MOSCOW_ In the aftermath of last month's war between Russia and U.S.-backed Georgia, Kremlin-watchers in Moscow are worried that Russia and America are closer to direct confrontation than at any point since the end of the Cold War.
The rhetoric coming from the Bush administration — and presidential hopeful John McCain — suggests that tensions are still on the rise.
During the Cold War, "the sides were very careful of each other. They were careful not to come too close," said Alexander Pikayev, a prominent military analyst in Moscow who works for a government-funded research center. "The risk of direct military clashes is (now) much higher. . . . This situation is much riskier than the Cold War."
Both sympathizers and critics of Kremlin policy shared the assessment of a significantly heightened chance of conflict. They expressed hopes that cooler heads will prevail.
Vice President Dick Cheney put a spotlight on the standoff during visits to Georgia and Ukraine this week, the countries at the core of the row between Washington and Moscow. He told Georgians on Thursday that the United States will continue to back the country's NATO application — which the Kremlin vehemently opposes — and said that Moscow's intervention "cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner."
Cheney traveled on Friday to Ukraine, which also is applying to NATO with strong U.S. support. There, he spoke of the "threat of tyranny, economic blackmail and military invasion or intimidation" from Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the same day that it was up to America to decide whether disagreements would get worse.
"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."
At the Republican convention Thursday, McCain mentioned Russia just after al Qaida and Iran.
"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."
It'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.
"We remember very well the Tonkin Gulf incident" in which untrue reports of North Vietnamese ships firing on U.S. ships started the Vietnam War, said Sergei Markov, a Duma member who's also with United Russia.
Markov, who's close to the Kremlin, 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 help McCain's hawkish presidential campaign and further U.S. attempts to hem in Russian power.
Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst in Moscow who works with the U.S.-based Jamestown Foundation, agreed that relations between the countries were dangerously tense, but blamed the Kremlin.
"Russia is probing the West, as it often did during the Cold War, (to see) how far is the West willing to go: What will happen if Russia continues to push?" Felgenhauer said. "There is a party of war within the ruling party. . . . It seems that for now the hard-liners are winning."
Aleksandr Dugin, a hard-line Russian theorist whose ideas about weakening American geopolitical standing are popular with many Kremlin leaders, said Russia was challenging U.S. domination and that confrontation may be unavoidable.
Russia's move into Georgia was "an "irreversible decision that will mean in the future a serious, profound, irreversible confrontation with the United States. . . . The stakes are so high that Moscow has placed all its (chips) on the table," he said.
Dugin said he thought the strategy was a good one.
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