WASHINGTON -- Last week's jaw-dropping spy story, an appalling embarrassment for the FBI, was also a powerful reminder of an unpleasant fact: Those difficult Russians are still with us, occupying their huge landmass atop most of the inhabited world, aiming their thermonuclear weapons at us, spying on us, still alienated from our world and lost in their own. Damn those nasty Russians!
But wait. There certainly are nasty Russians, but they aren't playing this game alone. The United States is still on alert, literally, ever ready to obliterate the Russians in a matter of minutes with the weapons we aim at them. Spying? We caught the FBI agent working for them because a Russian agent apparently working for us turned him in. Nearly a decade after the Soviet Union's collapse -- taking with it any plausible basis for a Russian-American war -- we're still in the grip of Cold War reflexes and assumptions. Who's to blame for this nuttiness? That's probably a futile question. This tango requires the usual number of dancers.
The latest spy story demonstrates how both countries remain on a kind of automatic pilot. Robert P. Hanssen, the FBI man arrested last week, allegedly began selling secrets to Moscow in October 1985, when the Cold War was still intense. Mikhail Gorbachev had been in power only seven months; glasnost and perestroika were still just words in the Russian dictionary. Now that Russia's military machine has crumbled and the Warsaw Pact has dissolved, the idea of a "superpower confrontation" has become ridiculous -- one could only happen now if the United States confronted itself. But Hanssen kept on peddling his wares, and the Russians kept paying for them, according to the charges. The spying game obviously has a life of its own. For the spies, so does the Russian-American rivalry.
The truth is, the old, mortal rivalry is over. We really did win.
Nevertheless, the United States has a big Russian problem. The Russians are in a mess at home, their secret policemen are in the ascendancy, and so is anti-Americanism. Russia, the biggest nation in Europe, is not integrated with its neighbors politically, nor does it participate fully in the global economy. All those nukes, all that oil and gas, all those talented people remain, at best, on the edge of the international community. The Russians are scared, and resentful. And a resentful, unsuccessful Russia can easily make life miserable for its neighbors, and for us.
(Robert Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post, has written about Russia and the Soviet Union since 1971.)
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