Eighteen months ago I published an op-ed in the Washington Post, where I urged the prevention of a new Cold War.  And only a couple of months ago it seemed possible.  But since the Georgian-Russian war last month, the situation has drastically deteriorated.

  It looks like we are back in the early 1980s, when the cooperation between Washington and Moscow reached its low and the demonizing of each other reached its height.  Today, the propaganda war has replaced the political dialogue between the two countries.  There are no serious negotiations at all. And even a clearly mutually beneficial “win-win” agreement on nuclear cooperation has been put on the backburner.

There are many instances in the world of ethnic groups fighting for control of the same piece of land – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, and Darfur to name a few.  These conflicts hardly can be perceived in black and white terms.  Quite often such conflicts lead to bloodshed.  And each side claims that its cause is “just,” while the other side is guilty of aggression and terrible atrocities.

The dissolution of the USSR, like the dissolution of Yugoslavia, was not a “civilized divorce.”  The collapse of Communism released dormant ethnic conflicts. When former USSR republics became new and independent states – some which had never previously existed in what became the post-Soviet borders, or even at all – many immediately encountered challenges to their territorial integrity.  The question “Who has the right to self-determination?” was often answered by force.  Ugly ethnic and territorial wars, sometimes with ethnic cleansing of the losers, took place in Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, Tajikistan, Chechnya, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia.  Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands became refugees.  Most of these conflicts have remained unresolved for almost two decades.  But unlike Kosovo, the world did not care.

When Slobodan Milosevic banned Kosovo’s autonomy, Georgian authorities under the nationalist president Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished the autonomous status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and they revolted against Tbilisi.  But the military assault on the separated territories failed, and many Georgians were evicted from these regions, which proclaimed their independence.  Russia got involved and imposed cease-fire agreements.  Despite regular shooting incidents, these agreements have been maintained for sixteen years since Russian soldiers were legally authorized to be peacekeepers.  These agreements were signed by Georgia and formally approved by the Commonwealth of Independent States, OSCE, and the United Nations.

Of course, the cease-fire arrangements were not perfect and neither party was happy, but peace was maintained.  For all those years, Moscow refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and did not deny the territorial integrity of Georgia.  Even after the United States and some other (but not all) NATO countries recognized Kosovo’s independence, violating the territorial integrity of Serbia, Russia’s position of non-recognition did not change.

Diplomatically, Russia adamantly opposed Kosovo’s independence, arguing that this precedent would lead to a chain reaction in other places with ethnic and territorial conflicts.  For instance, Abkhazia, unlike Kosovo, was independent for many centuries.  And Serbs retreated from Kosovo only after Milosevic lost the war to NATO, while Abkhazians were able to defeat the Georgian invasion in 1992.

But as usual, the United States ignored Russian protests and presented Moscow with another fait accompli by bypassing the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power.  This act followed a pattern of ignoring Russia regarding NATO’s enlargement, the war against Yugoslavia, withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, and the Iraq invasion.  Washington also claimed that the Kosovo case was “unique,” while in other cases, like Georgia, territorial integrity should be maintained.

The assault on Russian peacekeeping soldiers, who were legally deployed under the terms of the agreements signed by Georgia’s government, made the massive Russian military retaliation inevitable.  Imagine a situation where Serbia attacked Kosovo to restore her sovereignty and killed American and other NATO soldiers. How would the West react? Would the response be “proportional?”

Did anybody in Washington notice that in recent years the Russian Federation seriously changed and sent clear messages that she would protect her interests?  Putin’s speech in Munich, Russia’s moratorium on the CFE Treaty, Moscow’s tough diplomatic position on Kosovo, the decision to remove economic sanctions against the non-recognized republics after the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence, huge military exercises in the northern Caucasus in July – these were signals that were impossible to misinterpret.  It was obvious that Moscow would not permit Georgia to change the status quo by military force.

But that does not mean that Russia has become a revisionist power, resisting the status quo everywhere.  Already after the war, Moscow rejected independence for another separatist enclave, Transdniestria, and made it clear that it still wants a political settlement which will bring the separatist territory back into Moldova.  Russia reconfirmed the territorial integrity of Ukraine. So, what happened in August is not the new strategy of the Russian Federation, but a special case.

Is the United States willing to go to war – even a Cold war – with Russia because of South Ossetia or Abkhazia to establish control over an unstable American client, as Sarah Palin implied in one of her interviews?

Apparently the shock of the August war makes it very difficult to think about the common interests of Russia and America in the present world.  These include cooperation over nuclear energy and non-proliferation, renewing the arms control regime, and many other issues.  Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and many other international problems can hardly be resolved or successfully managed if Washington and Moscow go into protracted geopolitical confrontation. Something should be done to stop the rush to a new Cold War.  Otherwise, by the time the new U.S. administration comes to power, Russian-American relations could move beyond the point of no return.

If next December Georgia and Ukraine are invited into NATO, Russia will probably withdraw from the INF Treaty, and START-I will expire next year without any follow up.  Even during the Cold War, Washington and Moscow succeeded in creating the arms control mechanism, which helped to stabilize a very confrontational relationship.  It seems that this mechanism will disappear within a year.  What about the NPT review conference in 2010?  Will we forget the dream of nuclear disarmament, which only a few months ago was promoted by both Obama and McCain?  Will we go into a new and unrestricted nuclear arms race, which this time will not be bilateral but multilateral?

It’s true that Russia is not a superpower as the Soviet Union was.  But the United States’ drive to extend the “unipolar momentum” into the 21st century failed, so America is hardly the sole superpower.   Both countries face different challenges – financial meltdowns, climate deterioration, terrorism, etc.  Meanwhile the ambitions of the new centers of power – China, India, and Brazil – are growing.  Who can gain from the resumed competition between Moscow and Washington? Who will profit if Pakistan explodes tomorrow?

Neither Russia nor America will “win” a new Cold War.  Surely we can hurt each other, but eventually everybody will lose. I think we have not yet passed the point of no return. It’s time to end the propaganda war and think about the future.

Sergei Rogov is the director of The Institute for the USA and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences.