Recent statements by Russian officials have taken an ominous tone. In one speech, President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of trying to impose its will on the world, while other leaders warn that American plans to install missile defenses in Europe will force Russia to target the host countries in the event of war. These comments reflect Moscow’s frustration over what it perceives as U.S. failure to consider its interests when making policy and a new confidence about its place in the world. Russia is flexing its muscles, but it is also worried about a world order that is dangerously unstructured and prone to conflict.

In his Feb. 10 speech to a Munich security conference, Mr. Putin accused the U.S. of the “hyper-use of military force” that is “plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts.” In “the world of one master, one sovereign,” Washington “has overstepped its national borders, and in every area.” Mr. Putin has repeatedly expressed concern about the extension of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia’s borders. In Munich he warned that deploying missile defenses in Europe could unleash a new arms race. At times, he seemed nostalgic for the certainties of the Cold War and the old superpower condominium, with its spheres of influence, its arms control agreements — and the unquestioned status it afforded Moscow

Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, Russia’s army chief of staff, concurred, arguing that the missile defense system “cannot be viewed as anything other than a substantial reconfiguration of the American military presence” in Europe. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the claim that it is intended to defend against rogue states, saying it could work against Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Finally, Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, head of Russia’s missile forces, pulled off the gloves, warning that Poland and the Czech Republic, the host countries for the intended defense systems, would be targeted in the event of war.

The criticisms have not had their intended effect. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, repeated that the missile defense does not — and cannot — neutralize Russia’s strategic force. It’s hard to see how 10 interceptors could do real damage to a deterrent of thousands of missiles. Ms. Rice also explained that Russia has had many briefings on the planned deployments that should have allayed their fears.

Nor have the Russian threats had much impact on the intended hosts. Czech and Polish officials have expressed determination to go ahead with the deployments. The Russian warnings may even have had the reverse effect — hardening the hosts’ readiness to proceed and raising fears of Russian blackmail.

What is really going on? Russian security officials know that the planned defenses are no threat to their strategic arsenal. But they are angry that the U.S. seems so indifferent to Russian concerns. On a host of issues ranging from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (and dealing with Iran and North Korea), to terrorism, weapons sales, influence in the Middle East and Central Asia, Moscow and Washington have clashed, with the U.S. pressing ahead and often frustrating Russian intentions. For Russians accustomed to thinking of themselves as a superpower, U.S. policy is insulting.

It cannot escape notice that Russian muscle-flexing has become more pronounced as oil prices climb. Russia’s vast energy wealth — it is now the world’s largest oil producer — has given it new power and influence. Its energy resources are also reshaping Moscow’s relations with other Arab nations. Mr. Putin visited Saudi Arabia earlier this year, the first official visit by a Russian president since the two countries established diplomatic relations 80 years ago. Mr. Putin has said Russia is not interested in joining OPEC but has been coy about a natural gas cartel.

Mr. Putin’s readiness to denounce U.S. unilateralism also plays well to the Arab street, which considers Washington to be anti-Islamic, hypocritical (for its support of Israel and its opposition to Iran’s nuclear program), and ready to throw its weight around (after invading Iraq). Mr. Putin’s appeal is limited, however. He has been waging war against Islamic rebels in Chechnya, and Russia’s Muslims are treated as second-class citizens.

The U.S. has played down reports of the rift. Apart from Ms. Rice’s comments, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates played down Mr. Putin’s comments in Munich, saying “one Cold War is enough.” National Security Adviser Steven Hadley visited Moscow to discuss areas of cooperation.

One key issue is arms control. The Bush administration has been actively opposed to arms control: It has been suspicious of such efforts and, as a result, has negotiated just one treaty on strategic weapons with Russia. This attitude does not credit the role such treaties play in building confidence among nations. Plainly, confidence-building is much needed today.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.