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    Thursday, May 31, 2007

    The New Cold War

    What a day. Spies and double agents. New ballistic missile tests. A threatening speech by the Russian President. More political turmoil in Ukraine. Gunfights in a breakaway region of Georgia. The gloves, it seems, are truly off between the Kremlin and the West.

    Take today's allegations by Andrei Lugovoi that Alexander Litvinenko was a British agent who tried to recruit him, and that either the British secret service or exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky was behind Litvinenko's murder-by-polonium. Whatever the truth of his charges, he couldn't have made them at the Interfax press centre without approval from very, very high up in the Kremlin. It tells you that relations between London and Moscow have now officially reached the abysmal stage.

    The same goes for Washington. A few hours after Lugovoi finished his jaw-dropping press conference, Vladimir Putin held one of his own to announce that American actions - specifically moves to establish an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe - had forced Russia to begin a "new round of the arms race" in order "to maintain the strategic balance in the world." Putin's remarks came two days after Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying up to 10 warheads (thereby easily overwhelming the limited defenses the U.S. wants to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic). It suddenly feels very 1980 around here.

    In this context, the sudden backtracking by Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine (who is footdragging on promises to pass legislation for a fall election there), as well as the shelling of Georgian positions this week by Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia, look like part of a broader message from Moscow.

    Don't back us into a corner, the Kremlin is bearishly saying. If you do, we can cause no end of trouble.

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