The West shivers at echoes of Cold War division

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When the Americans sent a nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, under the ice cap to the North Pole exactly 49 years ago today, it "changed the complexion of the Cold War", according to one account. Although we now know that it did not lead to the militarisation of the Arctic, it was a powerful demonstration of US might to the Soviet Union.

So, nearly half a century later, should we be concerned when Russia plants its flag on the seabed under the Pole? It comes at a time when a new strain of Russian assertiveness has evoked fears of a second Cold War, and Moscow's every action is viewed with suspicion.

Relations with Britain are at their worst for years, amid their refusal to extradite the chief suspect in the murder of Alexander Litivinenko, and ours to send home opponents of the Kremlin such as Boris Berezovsky and the Chechen leader, Akhmed Zakayev. Didn't Russia pass a law last year allowing its security services to kill the country's enemies abroad? And doesn't Moscow bully its former satellites every winter by threatening to cut off their energy supplies? Just a couple of weeks ago, the Kremlin also suspended the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, which limits tanks and strike aircraft.

Moscow's advocates admit that Vladimir Putin's administration can act with undiplomatic crudity at times but they also complain that Russian concerns are often ignored. The CFE treaty, for example, is woefully out of date, with several of its signatories having switched from the Warsaw Pact to Nato but only Russia ratified the updated version. Much of the Kremlin's bluster, they say, reflects irritation at Western condescension: Russia is fed up with bring treated as a political and economic failure, and is not afraid to say so.

Since President George Bush is seen by many as an equally blunt instrument in world affairs, there might appear to be cause to fear the American reaction to the Russian coup in the Arctic. But nobody seriously believes that there will be war at the top of the world. It seems more realistic to worry about the environmental consequences of a Russian grab for yet more energy resources, one which could plant oil platforms in the midst of a thinning ice sheet.

Many argue that Mr Putin acts the way he does out of weakness rather than strength, but the threat to one of the planet's most fragile ecosystems would be no different.