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The Cold War is dead, long live the Cold War. Such seems to be the mood in the corridors of power in Moscow. Many Russians believe the inauguration of U.S. President George W. Bush may initiate a new period of tension between Washington and Moscow

On the very eve of the inauguration, U.S. authorities arrested a senior Russian official, Pavel Borodin.

Borodin, a veteran of former President Boris Yeltsin’s administration and now an enthusiastic promoter of President Vladimir Putin is one of the Kremlin’s gray cardinals. A man of dubious principles and sinister reputation, he was recently accused by Switzerland of laundering $25 million in Swiss banks. He flew to the United States to attend Bush’s inauguration but was detained at JFK airport in New York. The arrest has caused a political storm in his home country.

Few people in Russia doubt that Borodin is an embezzler. A poll conducted by a popular TV show revealed that 94 percent of the audience said they trusted the judgment of Swiss authorities. But this does not necessarily mean they agree with what U.S. immigration officers did to Borodin. Russians are not accustomed to their dignitaries been prosecuted overseas and treated as if they were Colombian drug dealers.

Corruption is not big news in Moscow: There is virtually no prominent figure in the Kremlin who won’t be accused of it at some point — and in most cases for good reason. Everything about Borodin is shady: Even the invitation to Bush’s inauguration appears to have been a fake, or at least issued by a private individual with little connection to Bush’s campaign.

But this is irrelevant for Russians. The question repeatedly asked nowadays is whether America now takes Russia for a Latin American country whose corrupt officials must be punished.

Some analysts suggest that Borodin’s arrest was orchestrated by Bush to send a Cold War-style warning to Moscow. This notion might be too far-fetched as Bush seems hardly capable of such Machiavellian scheming. In addition, a presidential inauguration is hardly the appropriate time for a punitive action. But the important thing is that no matter what he did or did not do, many people in Russia now view Bush as anti-Russian.

More substantial evidence exists to support such a view. The Bush administration has already committed itself to a new version of the Star Wars missile defense system, and is insisting on the revision of treaties signed with Moscow in the 1970s that bar the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems.

Moscow sees this as a double challenge. If these treaties are revised or, worse, totally ignored by the American side, the principle of piecemeal diplomacy between East and West will be jeopardized. And if Washington successfully launches a new antimissile program, Russia may find its military stature drastically undermined.

These days the Russian-U.S. relationship appears to be dictated by personality issues. Bush is regarded by Moscow as a deflated edition of Ronald Reagan, sharing the same conservative outlook and lack of intellect as his predecessor, but utterly lacking his charm, poise and charisma.

Bush’s Cabinet appointees appear hawkish to Moscow, and it is expected that they will pursue a tough, aggressive foreign policy. In addition, the whole farcical charade of the U.S. presidential election culminating in the laughable Florida recounts casts a shadow on the illegitimacy of the Republican administration in Russian eyes. Moscow’s sympathies were with Al Gore and it believes Bush stole the victory from the Democratic candidate. The fact that Gore won the popular vote only strengthens this perception.

The new American administration, in turn, is not ecstatic about the Kremlin bunch. Putin has a reputation as a leader with a strong authoritarian leaning. His administration is believed to include crooks and thieves (Borodin is a good example), and his military campaign in Chechnya and attempts to restrict freedom of the press in Russia contribute to his image of a typical Soviet apparatchik trying to restore the ancien regime.

It is fair to say that Russo-American relations are entering stormy times. Right now nobody can be sure whether this means the renewal of the Cold War, mild but constant confrontation or just a bad period that will pass.

Actually, the Kremlin had better relations with rightwing presidents like Richard Nixon than with liberals like John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter. Bush’s disinclination to interfere militarily overseas may compensate for other policies that Russia opposes, including the national missile defense system he is contemplating.

Moscow may even agree to the conditional revision of strategic arms-limitation treaties if Washington retreats into a form of isolationism, abandoning its direct involvement in the Balkans or the Middle East. If the new American administration gives de-facto recognition to the territory of the former Soviet Union as Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence, and — unlike President Bill Clinton’s team — disengages itself from local ethnic conflicts and economic activities such as oil and gas projects, the Kremlin may hail Bush as a peacemaker.

Of course, what makes this scenario an unlikely one are Putin’s ambitions. He seems to be mourning the collapse of the Soviet empire and longing for its restoration. Hence his erratic trips to rogue states like North Korea and Cuba, his awkward flirtation with Europe, where he perceives anti-Americanism strong enough to potentially disrupt NATO and his budding partnership with China.

In any case, the Putin vs. Bush contest has started. Let’s see who scores first.

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