Kremlin has demonstrated a tendency to regress to the dark days of East-West confrontation. "The question comes up whether a very strong financial recovery in Russia is a stimulus for the new Russian leadership to return to the Cold War," he said, adding that no one 's neither the EU, nor the U.S. 's has the answer. "But I believe the same big question is on everyone's mind in the Western world."
Coming on the eve of the Davos chat-fest, Adamkus' words catalyzed a minor debate. So when Rice weighed in, she fired away. "The recent talk about a new Cold War is hyberbolic nonsense," she said. Although Rice did not address Adamkus personally 's and may not have even been aware of the president's interview 's many Lithuanians took her words as a jab at their president. This is not necessarily the case, and misses the point.
From Rice's angle, the Cold War is dead and buried. In the past she has reiterated on numerous occasions she is an expert on the Soviet Union, and "Russia is no Soviet Union." In Davos she pointed out that the West and Russia cooperate on security issues, particularly against terrorism, and Russians enjoy freedoms and opportunities now that they could only dream up 20 years ago. Can this be a cold war? We could go further and mention the expanding trade volumes and investments, much of which is now going from east to west. Missiles are no longer pointed at each others cities (a formality, but important nonetheless), and fissile material in Russian warheads is converted to nuclear fuel to heat western cities.
But from Adamkus' point of view, the resurgent Russia is up to some of its dirty old tricks. And he is no less right. Russia is picking on its neighbors, using its energy supplies as a tool of political coercion and punishment and quashing pluralism the second the Kremlin feels its grip on power threatened. Opposition voices are quashed or smothered permanently, and the most dangerous foes are poisoned. This is textbook Cold War psychology.
Post-World War II international relations between East and West were characterized by the zero-sum game, and one could argue that (at least since Vladimir Putin came to power) this formula still exists in the minds of Russia's leadership (and, to be fair, with many of America's neo-cons as well). Recall the "proxy" conflicts between Washington and Moscow in Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia. This is precisely where East-West interests are at variance, in the finest spirit of the Cold War. Moscow still covets the post-Soviet space, and Washington sees its mission to democratize these countries, one at a time if need be. Adamkus has made a personal investment in integrating these countries, and in this context, one can see how the Cold War is alive and well in his eyes.
Now what remains to be seen is how all these will lay out after Dmitry Medvedev becomes Russia's president. And that is anyone's guess.