What a difference seven years makes.
Back in '01, the days when Americans feared Russians as God-hating robots scheming to turn North America into a toilet-paperless, collectivized potato farm were but a far-off memory.
Relations between the two nuclear giants were more than pleasant. In June '01, in fact, President Bush and then Russian President Vladimir Putin had their first face-to-face meeting. Talking to reporters afterward, Bush confessed bro-mantic feelings for his macho counterpart.
"I looked the man in the eye," Bush said. "I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy ... I was able to get a sense of his soul."
In the coming months, Bush and Putin went all Brokeback for each other. After the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. forces, Putin vowed cooperation with the United States – even green-lighting American air bases in central Asian nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.
As with many relationships, however, the initial romance couldn't make up for fundamental incompatibility. Beneath the bear hugs and awkward cheek kissing, Russia actually was feeling like an abused lover.
The so-called new Cold War isn't new at all. It amounts to long-repressed grievances that finally are coming to the surface.
To develop our "Star Wars" missile shield more freely, the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The treaty, in place since 1972, had banned technology that could be used to destroy incoming nuclear missiles. The rationale for the Anti-Ballistic Treaty had been the so-called theory of Mutually Assured Destruction. (The idea of MAD was that if neither country could intercept the other's missiles, neither would start a nuclear war because leaders of both would fear being annihilated.)
After the fall of communism, nukes were the only real military power Russia still had. So voiding the ABM Treaty seemed like an American attempt to lop off the once-potent Russian bear's single remaining gonad.
Compounding Russia's fear of atomic impotence was the eastward expansion of NATO, which brought American and European weapons to Russia's doorstep. This isn't just an issue of pride to Russians or mere annoyance at former satellite states allying with the United States. It's primal fear.
In the last century, Russia was devastated by two German invasions. The scale of the slaughter Russians endured during the world wars is beyond our ability to comprehend. The Soviet Union lost 23 million people in WWII – more than 13 percent of its population. By comparison, the United States lost around 418,000 people, or 0.3 percent of its population.
So if those resentments were there all along, why are they coming to the surface now? In a word: energy.
Russia is the world's second largest oil exporter and the largest natural gas exporter. When energy was cheap – throughout the 1990s and the first few years of this century – Russia was weak. We took advantage: expanding NATO, dumping the ABM Treaty, stealing Anna Kournikova, etc.
With oil prices steadily rising since we "liberated" Iraq, the tables have turned. Russia has amassed tremendous wealth in recent years. Russia's GDP today is more than six times what it was in 2000.
With money comes confidence. Russia suddenly feels free to do things like, oh, invade its neighbor Georgia, because it's confident that Europe and the United States won't retaliate for fear of further driving up energy prices.
Compounding the tension: presidential politics in this country. John McCain has attempted to talk up his commander-in-chiefiness by taking a hard line.
"Today, we are all Georgians," he told a room of supporters in York, Pa., just after the Russian invasion. Does anyone really think the American people want to go to war with Russia over a tiny nation on the Black Sea?
Russia's response? Carve up Georgia like (fill in name of easily carved Russian meat that can be used as a humorous metaphor here), and announce huge arms deal with U.S.-baiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The two countries are also conducting naval maneuvers together in the Caribbean.
Does all this tit-for-tat amount to a new Cold War? Nyet.
But it probably does mean that the next administration won't be able to disregard Russia as freely as the Bush administration has.
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