Some Russians Talk Of New Cold War

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian media on Friday described Vice President Cheney’s harsh criticism of Russia and President Vladimir Putin as the start of a new Cold War.

On Thursday in Lithuania, Vice President Cheney said Russian President Vladimir Putin was cracking down on religious and political rights.

Cheney’s words Thursday at a conference in Lithuania drew a comparison to Winston Churchill’s famed “Iron Curtain” speech and reflected the deepening distrust between Washington and a newly assertive Kremlin.

The official Russian response to Cheney’s speech has been cautious. But angry reaction from politicians and pundits favorable to the Kremlin reflects a chill between two presidents who seemed to hit it off early in their relationship.

In his speech, Cheney accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights and of using its energy reserves as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”

Opponents of reform in Russia, the vice president said, “are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade” after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet empire.

There was no public reaction from Putin or the government.

But the business daily Kommersant said Cheney’s comments marked “the beginning of a second Cold War” and recalled Churchill’s speech condemning Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe with the “Iron Curtain” label that defined the East-West divide for decades.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov refrained from criticizing Cheney but condemned the meeting in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which brought together pro-Western leaders of former Soviet republics.

“Over the past years, many forums have been created that reflect the desire of the respective states … to pool their efforts to achieve common benefits,” Lavrov said. “But there are forums that create an impression … that they are convened … for the sake of uniting against someone.”

Cheney’s criticism – some of Washington’s toughest language about Russia – came two months before President Bush is to join Putin in St. Petersburg for a summit of the Group of Eight industrial powers.

“The speech effectively eliminates the vestiges of strategic partnership between Russia and the United States. And if U.S. President George W. Bush confirms the stance, the idea can be buried,” said pro-Kremlin political analyst Gleb Pavlovsky, the Interfax news agency reported.

Many Russian commentators said the venue for Cheney’s speech – Lithuania, a nation struggling to recover from a half-century of Soviet domination – has made the blow even more painful for the Kremlin.

“By attending the forum, the United States has sent a message to Russia and those countries: We aren’t leaving, we consider the region part of our sphere of interests,” Liliya Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow office said.

Moscow complains that the U.S. and other Western countries are encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence, while the West accuses the Kremlin of bullying its neighbors, using energy as a weapon.

Russia’s state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, has sharply increased prices for gas supplies to Ukraine, Georgia and other Westward-looking former Soviet nations in what is seen in the West as a political move.

The gas dispute with Ukraine, Putin’s invitation to Moscow for the Palestinian militant group Hamas and a tough stance against sanctions on Iran all highlighted a newly assertive Kremlin course based on Russia’s growing energy power.

“Huge windfall revenues have encouraged a sense of power, a feeling that Russia can do what it wants and ignore others,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “Russia feels that it has become strong enough to act without taking into account the positions of the United States and the European Union.”

Lukyanov and other analysts predicted that escalating tensions could tarnish the St. Petersburg summit, which the Kremlin touted as a showcase of its growing global influence.

Source: AP