Chilly for this time of year

May 10, 2006

Russians are suddenly talking about a new Cold War with America, thanks to a precipitating pair of speeches given last week by Vice President Dick Cheney in Lithuania and Kazakhstan. Mr. Cheney lambasted Moscow for cracking down on democratic expression at home and for bullying its neighbors, and spoke encouragingly about further NATO expansion. Then he came home and said this was nothing especially extraordinary, because it's been said before and simply needed to be said again.

True, all true. And yet the gruff vice president isn't normally a speaking-truth-to-power kind of guy, and his timing couldn't have been more pointed, so it's natural to wonder what's going on. Next month, Russia hosts a summit of the big industrialized nations, and Sen. John McCain and others have called on President Bush to boycott it over Russia's slide toward authoritarianism - so perhaps this was a sort of covering shot intended to make it easier for Mr. Bush to show up anyway. But Russia also holds one of the keys to a possible solution of the Iran problem - so maybe Mr. Cheney was trying to do a little bullying of his own, to see if he could intimidate Moscow into helping out on that front.

Or, conversely, was he hoping to scotch the chance that Russia will cooperate over Iran's nuclear program, because that would probably entail a compromise unsatisfactory to Washington? That's a cheerful thought.

This much is clear: Moscow, a major oil and gas producer, is flush with money and prepared to use it. It has a keen interest in the vast oil and gas deposits of the Caspian basin and in Central Asia, and its cozy relationship with Iran just seems to be getting cozier - all of which must be alarming to an oil man who believes that America is the proper regulator of the world's petroleum market. Talk of a new Cold War is undoubtedly overheated, but is the Bush administration genuinely worried about Russia? Bet on it.

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