Cheney's speech opening shot in 'second Cold War'

Russian media described United States Vice-President Dick Cheney’s harsh criticism of the Kremlin as the start of a new Cold War and a reprise of Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech, reflecting deepening distrust between Washington and Moscow.

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

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

The prominent business daily Kommersant said Cheney’s comments marked “the beginning of a second Cold War” and harkened back to Churchill’s famous speech in Fulton, Missouri, in which he condemned Soviet expansionism in Eastern Europe with the “Iron Curtain” label that defined the East-West divide for decades.

Asked to comment on the comparison, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov refrained from criticising Cheney but condemned the meeting in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which brought together the pro-Western leaders of ex-Soviet republics on the Baltic and Black Seas.

“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.”

Later, Lavrov lashed out drily at Cheney’s suggestion that Russia uses its energy reserves as “tools of intimidation or blackmail,” indicating Cheney didn’t know what he was talking about.

“We have heard comments like this from the mouths of a politicians of a lower rank, but the vice-president of the United States probably should know that in the last 40 years our country has not once—neither the Soviet Union nor Russia—violated a single contract for the supply of oil and gas abroad,” Lavrov said on state-run Channel One television.

Cheney also accused Russia of cracking down on religious and political rights. His criticism—some of the administration’s toughest language about Russia—came two months before Bush is to join his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg for a summit of the Group of Eight major industrial powers.

Many Russian commentators said that the venue for Cheney’s speech—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 in an interview.

“In a situation when Russia is trying to reclaim the role of a regional and global superpower such a message has drawn a strong concern in Moscow,” Shevtsova said.

The pro-Kremlin chairperson of the Russian Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, said Cheney’s speech “was largely a tribute to the format of a summit that took place in Vilnius in the presence of leaders of neighbouring countries that have consistently used anti-Russian rhetoric in building their policies,” the Interfax news agency reported.

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

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

A bitter price dispute with Ukraine led to a brief halt of Russian gas supplies to Western Europe. Gazprom’s strong-arming of Ukraine combined with its push for a stake in gas distribution networks in Western European nations have encouraged fears of Russian domination and prompted the European Union to rethink its heavy reliance on energy imports from Russia.

The gas dispute with Ukraine, Putin’s invitation for the Palestinian militant group Hamas to visit Moscow and Russia’s tough stance against sanctions for 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 G-8 summit in St Petersburg which the Kremlin touted as a showcase of its growing global influence.

“Russia may seriously undermine relations with customers of its energy resources if it continues to act in the same unceremonious way,” Lukyanov said, adding that the West would also search to reduce its independence on Russian energy resources.

Ukraine and Georgia could also be offered quick accession to Nato and other Western structures. “Russia may lose quite a lot in the longer run,” Lukyanov said.

A sideline dispute between Moscow and Washington underscores the new tensions—recalling a time when the two squabbled over diplomatic niceties.

Russia has dismissed a US request to waive diplomatic immunity for a Russian diplomat who allegedly hit a New York City police officer last month while driving drunk and called him back to Moscow instead.

In a statement on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned against stirring up an “unnecessary uproar” over the incident and said that US diplomats in Moscow have committed 25 traffic violations over the past two years. ‒ Sapa-AP

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