Rupert Cornwell: The old enemies are in conflict again – and Syria is the battleground

It’s now clear that the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era was an aberration in Russian history

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In retrospect, the idea was probably doomed from the start, from the moment in March 2009 when Hillary Clinton, newly installed as Secretary of State, handed her Russian opposite number Sergei Lavrov a button inscribed with the word peregruzka. It was supposed to be Russian for "reset", the slogan the Obama administration had come up with to denote its effort to improve relations between Washington and Moscow.

Alas, the clever people at the State Department had messed up. Peregruzka, as Lavrov mischievously pointed out during the press conference that followed, meant not "reset" but "overload". And right now those relations are indeed overloaded, and with nothing but trouble.

Next week, on the fringes of the G20 summit in Mexico, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet for the first time as leaders of their respective countries. This time, the world will not look on with the anxiety it once reserved for such encounters, between Roosevelt and Stalin, Brezhnev and Nixon, or Reagan and Gorbachev. No nuclear arms deals hang in the balance; no longer are rival ideologies competing for global domination. The Cold War is long gone, but the meeting promises to be exceptionally chilly.

Almost wherever you look, the United States and Russia are at odds. Over Syria, of course, where Washington accuses Russia of supplying arms to prop up Bashar al-Assad's odious regime, and of blocking any diplomatic initiative that might remove him. Then there's the US plan to build a missile defence system in former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, which last month prompted the chief of Russia's military staff, General Nikolai Makarov, to warn of a pre-emptive first strike, no less, "if the situation worsens". Even at the Cold War's height, Russian commanders rarely talked like that. On Iran too (the threat that the missile defence system is intended to counter) Washington suspects Moscow is less than wholly committed to the cause.

And all this against the background of what's happening in Russia itself: the cynical deal that returned Putin to the presidency in May, his takeover of the media, the rampant corruption and lawlessness, the rigged elections and creeping destruction of the party system, the persecution of the opposition, and the portrayal of the US as the source of most evils of this planet.

But this should be no great surprise. Here again, retrospect helps. With the passage of time, it becomes ever clearer that the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era was an aberration, a departure from the great currents of Russian history. One of the reasons for Gorbachev's enduring unpopularity in his own country is that he broke a tacit compact between Russia's people and its rulers. Life at home might be pretty miserable, the deal ran, but Russia was a mighty power that was not pushed around on the world stage.

Economic conditions under Gorbachev were more miserable than ever, but the country was pushed around abroad: it surrendered its external empire in Eastern Europe; it supported the US-led first Gulf War, and in the end the internal empire, the constituent Soviet republics, vanished, too. To accede to Washington's wishes on Syria now would be more of the same, the sacrifice of the last Russian foothold in the Middle East on the altar of the "international community", in other words the US writ large.

Also to be reckoned with is an ancestral Russian fear that to compromise is to appear weak. Putin, the former KGB officer who once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, believes his regent Dmitry Medvedev was rolled over by the Americans, not least over Libya, and will not be making the same mistake. Within days of his inauguration, he announced he would skip the G8 summit at Camp David. Now the stand on Syria, which from the Kremlin's perspective has been a foreign policy success. For Putin, the criticism heaped upon him merely proves his point, that Russia matters, that the road to any lasting solution passes through Moscow.

Events back home, if anything, only reinforce the intransigence. Putin will not be making Gorbachev's mistake as he struggles to contain his domestic opposition, as he deprives it even of the streets as an outlet for dissent. Once again, a Russian leader is playing the nationalist, anti-US card to win respect, if not popularity, at home. Will he succeed? That depends on how long Russia's emerging wired middle class will put up with being patronised and treated like infants by their political leaders.

The US for its part increasingly responds in kind. When he met Putin for the first time, George W Bush famously remarked that he looked into the other man's eyes and saw his soul. These days the mood in Washington is summed up by that Senate foreign policy lion John McCain – "I look into Putin's eyes and see three letters, K G B." Obama clings to the notion of "reset", but old views are taking over, that Moscow's behaviour doesn't warrant a seat at the top table, that the only talk they understand is tough talk. It all adds up to a perfect recipe for impasse.

But impasse does not mean a new Cold War. Yes, Russia remains the one country that can blow the US off the face of the earth, but in no other sense is it a superpower. The West long since won the ideological struggle, and Russia's population is half that of the old Soviet Union, and shrinking by the year. Close your eyes, though, and it's easy to believe that history has been turned back half a century.

Old-school Sovietologists are back in business, and Russian espionage, we are told, is back to Cold War levels. In Moscow, for today's harassed opposition read the dissidents of yesteryear. The US ambassador refers in a speech to corruption and is instantly accused by Putin's media of "promoting revolution". In Washington, meanwhile, Congress is again preparing laws to punish Russia for human rights violations.

The 1970s produced the Jackson-Vanik Act, tying trade concessions to the emigration of Soviet Jews. That may now be a Magnitsky Act, named after the Russian lawyer beaten to death in prison after alleging fraud by government officials, that would impose visa and banking restriction on Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses. Obama stalls, but some form of bill almost certainly will be passed.

A couple of months ago, the chatterati were mocking Obama's Republican challenger Mitt Romney as an ignorant Cold War warrior when he described Russia as "the greatest geopolitical threat" facing the US. That's an exaggeration, but no one's laughing any more.

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