Gwynne Dyer: Political bickering could start a new Cold War

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Three weeks ago, when the Georgian army foolishly invaded South Ossetia and the Russian army drove it back out, I wrote that we shouldn't worry about a new Cold War. An old journalist friend in Moscow immediately e-mailed me saying that I was wrong, and I'm beginning to think he was right. The preparations for a new Cold War, or at least a Very Cool War, are coming along quite nicely.

On August 27, Britain's foreign minister, David Miliband, flew into Kiev to say that "the Georgia crisis has provided a rude awakening. The sight of Russian tanks in a neighbouring country on the 40th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague Spring has shown that the temptations of power politics remain."

By recognising the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Miliband said, Russia has ended "the post Cold War period of growing geopolitical calm in and around Europe". So Ukraine and Georgia, formerly parts of the Soviet Union, would be welcome to join NATO, formerly Russia's great enemy. Oh, and one other thing. Russia bore "a great responsibility " not to start a new Cold War.

On the same day, Mitt Romney, a leading candidate for the Republican vice-presidential nomination, was in Denver to make the point that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, lacked the judgement and the experience to deal with a crisis like the "invasion of Georgia."

He then proceeded to speculate that the next move of "the Soviets" might be to invade Poland. Well, why not? If we're going to have the Cold War back, we might as well have the Soviet Union back too.

And so to Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who raised the stakes on the following day by speculating that the United States government had encouraged Georgia to attack South Ossetia in order to provoke a crisis. "The American side in effect armed and trained the Georgian army....The suspicion arises that someone in the United States especially created this conflict with the aim of making the situation more tense and creating a competitive advantage for one of the candidates fighting for the post of US president."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino dismissed the allegation: "To suggest that the United States orchestrated this on behalf of a political candidate––it sounds not rational." Unfortunately, it sounds all too rational to Putin, who is widely suspected of having started the second war with Chechnya in order to win the Russian presidential election in 2000.

Indeed, it would be a perfectly rational (if utterly immoral) strategy if the Bush administration were trying to boost John McCain's chances in November. Persuade the American public that it faces a great threat by starting a new Cold War, so the argument goes, and they'll turn to the candidate who is old enough to have fought in the Vietnamese side-show during the first Cold War.

But I don't believe that the White House told Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to go ahead and grab South Ossetia, counting on the Russians to counter-attack, smash the Georgian army, and scare Americans into voting for John McCain. The Bush administration would not have betrayed its favourite Georgian so callously. The truth is probably that Saakashvili, having been promised NATO membership, attacked South Ossetia on the false assumption that the United States would threaten war with Russia to back his play.

Now Russia has enraged the West further by recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway territory, Abkhazia. This is no real loss for Georgia, which has never controlled them since it got its own independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.

The local ethnic groups fought off the first Georgian attempts to conquer them in 1991-92, and the "ethnic cleansing" by both sides in those wars ensured that the Ossetian and Abkhaz minorities would never again accept Georgian rule.

Yet for the past 16 years, Moscow did not recognise their independence. Russia has always insisted on preserving the territorial integrity of states, because so many of its own minorities might be tempted by separatism if it were legal for unhappy ethnic groups to just leave a country. If South Ossetia can secede from Georgia, why can't North Ossetia secede from Russia?

When the major Western countries, having occupied Serbia's Albanian-majority province of Kosovo in 1999 to stop the atrocities being committed there by the Serbian army, finally recognised Kosovo's independence last February, Moscow was furious. This was a precedent that could unleash international chaos. Well, now it has accepted that same precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia––although hell will freeze over before it agrees that the same principle might apply to, say Chechnya.

As the former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Sir Ivor Roberts, said last week: "Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the United States and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia's defence of South Ossetia, and for the current Western humiliation. What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander."

There is still no good reason to have a new Cold War, and I still think it won't happen. But as the politicians posture and the stupidities accumulate, I'm less sure than I was that it won't happen.

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