Are Russia and the West Facing a New Cold War?

There's an irony in the fact that when Belgium laid out the month's "Programme of Work" at the U.N. Security Council, this last week was absent an agenda. Since Russia's invasion of Georgia, the diplomatic community has been rather preoccupied. The United States and Western Europe have flailed about, ultimately unable to check Russia's unabashed aggression. Defying a host of threats from the West, which now include military posturing in Poland, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have invaded a neighboring country with impunity.

President George W. Bush rightly reminded the world that "the cold war is over." Today's Russia is by no means the Soviet Union, and just as much, today's West is not led by Ronald Reagan's big-talking United States. Putin heads an energy-rich, autocratic country loaded with more than half a trillion dollars worth of foreign reserves (most of which are held in U.S. dollars), while the United States is faced with a worsening financial crisis and taxing military commitments overseas.

"On balance, Russia sees that they have more leverage economically over the West than the West has over Russia," says Cliff Gaddy, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "Belatedly, this incident in Georgia is waking everybody up to a reality that's already true." That reality is that the West lacks the capacity to contain Russia in the way that it did for nearly two decades after the end of the cold war, and the invasion of Georgia signals a new era, one in which authoritarian regimes can brazenly buck the international system.

The U.S. response has continually grown more bellicose. At the beginning of the week, in concert with much of the West, Bush called for a ceasefire. Day by day, the rhetoric ramped up. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that this was not 1968--when the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia--and argued that the "role Russia can play in the international community is very much at stake here." The United States scrapped war games with Russia that had been scheduled for later this month, and Bush ordered a C-17 military cargo plane full of humanitarian supplies to be sent to Georgia. After a week though, the Russians had not pulled back.

Then came the announcement that Poland had agreed to host the U.S.'s missile-defense system, a military installment that has long sparked tensions between Russia and the United States. As of Sunday, the Russians had promised to withdraw forces from some parts of Georgia, but hinted that they could continue to occupy the country. A Russian general even said that Poland had opened itself up to nuclear retaliation.

Europe has played a different hand. The continent is much more dependent on Russia economically. Russia has grown in recent years to become one of the European Union's largest trading partners, and the EU relies on Russia for a third of its oil and 40 percent of its natural gas. At the same time, Europe simply has a different outlook because of its geographic closeness to Russia. In light of its more complicated relationship, the EU has had a more restrained reaction, joining with the U.S. in suggesting that Russia's position within the G8, as well as its membership in the World Trade Organization or the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, could be in jeopardy.

"If it comes down to Russia's security versus WTO membership, there's no question what Putin will choose," says Gaddy. "Even if the West were fully unified, it still would not be enough of a threat to deter them."

The U.N. has only magnified the ineffective response. At the Security Council's fourth emergency meeting, the body remained deadlocked. This is unsurprising, because as a permanent member, Russia holds the power to veto any measure before the council; it's nearly impossible to imagine Russia accepting terms that hamper its current strategy in Georgia. At the same time, France, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, has assembled a proposal that would get the Russians to pull back, establish mediation and send peacekeepers. Few are optimistic.

"This is the first time in a long while that a permanent member [of the Security Council] has been involved in a situation the council is considering," says Shamala Kandiah, a research analyst for the independent nonprofit organization Security Council Report. "It raises the question of the council's effectiveness in such a situation."

Despite concerns over a new cold war, there's a key difference between the current situation and U.S.-Russian relations 25 or 30 years ago. In Georgia, Russia's invasion is purely strategic, an attempt to increase security along its border. It is not interested in exporting an ideology in the way that the Soviet Union wanted to spread communism. "Russia is staking its ownership regionally," says Steve Levine, author of the book "Putin's Labyrinth." "The U.S. is being challenged: 'Are you a superpower or not?'"

What is most striking is that the attempted check on Russian aggression is varied, unaligned and seemingly ineffective. The post-cold-war world has given way to yet another shift in power, one in which the U.S. doesn't wear the uniform of global policeman as it did in the 1990s. But has the era of global policing passed for good?

The U.S.'s announcement of missile deployment in Poland, west of Russia's border, looks more like a standoff than the triumph of economic interdependence and diplomacy that the advances of globalization once heralded. If that is true, then the peaceful decade of the 1990s, the talk of the end of history and the triumph of liberal ideals may be written off as the good old days. Instead, the realist conception of powerful states in competition for security may once again rear its head.